This Game’s for the Birds

Behind Jamnagar’s reputation as an oil town, there are its bird sanctuaries. Behind its bird sanctuaries, stands Ranji—its 20th century cricket star Maharajah

Lakhota Fort, now a museum, in the middle of Lakhota Lake in Jamnagar. DILIP D’SOUZA FOR THE CARAVAN
01 November, 2010

NEAR LAKHOTA LAKE in the centre of Jamnagar, gulls screeching behind us, we finally find a statue of Ranji. He’s dressed as his pedigree demands: turban and floor-length cape, red garland around his shoulders, and the whole statue is gold–plated. He was a Maharajah, after all. He looks about as un-cricketer-like as it is possible to look, which for any other Maharajah would not be a point of discussion. Yet it is as a cricketer, and an English cricketer, that Ranji is most fondly remembered.

Though there is a famous photograph from his last full year playing cricket for Sussex in 1912, taken as he strides out to bat at the age of 40, and he looks pretty un-cricketer-like there too. The years have left their mark: this is not the slim and elegant figure of his glory days. Ranji has, you can tell, ingested a few too many dhoklas. And it’s those same dimensions he sports as he stands in princely finery on this pedestal, reclining lions on either side of him.

After a legendary cricket career in England, Prince Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, Ranji to fans everywhere, returned home to rule the small princely state of Jamnagar in Gujarat. He became a wise and generally loved Maharajah, but he took no interest in Indian cricket. As Anthony de Mello, one of the founders of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, once wrote: “It is my understanding of this great and strange man that his heart was in England.” Ask Ranji to help the sport in his own land and he would reply: “I am an English cricketer.”

So in front of this gleaming but uninspiring statue, I wondered if that’s why there’s no sign here in Jamnagar of Ranji playing the game he so enriched. I hadn’t come here in search of Ranji either, so it didn’t even register that we were visiting Ranji country until after we got to the city. Oh yes, I thought as we drove past a cricket ground on the way to our hotel, Ranji was the Maharajah of Jamnagar, and here we are in Jamnagar. What’s for dinner, then?

GROWING UP, I was an irredeemable cricket nut. There was a spell when I read nothing but stuff about the game. I buzzed through books about great matches, savoured swashbuckling innings and irresistible spells of bowling, wished I had been at the famous tied Australia-West Indies Test of 1960–61, and couldn’t get enough of Ranji and many other charismatic cricketers. This cricket reading seared into my brain two numbers.

The first: 796.358—which is not some hapless sod’s bowling average. In the Dewey Decimal Classification system for library books, this number represents books on cricket. Now there is no other Dewey number, for any subject that interests me or otherwise, that I can quote to you. But this one, I can rattle off in my sleep. Even today, when I walk into a new library, I will follow the signs to where 796.358 is shelved, to gaze at its collection of cricketana.

The second: 47. Also not some hapless sod’s bowling average. This is a number I will forever associate with a prince: Ranji himself. Accounts of his batting, plenty of which I read in one or another 796.358 book, are rapturous to a degree I’ve not seen with any other batsman. They made him a silent hero to me, elegantly cutting and leg-glancing forever in my mind. Not for him the language from today’s T20 reports: ‘mow’ and ‘hoick,’ ‘biff’ and ‘bludgeon.’ Ranji would instead caress the ball, seeming only to help it along on its inexorable course—inexorable while he batted, anyway—to the boundary where it belonged. The distinguished cricket writer Neville Cardus was enchanted: “[Ranji’s] bat made its beautiful pass, a wizard’s wand [and] the ball was spirited away to the leg-side boundary.”

And there was his little masterpiece in the 1896 Gentlemen versus Players match. It lasted exactly 13 balls. The first 11, Ranji put away for fours. The 12th, he ran three. The 13th, he was out. He had scored 47 runs. He had done it in a way that must have left spectators gasping in admiration. (“One of the most brilliant and delightful pieces of batting seen at Lord’s,” wrote Wisden.) He had done it at a strike rate, 362, that puts today’s T20 biffers and hoickers to shame.

I still remember my goofy smile as I put down the long–forgotten 796.358 book where I first read this. To me, this was the perfect cricket performance: a virtuoso waving his ‘wizard’s wand’ just enough to persuade you of his magic. No need for bushels of runs (though Ranji had those too).

WHAT TOOK MY FAMILY and me to Jamnagar was something that interests me a great deal more, these days, than cricket: birds. I owe this to my mother, a tireless and passionate birdwatcher who points out bulbuls and hoopoes and barbets wherever we stroll. I mean, I never imagined spending 20 minutes in one of Mumbai’s busiest areas, Kala Ghoda, watching a hardworking barbet contort his body over and over to produce his metallic ‘tonk.’ But one afternoon with Ma, that’s just what we did. The surprising thing is, it remains a favourite memory from my city. I may not know their Dewey numbers, but I know (some of) my birds. And in and around Jamnagar are a number of spots where you can watch feathered beauties all day.

