The passing away of Queen Elizabeth and the coronation of King Charles occupied the news headlines during the week that went by. This was only natural given the fact that the Queen had served as the monarch of United Kingdom for almost seven decades and been widely acknowledged as a symbol of grace and poise while carrying aloft the flag of a system, widely perceived as anachronistic, in a fast changing world. There were articles about her son and successor, the 73-year-old new King who had not been the most popular person around after his divorce from Princess Diana. But what caught the eye was picture of the King as a young man, dressed in white flannels, playing cricket, during his college days. This brought to mind the role played by the royalty in India in shaping the course of this game in our country during its early days and the contributions they made even after they became ordinary citizens in the republic.
Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was among the first promoters of cricket in India. He was instrumental in sending a side to England for the first time ever in 1911, which he himself led. He played an important role in organising the visit by Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team led by Arthur Gilligan in 1926. He was named as captain of the side to tour England 1932 when India were scheduled to play their first Test but he was forced to drop out just two weeks before the team left the shores of India. Though the reason given was “health grounds”, grapevine had it that the the British were less than pleased with his lifestyle. His son Yadavindra Singh, Yuvraj of Patiala, made his debut against England, during the third Test of the home series in 1934 and scored a polished half-century in the second innings. He was one of the candidates for leading the side to England in 1936 but, with his father’s influence on the wane, he was overlooked, whereupon he declined to join the touring party.
Bhupinder Singh did not believe in holding back the purse strings and spent a fortune on the game and the players. He used to invite top contemporary players from England and Australia such as Harold Larwood, Wilfred Rhodes, Frank Tarrant etc for coaching and playing for his side. He would organise matches between players of his side and the visiting foreign sides. He took these games seriously and would berate those from his camp who did not rise to his expectations. He is reputed to have developed the ploy of pouring stiff drinks to his guests during parties organised on the eve of the match in the hope that the consequent hangover would work to the advantage of his team. These extra large measures of alcoholic beverages came to be known as “Patiala pegs”, a name that has achieved lasting fame in tipplers circles!
Three distinguished Indian royals turned out for England during the years prior to 1947. Of them, the most accomplished was Ranjitsinhji, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar. He was an attacking batsman who scored 62 and 154 not out on his debut against Australia at Manchester in 1896. His style of batting was unorthodox in that he played more off the back foot and gained immortality as the first cricketer to play the “leg glance”. Duleepsinhji, a cousin of his, played 12 Tests for England between 1929 and 1931, with a highest score of 173 against Australia. Ifthikar Ali Khan Pataudi toured Australia under Douglas Jardine in 1932-33, when the infamous “Bodyline” series took place. Though he struck a century on his debut, he was dropped after only one more Test as he had serious reservations about the bowling tactics employed by his skipper, which he voiced openly and had to return from Australia before the tour got over. Though Ifthikar Ali Pataudi played only three Tests for England, he went on to lead the Indian side that toured that country in 1946, thus becoming the only player to have played Test cricket for both the countries. However, he was, by this time, in the twilight of his career and could not contribute much with the bat, scoring only 55 runs in the three Tests.
It was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the son of Ifthikar, who carried froward the legacy of Indian royalty in the national side in the years after the country gained independence from the British rule. Pataudi Jr rewrote record books in England in school and university cricket and looked all set for a brilliant career at the highest level when an unfortunate road accident damaged the vision in his right eye. However, he did not allow this handicap to come in the way of his cricketing fortunes and continued playing the game, making his debut against the touring England side at Delhi in December, 1962. Appointed as deputy to Nari Contractor for the tour of the West Indies in early 1963, he was pitchforked into captaincy when the skipper was seriously injured in a tour game against Barbados. He settled into this job quickly and led with elan and imagination to mould the side into a fighting unit. He also made light of his difficulties with vision to emerge as one of the best batsmen his era, with a penchant for exciting strokeplay, particularly against the fast bowlers.
Pataudi Jr went on to lead the country through the remaining part of this decade, till he was removed from this post by a casting vote of Vijay Merchant, chairman of selection committee, prior to the tour of the West Indies in 1971. However, he had the last laugh when the selectors were forced to bring him back as captain after India’s disastrous tour of England in 1974, where the side was whitewashed 0-3. Despite his diminishing returns with the bat, which was probably caused by strain placed on his good eye, Pataudi Jr guided India to making a great comeback in the series against the West Indies in 1974-75, by winning two Tests after losing the first two matches. Though India were defeated in the last test and thus lost the series, he was able to leave the arena in a blaze of glory.
Hanumant Singh, from the house of Banswada in Rajasthan, began his Test career with a flourish, scoring 105, against England at Delhi in February, 1964, on his first appearance. But he was not destined to have a long career at the top as he could play in only 13 matches after his scintillating debut. He was an elegant batsman, but, unfortunately, could not do full justice to the immense talent that he was blessed with. After his playing days were over, he served as the chief selector and was also an International Cricket Council (ICC) match referee.
The last of the royals to represent India was Yajurvindra Singh, who hailed from the royal family of Bilkha, in Junagadh district of Gujarat. He caught the attention of followers of the game by picking up seven catches on his debut, which included five in one innings, both of which remain world records to this day. This raised the hope that he could replace Eknath Solkar at the crucial forward short leg position, when the legendary spin quartet bowled. However, he was nowhere near the “Solkar class” as a fielder, and he faded away after playing three more Tests.
No article on royals in Indian cricket will be complete without a mention about the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy). He was a person of moderate abilities as a cricketer but wormed his way to the top cricketing circles through his skills at manipulation and was appointed as captain for the tour of England in 1936. Vizzy embarrassed everyone, including himself, by insisting on playing in all the three Tests, with calamitous consequences. The tour ended as a debacle as there were open dissensions and infighting within the side and Lala Amarnath was sent back on grounds of indiscipline. Though Vizzy emerged as an administrator and commentator in his later years, he is still regarded as a divisive figure who did considerable harm to Indian cricket during its budding years.
The role of princes and royal families in Indian cricket has progressively dwindled over the years and is almost non existent at present. This is understandable as the game has spread to all corners of the country and there is a much larger talent pool to choose teams from. Further, after independence and the abolition of privy purses and special privileges that they had, these erstwhile rulers were reduced to status of plebeians. In these circumstances, it was only natural that their focus shifted to finding ways and means to earn their livelihood rather than indulge in princely pastimes like cricket. But it should not be forgotten that they had played a significant role in promoting the game during its early days in the country.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)