A few days ago, the former Indian wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer celebrated his 75th birthday. Engineer incidentally was the last Parsi cricketer to play for India, his 14-year old international career having ended in 1975. Since then, almost four decades have gone without a single Parsi playing international cricket for India, and looking at the Ranji circuit, it is unlikely that the drought will be broken soon.
The complete dearth of Parsi cricketers from India for quite some time now has been disappointing, given that it was this minority community that first sowed the seeds of cricket in India. In the first of this two-part Specials edition, we look at the spread of the game in India and the first tour of England by the Parsis:-
The Parsi Community
The Parsis are descendants of the Zoroastrians of Iran, many of whom migrated to India, more specifically the Gujarat coast, in roughly the 10th century A.D to avoid persecution by Muslim invaders who were determined to conquer Persia. Once settled in India, this spirited community quickly became part of the Indian culture, not only giving themselves a distinct identity, but also greatly contributing to various spheres of society. Today, Zoroastrianism is one of the many minority religions practiced in the vast, multi-religious country of India. One of the single largest contributions by Parsis to Indian society is influencing the spread of cricket in India during the British rule in the early 19th century.
The Oriental Cricket Club
On 3rd March 1845, the ‘Sporting Intelligence’ magazine carried a reasonably lengthy match report between ‘Sepoy’ cricketers and the European ones. The article clearly proved that Indian cricket was underway in a city called Sylhet, in modern day Bangladesh. However the most accepted fact by historians is that the start of organised cricket in India was marked by the formation of the Parsi Oriental Cricket Club in Bombay in 1848. Thus, the Parsis of Bombay became the very first Indians to develop a liking towards the national sport of England.
Being a highly-educated and progressive group of people, these Parsi gentlemen appropriately took to the ‘gentlemen’s game’, and their relative proximity to well-placed British officials would have been another factor in initiating the Oriental Club – indeed, many middle class Parsis supported cricket as a means to further strengthen their ties with the British gentry in India. Also, many established Parsi businessmen were in trade relations with the British, making it easier for them to master the complications of the game.
The Game Spreads Further
The game grew in popularity among the Parsis, and within two decades, around 30 clubs were formed in Bombay, mostly named after British viceroys or Roman Gods. The British, only too keen to see an integral part of their culture starting to take root in India, generously supported the formation of these clubs. Later on, Parsi business houses like the Tatas and the Wadias began to sponsor them as well. At that time, the Hindus shared a healthy business competition with the Parsis, and not to be left behind, they too threw their hats into the ring and thus Bombay Union, the first Hindu club was formed in 1866.
The Bombay Gymkhana of yore was an all-white club – no Indian was allowed to enter or play against the club. Their stance however quickly changed, and the club invited a team of Parsees to play a ‘Europeans v Parsis’ fixture in 1877. This more or less became a regular feature though it was a decade before the Parsi’s eventually managed to win. Beginning from 1886, the Hindus also began playing an annual match with the Europeans. Meanwhile, the game was steadily and surely spreading – the first Muslim Cricket Club was formed in 1883.
The First Indian Team to Tour England
In the summer of 1886, a team entirely consisting of Parsis became the first team from India to travel to England to play in cricket matches. The earliest plan at a tour of England by a Parsi team was made by A.B. Patel in 1878. It fell through when Patel got involved in a libel suit and was unable to proceed with the plans. A few years later Patel, with the help of B.B. Baria and Dr. Dhunjishaw Patel, made another attempt to organise the tour. C.W Alcock, the Secretary of the Surrey Cricket Club served as the agent for the team in England. Robert Henderson, a Surrey professional was named as the coach.
Dr. Patel himself captained the amateur team, which could not make an impression on this first tour. The Parsis played 28 matches on the nearly 3-month long tour, winning only 1 and losing 19. The team’s first ever match on English soil was played against Lord Sheffield’s XI at Uckfield’s Sheffield Park. The two-day match was drawn, with the visitors being all out for just 46 (53/4 in the 2nd innings, following on) in reply to the host’s 142. A few days later, the Parsis played for the first time at the hallowed Lord’s, facing the Marylebone Cricket Club.
The MCC team for this match had among others the mighty William Gilbert ‘WG’ Grace – who was included in the team at the request of the tourists. Grace opened the innings and scored 65 out of a total 313, following which the Parsis were skittled out for 23 and 66 – Grace, with his right-arm medium pace exposed the frailties of the inexperienced visitors by scalping 7/18 and 4/26 in the two innings respectively. For the Parsis, the only silver lining was Ardeshir Major, who bowled wholeheartedly to take 5/91, including Grace’s wicket. As the tour went on, the Parsis took on a host of top counties as well as various amateur elevens, and found the going tough, with many matches resulting in innings defeats.
They had to wait for two months and their 24th game to finally register a victory – their sole win on the tour. That win came at Catsfield on July 22, when the Parsis (126 and 29/6) beat hosts Normanhurst (81) by 45 runs on the first innings. The batsmen severely let the Parsis down throughout the tour – they crossed 200 only once, but the bowlers fared much better. Muncherjee Framjee took 79 wickets at 26.71, while a certain Shapurjee Bhedwar also shone on the tour, taking 59 wickets at 19.57, his high point being a hat-trick against Chiswick Park, where he took 7 wickets in the first innings in a losing cause. The last match of the tour at Cumberland Lodge against Prince Christian Victor’s XII was arranged on the express desire of Queen Victoria. Prince Victor and his brother Prince Albert took part in the game. At the end of the match a garden party was held in honour of the guests. The team left England on August 24.
The historic 1886 team:- Dr D.H. Patel (captain), B.B. Baria, J.M. Morenas, A.R. Limboowala, M. Framji, M.P. Banaji, S.N. Bhedwar, A.C. Major, P.C. Major, J. Pochkhanavala, S. Bejonji, S.H. Harvar, D.D. Khambatta, P.D. Dastur, B.P. Balla
In the second part of this edition, we will look at the Parsis’ subsequent tour of England, the further popularity of the game and the formation of the religion-based Bombay Quadrangular tournament.