SPECIALS – Parsis, pioneers of cricket in India, Part 2

  In Part 1 of this Specials post we looked at how one-sided the Parsis’ first tour of England was, and understandably so. The world’s first great cricketing icon W.G Grace, who played against them while representing the MCC at Lord’s, later said in his autobiography – ‘During this season, a team of Parsi cricketers paid us a visit, but met with little success, even against second and third-rate clubs’.

  The Parsis themselves knew their limitations, and upon the team’s return from England, captain Dhunjishaw Patel said, ‘ It was not with any object of gaining victories that we made the voyage to England, but we decided to pay homage to the centre and home of a noble game, and we desired to learn some useful lessons in its play’. Indeed, it was this humility and the keenness to master the game that led to their further success. We look at the aftermath of that 1886 tour:-

The 1888 Tour Of England

  The Parsis made their second tour of England in 1888. The 15-member team played mostly against amateur teams and was more successful than the team of 1886 – they played 31 matches, winning 8 and losing 11. Like the 1886 tour, these games too were not considered as first-class. The tour was arranged by Pestonji Kanga, D.C. Pandole and J.M. Divecha – all of whom were part of the team (Kanga also captained the team). The only two players who were also part of the 1886 squad were Jal Morenas and S.H Harvar. Their first win of the 1888 tour came in the 8th match, when they beat the Gentlemen of Hastings by 9 wickets at Hastings.

  As in 1886, the Parsis again faced the MCC at Lord’s (twice), managing a draw in the first game and a 10-wicket defeat in the second. Their victory against the Gentlemen of Eastbourne was quite remarkable – the opposition was bowled out for just 56 (despite having a 134-run 1st-innings lead) as the Parsis won by 66 runs. Another exciting match was played against Scarborough – the game was drawn with the scores level when the tourists restricted the hosts to 70/7 in the 2nd innings.

Mehallasha Pavri and Success of the Parsis

parsi     The cover of the book ‘Parsi Cricket’, which was first written in 1906 by M.E Pavri, India’s first great fast bowler (source – booksoncricket.net)

  Part of the 1888 team was the right-arm fast bowler Mehallasha Edulji Pavri (1866-1946). Born in the town of Navsari in Gujarat, Pavri is regarded by many as the first great Indian cricketer. On his debut 1888 tour, he became a sensation, and was a major factor in the Parsis’ improvement from two years ago. He took as many as 170 wickets at a stunning average of 11.66. A story goes that at Eastbourne, he sent a bail flying 50 yards while in Norfolk, when he uprooted a stump, it flew nine yards and pitched itself the right way up. A righted-handed batsman and a right-arm fast bowler – one of the fastest in those times – Pavri played 26 first-class matches from 1892 to 1913. Besides the Parsis, he also turned out for the All-India XI and Middlesex in 1892 and 1893 respectively. 

  For a decade or so, the Europeans dominated their annual Bombay Presidency Match against the Parsis, but that changed in 1889. Facing the strong, all-white Bombay Gymkhana team, the Parsis scored a surprising 10-wicket win (Bombay Gymkhana 86 and 79, Parsis 136 and 31/0). In January 1890, Pavri took 7/34 in the 2nd innings against the touring G.F Vernon’s XI, a historic match that the Parsis won by 4 wickets. (G.F Vernon’s XI 97 and 61, Parsis 82 and 77/6). Matches from 1892–93 were given first-class status.

  The match that began at Bombay Gymkhana between the Europeans and the Parsis on 26 August 1892 is considered the earliest first class match in India (it was drawn). In December 1892, the Parsis scored a famous 109-run win over the touring Lord Hawke’s XI (Parsis 93 and 182, Lord Hawke’s XI 73 and 93) – Pavri took 6/36 in the 2nd innings. By 1900, the Presidency Match was the highlight of the Bombay cricket season, and until this point, the Europeans and the Parsis had won 8 games each out of a total of 19 matches. Pavri’s importance can be seen by the fact that his rise coincided with that of the Parsi team’s ascent. He also dominated the early years of the Bombay Quadrangular tournament. 

Beyond the Parsis

  In 1906, the Hindus challenged the Parsis to a match, but the communal differences between the clubs led the Parsis to decline. The Bombay Gymkhana stepped in and accepted the challenge, leading to the first Europeans versus Hindus match, played that February. The Hindu side ended up recording a stunning 110-run victory over the Europeans. The Hindus boasted of Palwankar Baloo, who is regarded as India’s first great spin bowler, and perhaps the first person from the so-called ‘lower’ Dalit caste to make it big in Indian cricket. 

  The next year, 1907, saw the first Triangular tournament featuring teams from the Bombay and Hindu Gymkhanas as well as the Parsis. From 1907 to 1911 the tournament was played in September, with the Parsis winning three times and the Europeans twice. In 1912, the Muslims joined the tournament, and it thus became a four-team affair, and known as the ‘Bombay Quadrangular’, and was the first diversified Indian first-class tournament. 

  As the years went by, the Parsis’ stranglehold on the tournament weakened. By the 1920’s, the Gymkhanas (Bombay, Parsi, Hindu and Mohammedan) were recruiting players from all over the Indian sub-continent, making the Bombay Quadrangular the biggest and most influential cricket tournament in India. It also inspired other local competitions, including a Triangular in Lahore and Quadrangulars in Nagpur and Karachi, that led to the rapid development of cricket throughout the region. Later in 1937, a fifth team, the Rest (comprising of Indian Christians, Jews and Buddhists) was added to make the tournament a Pentangular, and matches began to be played at the Brabourne Stadium.

  The last time the Parsis managed to win the tournament was in the 1928-29 season. From 1938, the Pentangular attracted growing criticism as being divisive because of the communalism evident in the makeup of the teams. Eventually, amid a backdrop of rioting and political unrest across India, the newly formed Board of Control for Cricket in India announced in 1946 that the Pentangular tournament was being abandoned.

images212     Polly Umrigar, who played 59 Tests from 1948 to 1962, was one of India’s finest all-round cricketers (source – hindu.com)

List of Parsi cricketers who played Tests for India:- Soli Colah, Piloo Palia, Rustomji Jamshedji, Karshed Meherhomji, Jamshed Irani, Rusi Modi, Keki Tarapore, Nari Contractor, Polly Umrigar, Rusi Surti, Farokh Engineer and the sisters Diana and Behroze Edulji.

  India’s first Test team in 1932 included two Parsis (Colah and Palia) and the high points were the first two Tests in the West Indies in 1961-62,when four players were part of the team (Contractor, Umrigar, Surti and Engineer).

  Hence, while it was the British who introduced the game to India during their rule, it were the enthusiastic Parsi gentlemen who made the masses aware of this noble sport. Today, India is known to be the hub of international cricket, and the game is considered to be almost a religion. The Parsis might not be visible on the cricket scene nowadays, but all Indians owe a bit of gratitude to the community, specifically the ones who set up the Oriental Cricket Club, for initiating the popularity of the sport which today is unparalleled in the country when it comes to fan-following and mass appeal.


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