Captain Courageous: The of Porbandar

As everybody knows, there are two theories of how captains should be selected. The Australian theory is that you pick your team and choose the captain from amongst those selected. The English theory is that you choose the best captain then select the team around him. Looking at India in 1932 one might be forgiven for thinking, given the selection of the Maharaja of Porbandar to lead the first Indian test tour to England, that the Indian theory was to pick the team and then find an unqualified royal person to appoint as captain. The Maharaja, or to give him his full title, Lieutenant-Colonel Maharaja Rana Shri Sir Natwarsinhji Bhavsinhji Sahib BahadurKCSI, then aged 31, had limited experience playing cricket, and was qualified only by the fact that it was thought a royal person was needed to maintain order amongst a team of mixed abilities and mixed religions. In the measured and somewhat generous tones of Wisden:

For reasons apart from cricket the necessity existed of having a person of distinction and importance in India at the head of affairs, and it was almost entirely because of this that Porbandar led the team. No injustice is being done to him, therefore, by saying that admirably fitted as he was in many respects for the task, his abilities as a cricketer were not commensurate with the position he occupied.

Well, you can say that again. His first-class batting average was 6.00, with a highest score of 22. He played only seven innings all told in six matches, didn’t bowl, and was not noted for any special ability as a fielder. On the 1932 tour, he made first class scores of 0, 2 and 0, giving rise to the joke that he acquired more Rolls Royces (3) on tour than runs (2). It seems the two consisted of a leg glance against Glamorgan. Perhaps they still recall that at Cardiff, but I doubt it. Still, as one who has, I assure you, never scored two with a leg glance against Glamorgan or indeed any other county, I am not in a position to criticise.

Now it would be easy to portray the Maharaja as a figure of fun, elevated beyond his abilities purely because he was a Ruler in a society that still (though not for much longer) celebrated royal status; and as enjoying that status without contributing much except to the British shipping company engaged to ship the Rolls Royces back to Porbandar. I say ‘not for much longer’ because about 500 monarchies were abolished, including that of Porbandar, with the Indian Constitution coming into effect in 1950. Nonetheless one notes that even modern IPL teams have bizarre regal names like Bangalore Royal Challengers, Rajasthan Royals, and Chennai Super Kings; so perhaps royalty still has some mystical association in the modern republic. It would indeed be easy to make fun of the Maharaja, but I wish to make out a case for taking HRH quite seriously as a captain courageous.

Consider his situation. He was, to begin with, third choice captain for this All-India tour. He was obviously not highly rated by the selectors. What he faced was the likelihood of being blamed for an ignominious tour, a laughable contribution by himself, being compared to his disadvantage by those more eminently able to captain the side, such as CK Nayudu, and finding himself the meat in a sandwich of quarrelsome factions within the Indian team. It was not called ‘All-India’ for nothing. Even the name suggests a diverse bunch of cricketers who hardly knew each other, divided by religion and language, and such was the fact. All-India included what was to become Pakistan only 15 tumultuous years later, and contained Muslim as well as Hindu and Sikh players.

Yet he stepped up for the sake of his country, and it has to be said that the tour was not by any means a failure. In fact it laid the foundation for later glory by educating the players in the difficult matters of forming a viable team, coping with English conditions, and sustaining effort over an extremely arduous tour which would make modern players gasp in astonishment. The Maharaja managed his team more than he captained it, and he made a crucial contribution by squashing factionalism during the night before the single test against England by assuring Nayudu’s captaincy, whereas some of the team, disliking Nayudu’s authoritarian style, wanted Wazir Ali as captain. As it turned out India were soundly defeated, but did not give too bad an account of themselves, especially considering that two of the best three Indian batsmen of the era, the Nawab of Pataudi and Duleepsinhji (Nayudu being the third), were engaged to play county cricket and were unable to represent India, who played against an England at full capacity. Nayudu’s captaincy was especially praised, and he had a successful English season with five centuries and an average of 40, including a superb innings of 118 not out against the MCC, at Lord’s during which he hit a mammoth six prompting the report that the ball ‘was last seen leaving the home of cricket in an easterly direction’. Although short of really good batsmen, India did (unusually as it turned out) have three excellent fast bowlers in Amar Singh, Mohammad Nissar, and Jahangir Khan, the last of these (yes, you guessed it) the very man who killed a sparrow (not a pigeon) bowling at Lord’s, although that was in 1936. Amar Singh was rated one of the very best fast bowlers form any country during the inter-war period. However, they had no quality spinner, nothing like a Kumble or a Harbajan or an Ashwin to torment the English batsmen.

The Maharaja’s role was really in effect to manage the team and lead them (not usually on the field, as he only played four first class games) through the complex protocols and an absolutely crippling playing schedule involving 37 matches between April and September – a full English season of 26 first class games with a few add-ons, which must have left the team completely exhausted. He accomplished this arduous task very well, and for what was largely a learning exercise the tour can be marked a success, the Indians winning more matches than they lost. They were only humiliated once, caught in the second innings on a sticky dog against Yorkshire at Harrogate, and bundled out for 66 by Macaulay and Verity. They were not the only ones to suffer such a fate at the hands of Yorkshire’s strong bowling attack.

It clear that the Maharaja knew what he was taking on. He was a public-intellectual prince who later wrote books about the fate of India. He was also a painter and a musician, joint composer of the “Oriental Moonlight Waltz” (1930). In photographs he looks at the camera with penetratingly intelligent eyes under heavy rimmed spectacles and a wave of brylcremed black hair brushed back. He looks like the kind of man who would take on a hopeless task just because his country needed him.

He was born in 1901, and educated at the Rajakumar College in Rajkot, taking first place in the diploma examination for princes’ colleges. He assumed the throne of Porbandar in 1920 and ruled until the end of the monarchy. He died in 1979. His sense of public duty was manifest in his writings, which do not embody anything like sour grapes for the loss of his throne, but rather hope for India’s future in the world. He funded development projects such as the Maharana Mills, where he sold the land at far less than market price, bringing prosperity to his state. He was also instrumental in setting up the Gandhi memorial house in Porbandar. He received a number of honours, in particular that of Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India (KCSI) in 1929.

There is more than meets the eye in terms of contributions to the game. If the 1932 tour had been a disaster, which might have been a fair prediction at its outset, it is doubtful that Indian cricket would have developed as fast as it did. Royals such as the Maharaja of Porbandar, the successive Nawabs of Pataudi, and Hanumant Singh (the Maharajkumar of Banswara) played a large role in making Indian cricket what it is today, whether on or off the field.

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