When Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji rolled up in Hove on the Sussex coast in 1895 the game of cricket changed forever.
Not that you would have guessed it at the time. Ranji, as he was known to one and all, arrived in debt and disgrace. He had given up his law studies at Cambridge University, leading his family to cut off his allowance.
Furthermore no Indian had ever competed in the rough-tough world of the English county circuit. Cricketers at this time were sturdy strongmen like his friends W.G. Grace and C.B. Fry who slammed the ball with brute force squarely in the direction of the boundry.
Ranji in contrast was a slender figure who used his speed and reflexes to guide and stroke the ball, along the way inventing a new style of batting.
``There’s no doubt he revolutionised the game with his wristy play’’, says Rob Boddie who runs the museum at Sussex County Cricket Club’s Eaton Road ground.
``English crowds had never seen anything like it and the fact he was an Indian Prince put bums on seats if you like. He was greeted at every away ground like Royalty, which he was. He was a lovely chap and I think that helped no end and he became a very patriotic Englishman.’’
Ranji was from Nawanagar, a small Princely State near Bombay at a time when India was part of the British Empire. Though a member of the ruling royal family his claim to the title of Maharaja was disputed - and may well not have been as solid as he suggested.
It mattered little in the early years because only one thing occupied Ranji’s thoughts.
``He used to love cricket’’, according to Vivek Kaul - a surgeon who has researched the life of this fascinating cricketer.
``He went to a school in Gujarat which used to be a training ground for the Princes of India and it was run on English public school morals. They had an English head teacher who thought this guy would do well in England and he personally brought him over to settle in at Cambridge.
``Ranji saw the cricket was totally different from what they were playing in India so he learned all his cricket in Cambridge basically.’’
The newcomer liked socialising a little too much. In debt and cut off from his allowance it’s believed Ranji was paid to play in matches, something which was not strictly allowed in the age of amateurs.
He came to the attention of Fry who persuaded him to join Sussex, the oldest of England’s county clubs. On his debut at Lords he scored 77 and 150 and went on to become the first player to post more than 3,000 runs in an English first-class season.
It was cricket as no-one in England had played it before, leading Fry to say of Ranji: ``He moves as if he has no bones. One would not be surprised to see brown curves burning the grass where one of his cuts travelled, or blue flame shimmering round his bat as he made one of his strokes.’’
Vivek Kaul says: ``English players were hugely built , so it was all muscle power.This guy was a very tiny Indian, he didn’t have big muscles and he didn’t know what to do. So he thought he would invent shots which used the force of the ball. He invented the late cut, leg glance, uppercut, which we thought was done recently with (Sachin) Tendulkar but was all invented or discovered by our great Ranji.’’
Although adored by the crowds in Sussex Ranji was the victim of prejudice when he toured the country. That is often given as a reason for him being overlooked initially by the England selectors but in July 1896 Ranji became the first Indian to represent England against the touring Australians.
``There was quite a bit of objection when he played for England for the first time,’’ says Bert Williams from Brighton Black History.
``At one time one club it was said, one member praised Ranji and the steward there said ‘suspend that man from the club immediately.’So there was a bit of racism against him. But he was definitely welcomed at Sussex and with open arms. I mean such skills, such skills he had.’’
As ever Ranji let his bat do the talking. In his second innings on his Test debut he scored 154. Not out.
It led the English writer Neville Cardus to comment: 'When he batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields.’
Ranji continued to live beyond his means but his debts were settled along with his Royal claims when in 1905 he became Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar. He did not desert cricket and even returned for a further spell with Sussex though by that time some of the magic had left him.
Despite choosing to represent England and turn his back on emerging Indian teams Ranji’s influence on the game back home was strong. When Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala organised India’s first domestic cricket tournament in 1935 he named it after his friend. The Ranji Trophy is played to this day.
Bhupinder Singh, in one of those quirks of history, also has a strong connection with Sussex. He donated the large memorial gate next to Brighton’s Royal Pavilion as a thank-you to Brighton for setting up hospitals in World War One to treat wounded Indian soldiers.
What’s more Ranji was not the only member of Indian royalty to play for and captain Sussex. His nephew K.S. Duleepsinhji followed him. And in the 1960s the legendary M. A. K. ``Tiger’’ Pataudi became a firm favourite at Hove.
Rob Boddie says: ``We are the oldest of all the English county teams and this is something else that is unique, to have three Indian Princes. Ranji alone is enough but this is a real honour.’’
"Indians love cricket’’, says Vivek Khan as he stands in the Eaton Road ground. ``And so when I first came to Sussex this was the obvious place for me to come to. Then I found out all about Ranji and the other Princes and about their legacy and it really was incredible. It was a very emotional journey for me.’’