Though I had better get this out of the way: It’s true, these days Jamnagar is also known as an oil town. Reliancehas built the world’s largest refinery not far away—this is a virtue, apparently, going by the number of people who mentioned it—and Essar has another whose size ranking I don’t know. It’s also true that because these establishments have hordes of employees with disposable incomes, there’s a gigantic new mall, also mentioned by several folks, on the highway west of Jamnagar. It’s called Reliance Mart, and it comes complete with a sandwich place named ‘Jozz n Quezz The Sizzling.’

But to me, oil refineries and malls—even malls blessed with an overabundance of the letter ‘z’—are about as fascinating as watching grass grow. So I stayed with the birds.

On our first evening, our energetic and enthusiastic host, Mustak Mepani, drove us to the Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, a grid of trails that run between marshland and salt pans. We stopped where one trail left the road at a right angle, taking a few moments to get used to the quiet. Above our craning heads, flocks of egrets and cormorants flapped silently homeward. A pair of black-necked storks stalked the tall grass on the far side of a shallow pond. A lone drongo, forked tail twitching, swayed on a thorny bush. Through binoculars, we hunted hunched herons, silhouetted against the brilliant orange of the setting sun. Then my five-year-old bounded up the stairs of a watchtower and nearly stumbled over a family at the top, several members present, who were not bird-watching and looked bewildered when she pointed to the egrets. Even though a huge board nearby announced the ‘Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary,’ it hadn’t occurred to them that they were in one. For they were seated in a large circle up on the watchtower, eating dhokla and roti.

The theme was repeated. Where least expected, we’d find families who had driven up in Maruti vans and Scorpios, laid large sheets on the ground and were eating, oblivious to surrounding flora and fauna. And why not? Who’s to say that sanctuaries are only for oohing at birds? They make good picnic spots too.

Another day, we strolled from our hotel to Lakhota Lake, which is dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands of water-birds: cormorants, ducks, but particularly snow-white gulls. From one particular overlook, people flung farsan and Marie biscuits into the water—the nearby corner had several vendors who did  steady business in these snacks—and the gulls squawked and shoved and flapped to get at little yellow bits of ganthia raining from overhead. When we stopped to gaze, they looked unusually plump, of course. Still, we worried about what a steady diet of fried savouries could do to bird innards and to their life expectancies.

Walking around the lake, we arrived at another of Jamnagar’s claims to fame, the Bal Hanuman temple. This is a popular and revered spot, not for any particular architectural feat or the magnificence of the idol, but because the mantra ‘Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram’ has been recited here continuously since 1 August 1964. Forty-five-plus years of chanting that has, naturally, found space in the Guinness Book of World Records. This is a record, I got the feeling as I listened, which not only will never be broken, but can never be broken. Because who will ever stop the chanting here so that aspirants elsewhere can hope to catch up?

Under a tree in the corner, oblivious to the chanting, a family was settled on a sheet, eating.

BY HIS TEENS, Ranji had won a prize for reciting ‘Young Lochinvar’ and was also his Jamnagar school’s best cricketer. In a match in 1888, his last year, he took ten wickets, scored 81 not out (better than either of the unfortunate opponents’ innings) and eight not out—top scoring both times—and pocketed a catch as well. A prince’s match, without question. As children of privilege did at the time, he then travelled to England to attend college at Cambridge. Stopping in London, he watched his first Test match, and it convinced him that he wanted to play at the highest levels. In 1896, soon after that sublime 47, he was on the England team, playing alongside some of the same men he had seen playing the Test years before. What followed: a century on debut, flashes of genius over 25 more Tests, and several stellar seasons for Sussex.

Like a comet, Jamnagar’s prince blazed through turn-of-the-century English cricket. Decades later, he left an unforgettable impression on my school-going mind.

Yet the feeling did not last much beyond my school years. Sure, I became more cynical, as adults do, and especially about cricket. But that doesn’t fully explain it. What does is that as I grew older, what interested me about cricket was no longer batting, but bowling. My dreams were of bowling, particularly bowling fast and bowling legspin. There was even a very short period in my life—I’m talking days, a handful of deliveries—when I got pretty good at both. Batting? Never rose above awful, not even for a day or two.

And perhaps that’s why, when we first drove into town and I remembered that this was where Ranji used to rule, the last thing I wanted to do was check out the Ranji-ana (palaces, museum, whatever). He was a batsman.

It was not far from the Hanuman temple that we found Ranji’s statue and I became unexpectedly awash in cricket nostalgia: so much about this prince among cricketers that I had not thought about in years. But the statue annoyed me. Why remember him in gold-plated middle-age? Why not a statue of the younger and fitter Ranji doing what so bewitched cricketers and audiences and me, alike? Why not sculpt him playing the stroke he invented, a bit of silky legerdemain called the leg glance?

