Jim Swanton titled one of his many books "Sort Of A Cricket Person". This was in response to a boy asking his son what his father did for a living and the young lad replying "Well, he is sort of a cricket person".
Much the same phrase can be attributed to Raj Singh Dungarpur, a bachelor wedded to the game. To him cricket was everything. He talked, walked and breathed cricket. He was fascinated by its various facets and spoke in glowing terms about the great game and its great players. A traditionalist, he moved smoothly with the times and, as first class cricketer, Cricket Club of India chief, national selection committee chairman and BCCI President, left a lasting impression on the game and the cricketers. It is, but fitting, that tributes paid to him on his passing away have come not only from India but also from abroad for Raj Singh’s charm, good manners that came from his princely upbringing and encyclopedic knowledge of various aspects of the game made him an engaging personality.
As a cricket crazy fan growing up in the sixties, I first heard of Raj Singh as an opening bowler for Rajasthan and Central Zone. He then became captain of a Rajasthan side that had in its line-up, the likes of Vijay Manjrekar, Salim Durrani and Hanumant Singh. Under his sagacious leadership, Rajasthan repeatedly entered the Ranji Trophy final but lost every time to formidable Bombay, then in the midst of their fabulous run of 15 consecutive years as champions. This must have irked Raj Singh, a perfectionist, to the core but he took the defeats sportingly acknowledging that his side had lost to a better team. But he helped lay the foundation for a strong Central Zone team that would ultimately topple West Zone in a famous Duleep Trophy final in 1971-72 for their maiden triumph – a victory that pleased Raj Singh no end. By this time he had retired from a first class career that brought him 206 wickets from 86 games.
But could an incurable romantic like Raj Singh – so passionate about the game – ever sever ties with it? Like many Rajasthan players he had a base in Bombay and was, for several years, the president of the highly influential Cricket Club of India (CCI) which owned the Brabourne stadium. With his elegant manners and impeccable dress style – he did combine style with substance – Raj Singh was a natural as a manager of touring sides and did accompany the Indian team in this capacity on tours of Pakistan and England. Wisden praised him while reviewing the successful tour of England in 1986 saying that "a happy team spirit prevailed throughout the tour fostered by a genial but firm manager Raj Singh". His diplomacy also helped tide over the umpiring controversies on the tour of Pakistan in 1984.
It did seem that Raj Singh was destined to preside over important periods of Indian cricket. He took over the chairmanship of the selection committee in 1988 and, almost immediately, became the subject of controversy when Mohinder Amarnath was dropped from the Indian team. The outspoken cricketer dubbed the selectors "a bunch of jokers" and Raj Singh faced the brunt of criticism. But he could also be stubborn in his views and he stuck to his guns and Amarnath played no more Test cricket though he was brought back for a few ODIs in 1989.
A traditionalist and a deep thinker and analyst of the game Rajbhai, as he was affectionately known, could also recognize young talent. And even as he continued to speak in glowing terms about C. K. Nayudu and cricketers of the forties and fifties he was quick to realize that in Sachin Tendulkar the country had a prodigiously gifted teenager.
It is well known that Raj Singh was the selection committee chairman when Tendulkar was chosen for the tour of Pakistan when he was just 16. What is not as well known is the fact that Raj Singh was also instrumental in amending the rules of the CCI to allow Tendulkar to use its dressing room as a 14-year-old and smoothen things for the champion batsman very early in his long and illustrious career.
It was about this time that Raj Singh uttered one of the most famous quotes in Indian cricket. In January 1990 he went to Hyderabad to offer the Indian captaincy to Mohd Azharuddin. "Kya miya, captain banoge" has become a household phrase in the Indian cricket scenario. Unfortunately his other phrase coined at around the same time "the team of the 90s" to hail the squad under a new captain at the start of the decade has not worn well. But then one could expect Raj Singh with his romanticism for the game to come up with such catchy phrases.
Not unexpectedly, Raj Singh became the BCCI president in 1996. I met him twice briefly when he came to Chennai in this capacity for the Tests against Australia in 1998 and against Pakistan in 1999. I found him to be polite and erudite and he always had the good of Indian cricket at heart. He was always accessible to the media and readily gave his views on issues concerning the game. An eventful three-year term ended with Indian cricket enjoying a new prosperity, its standing in the ICC at an all time high and the resumption of bilateral cricket tours with Pakistan. All this was clearly a tribute to Raj Singh’s knowledge, charm and diplomacy.