A Cricketing Prodigy
Kumar Shri Duleepsinhji (“Duleep”), the nephew of Ranjitsinhji, was an exceptionally gifted Indian cricketer who played for Cambridge University, Sussex and England before India achieved Test status.
He was educated at Cheltenham College, soon establishing himself as a cricketing prodigy . While he was still playing school cricket, the future President of the MCC, HS Altham, wrote of him in Wisden: “In natural gifts of eye, wrist and footwork he is certainly blest far above the ordinary measure… there is no doubt about the judgment and certainty with which he takes toll of straight balls of anything but the most immaculate length. His late cutting is quite beautiful and there is a certain ease and maturity about all his batting methods that stamps him as of a different class from the ordinary school batsman.” At Cambridge University which he attended between 1925 and 1929 he achieved great success, including 246 not out against Middlesex in 1927.
Duleep had started playing for his uncle’s old team Sussex in 1924 and played regularly for them when he left Cambridge. At Hove, in 1930 he scored 330 against Northamptonshire in a single day. Sussex compiled 521 for seven declared but apart from Maurice Tate with whom he put together a partnership of 255, nobody scored more than 20. Duleep had come in when the score was 1 and left when it was 510. It was reported that “His runs were obtained without a mistake of any kind. The rate at which he progressed deserves to be placed permanently on record for his display was historic.” Murray Goodwin surpassed Duleep’s record score in 2003 with his 335, but nobody has hit more runs for Sussex in a single day or indeed for any other side in the County Championship,
Dulleep was first selected for England in 1929 but despite being in scintillating form that year he was left out of the winter tour to South Africa. There was a strong suspicion that this was because the South African government was unhappy about their team playing against a non-white cricketer. At that time such a stance did not attract the opprobrium that it was to in 1968 with the D’Oliveira affair. The following summer he was selected to play against Australia and like his uncle he scored a century on his debut against England’s foe. His 173 at Lords was at that time a Test record for that ground and one newspaper reported that “a more magnificent exhibition of cricket has never been witnessed.”
In the winter of 1929, Duleep had returned to India and taken part in a local tournament. It is often claimed that here he became the first player to execute the reverse sweep in first class cricket. As his batting partner at the time put it : “He and his genius came out with a stroke which was never seen in the annals of Indian cricket. Without changing the grip of the bat, he tried to hit the wide ball backwards towards the third man with his bat turned around and facing the wicket-keeper. There was an appeal for unfair play but the umpire ruled it out”.
In 1931 and 1932 Duleep was Sussex Captain. In 1932, Sussex were seriously challenging Yorkshire for the county championship: he was leading the side by example with his impressive batting. But towards the end of the season Duleep who had been plagued by ill health since his university days was struck down with pulmonary tuberculosis and had to drop out of the team . Without him, Sussex were only able to finish second. Duleep spent the winter convalescing in Switzerland however, it was felt that he could not return to cricket and therefore in 1933 he announced his retirement at the age of 27.
Duleep’s career was short and great. His graceful batting and modest character had captivated the cricketing public. At the time his career was cruelly cut short he was probably the most popular cricketer in the country. He played for an all too brief eight seasons. This included twelve matches for his adopted country and his Test average of 58.5 ranks him among the very best batsman to have played Test cricket and among England players only Herbert Sutcliffe retired with a better one. He scored 15,485 runs, including 49 centuries, at an average of 49.95. He had 9,178 runs for Sussex and was the county’s leading run scorer in every season in which he played for them full time. On three occasions he reached three figures in each innings of a match, and in 1931 he registered 12 centuries, four of them in successive innings. It was said that of all pre- war cricketers, only Hobbs scored a greater percentage of boundaries. He was also recognised as an outstanding slip fielder. Had his career continued, who knows what he might achieved.
Following his retirement, Duleep returned to India and entered public service which included a spell as Indian High Commissioner in Australia. Duleep was also very active in developing Indian cricket. He died in 1959 following a heart attack in Mumbai. Former Sussex captain Harold Gilligan summed up the feelings of many who had played with him: “A very great sportsman and in his passing I have lost a very dear friend”. The Duleep Trophy first-class competition held in India is named after him, a fitting memorial to a man who along with his uncle was one of the first great Indian cricketers as well as an impressive adornment to the Sussex team.
By Peter McQuade, May 2023