For it’s not as if such statues don’t exist in Jamnagar. A brisk walk from our hotel and, to my great delight, I found one of another favourite cricketer, Vinoo Mankad.

Once I grew out of my fascination for Ranji, it was probably this elder Mankad—his son Ashok also played Tests—who replaced him in my affections. An odd choice, you might think, especially for someone who grew up in the era of a champion like Sunil Gavaskar and an artist like Gundappa Vishwanath. But from all I read of him—Mankad played his cricket a generation earlier, so again he came to me through some now-forgotten 796.358 writing—this was a thinking, hard-working cricketer, and one known for his bowling as much as his batting.

In contrast to Ranji, Mankad is never described as a supremely talented or stylish player. Nevertheless, he made his abilities count. In that sense, he was cut from the same cloth as basketball’s great Larry Bird and tennis legend Jimmy Connors. These were not the natural talents their celebrated contemporaries Michael Jordan and John McEnroe were. But with their work ethic and intensity when they played, they rose to the top nevertheless. I’m drawn to sportsmen like that, and Vinoo Mankad always struck me as that kind of player.

Two performances to underline his worth. In the 1956 Madras Test against New Zealand, he and Pankaj Roy put on 413 runs for the first wicket; Mankad himself scored 231. Both numbers stuck in my mind too: 231 remained the highest Test score by an Indian for nearly 30 years, 413 remained the world’s highest opening partnership for over 50.

But if that was something special, four years earlier Mankad had reached the kind of pinnacle few cricketers ever do, dominating an entire Test on his own. Playing England at Lord’s, he scored 72 to top the scoring in India’s first innings. Bowling his left-arm spin, he took five wickets when England batted. In India’s second innings, he top-scored again, this time with 184.

The parallels to Ranji’s school match of 1888 are uncanny. Except for one detail: despite Mankad’s heroics, India lost that Lord’s Test. “Even a magnificent all-round performance by Mankad could not save India,” wrote Wisden, going on to note that “his powers of endurance seemed inexhaustible… The fourth day, Monday, was memorable for more wonderful batting by Mankad.”

Like every other cricket fan, I have spent hours on the fruitless delights of picking all-time teams. Mine always began with Vinoo Mankad. Neither his batting nor his bowling figures match those of many other outstanding cricketers. But that they belong to the same man speaks of his stature. More than that, it always seemed to me that any team needs one or two men like Mankad: guys who will do anything asked of them, fight hard with bat or ball, never give up. And if I thought of him like that, a top choice in my all-time India team, it was gratifying to see that the cricket website agreed: in September, their panel of experts on the game named him to their all-time India team, alongside Vijay Hazare, Rahul Dravid, Prasanna and others. In fact, he was one of only four players all the experts picked.

So in Jamnagar, Mankad’s birthplace, I had to go see his statue.

He stands above a busy junction on Bhidbhanjan Road, next to a large cricket field where a number of young hopefuls were practising. Not for him the gold raiment of Ranji’s statue near Lakhota Lake. Mankad is instead in cricket attire: rolled up sleeves, baggy pants and studded boots. He is caught at the top of his bowling run, his left foot in the air, his left arm raised high with the ball in that hand, turned just enough away from the batsman that he won’t be able to pick the delivery. You can visualise how it goes: from here, Mankad will lope the few steps to the crease, his arm will wheel over, his finger will rake across the top of the ball as he lets it go, it will bounce and spin sharply across the face of yet another bamboozled opponent’s bat.

No, it won’t happen like that. It is just a statue, I reminded myself. Yet that’s how lifelike this illustrious cricketer is, in Jamnagar.

A cop noticed me loitering around the statue, taking photographs and making notes, and walked over. “What are you doing?” he asked, as if it wasn’t obvious.

“Great man,” I said, pointing up at Mankad. That should have been explanation enough.

“But I don’t know who he was,” the cop replied. I need not have been surprised, really. There’s the famous story told of one of India’s current stars, Virender Sehwag. The day in Lahore that he and Rahul Dravid nearly broke the Mankad-Roy first-wicket record, Sehwag wanted to know: “Who’s Vinoo Mankad?”

Still, surely this cop could have asked someone in Jamnagar about the statue? Others in town had mentioned Mankad with pride, given me directions to this junction. One had spoken in awe of Mankad’s Lord’s performance, as if it had happened yesterday.

I offered the cop a few details about Mankad’s feats, then suggested that he pose for me below the statue, mimicking the stance that’s captured in bronze. He looked up at the figure, then arranged his body and froze for my photo. All wrong, of course. Both feet remained firmly on the ground, it was his right arm that he raised, and he rested it on the pedestal.

And when I clicked, he looked at me. Mankad, he stares down the pitch, sizing up his prey. Cricket warrior, even in frozen bronze.