Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ranji - the most underrated cricketer of all time?

The name Ranji immediately conjures up a smallish brown man of royal lineage who lit up the English cricket fields with his brilliantly unorthodox strokeplay about a hundred and ten years ago. He is widely regarded as one of the game's great early innovators and a very popular cricketer in England at the turn of the century.

But pundits don't normally invoke Ranji seriously while discussing all-time greats. Recently, Cricinfo picked an "All-Time XI" for each of the major international Test playing countries. I was flabbergasted to learn that Ranji was not even nominated as a middle-order choice for the All-Time England XI!!

English cricket lovers are not exactly known for their ahistoricism, unlike Indian fans who tend to focus on the here and now. It is very hard to find any English cricket writer who hasn't turned in a few lines on the likes of WG Grace, Sidney Barnes, Gilbert Jessop, Jack Hobbs among others. In fact, Wisden went to the extent of picking Hobbs as one of the five greatest cricketers of the Twentieth century!

Being an Indian with a fair share of interest in English cricket, I wondered - Where does Ranji rank in the pantheon of great English cricketers? Is he widely known today primarily on account of his exotic Indian origin? Are we guilty of overrating his stature in the context of English cricket history? After all, he was the first person of colour to play Test match cricket.

I turned to Cricinfo Statsguru to better understand Ranji in terms of hard numbers. The idea was to move beyond the romantic prose penned by the cricket writers of his time and judge the man using figures alone.

What one discovers is a true cricketing colossus!

Here is a man who played First class cricket in England for 25 years spanning from 1895 to 1920. A man who scored nearly 25,000 First class runs at an average of 56.37!! (yes, you read that right) These figures are very impressive even by today's English first class standards, notwithstanding the fact that English pitches in Ranji's time were a lot livelier by most accounts, even when unaffected by rain. Just to put that average into perspective, Graeme Hick, the most prolific English first class batsman of the past 20 years averages 52.

During his time, Ranji played Test match cricket with/against names like Grace, Trumper, Jessop, Fry and Hobbs among others. All these guys represented the cream of talent the world had on offer during that period. How does Ranji compare with each of them?

I must say Ranji trumps them all going by the first class averages. In fact, he is miles ahead of the rest.

First-class Averages of Ranji and his Contemporaries
Ranji 56.37
Jack Hobbs50.70
CB Fry50.22
Charles MaCartney45.78
Vic Trumper44.57
Clem Hill43.57
Frank Woolley40.77
WG Grace39.45
Archie MacLaren34.15
Gilbert Jessop32.63

It is a very revealing table! Ranji is about 6 runs ahead of the next best batsman. That's a really huge margin. The most striking revelation is that Ranji averaged a good 17 runs more than the great WG in his First class career and about 12 runs more than the celebrated Australian legend - Vic Trumper.

The two guys who approach him in consistency are Jack Hobbs and CB Fry. However, Hobbs scored the bulk of his runs post WW-I during the twenties, when batting became a lot easier thanks to the improved pitches of the time. It is quite likely that Hobbs averaged well below 50 if one considers only his pre WW-I record. CB Fry had an outstanding First class record, but disappointed in Test cricket with an average of barely 32.

How does Ranji rank among all the great first-class cricketers of the past 150 years?
To attempt an answer to this question, I looked at the top 10 batsmen with the highest first-class averages in cricket history (with a minimum run aggregate of atleast 20,000 runs). Ranji ranks sixth in this list.

Highest First-class Averages of all Time (Qual.criteria : 20,000 runs)
Don Bradman 95.14
Sachin Tendulkar59.63
Darren Lehmann57.83
Geoff Boycott56.83
Ricky Ponting56.73
Bob Simpson56.22
Wally Hammond56.10
Rahul Dravid55.89
Len Hutton55.81

Ranji is the only person on this list who made his first-class debut prior to 1920. In fact, he played nearly all his cricket before World War I. Now that was an era when an average of 35-40 used to be regarded as a very good record in first-class cricket.

I think these tables ought to be better known. Ranji was so much more than a mystical Oriental talent who played unorthodox strokes. He was, without doubt, the foremost batsman of his generation. In fact, it can be argued that Ranji was the most dominant and consistent batsman the world had seen until Bradman came along in the thirties.

Surely it's a career that deserves more recognition by cricket historians and greater mindshare among cricket fans (especially English cricket fans)!

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