The impact of Parsi cricket on the national team was most visible during India’s tour of the West Indies in 1961-62. Nari Contractor was the captain of the squad, and only months earlier he had lead India to a maiden home series win against England. This was his third series as captain and he was the second Parsi to captain India after Polly Umrigar.
For the West Indies tour, Umrigar and Farokh Engineer, besides Contractor himself, were retained while Rusi Surti made a comeback. This meant that for the very first time, as many as four Parsis were part of an Indian team. Indeed, all four of them went on to play in the first two Tests of the five-match series. The West Indies – always a tough side to beat at home – had just come off a narrow defeat in Australia and hence were eager to have a go at the Indians.
In the first Test at Port-of-Spain, India were bowled out for 203 after batting first. Surti, regarded by many as India’s answer to the great West Indian all-rounder Gary Sobers, top-scored with a crucial 57 after coming out to bat with the score a precarious 89/6. His three fellow Parsis could muster only fifteen runs amongst them.
In reply, the hosts made 289 with Umrigar’s two wickets including that of Sobers, who was bowled for 40 just when he was starting to look dangerous. India’s second innings was a disaster as they were all out for just 98. Surti was out for a duck and Contractor and Engineer too were out cheaply. Umrigar made 23 and was one of the two double-digit scores in the innings. Needless to say, the West Indies cruised home by a ten wickets.
India fared better in the second Test at Kingston, but still went down by a big margin. Contractor was dismissed by Wes Hall for 1, but Surti, Umrigar and Engineer all contributed to the eventual score of 395. Surti scored 35, Umrigar 50 and Engineer a gutsy 53 down the order. The top scorers of the innings were Chandu Borde (93) and Bapu Nadkarni (78*).
The Indian bowlers were no match for Sobers and Rohan Kanhai, who made 153 and 138 respectively, as the West Indies amassed 631/8 in their first innings. Hall then made light work of India’s second innings, which ended at 218 with Engineer top scoring with 40. Contractor’s was out early again for 9 while Surti and Umrigar chipped in with 26 and 35 respectively. India lost by an innings and 18 runs.
Before the third Test scheduled to be played at Bridgetown, India played a tour match against Barbados. The Barbados team included the fearsome fast bowler Charlie Griffith, whose action was reported to be suspicious by quite a few umpires. In India’s first innings of that game, Griffith was bowling with great speed. Contractor, who was aiming to get back to form, was badly hit above the left ear by a near-unplayable delivery from Griffith.
The Indian captain was rushed to hospital and it took six days for him to regain consciousness. In one of the greatest misfortunes of Indian cricket, Contractor never played in a Test match again. Rattled by the injury to their captain, India, under young captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, went on to lose the remaining three Tests as well, suffering a 5-0 whitewash defeat.
India were more competitive in the last two Tests, mainly thanks to Umrigar, who scored 56 and 172 not out in the fourth Test at Port-of-Spain followed by 32 and 60 in the fifth Test at Kingston. He finished the series as India’s highest run getter with a tally of 445, not to mention his nine wickets, which included a haul of 5/107 in the first innings of the fourth Test. As it happened, this turned out to be his last Test series, after which he retired as one of India’s best all-rounders. He earned the sobriquet of ‘palm tree hitter’ from the West Indian crowds due to his hitting style.
While Contractor could not play Test cricket again, he showed great tenacity in returning to first-class cricket and represented Gujarat and Railways with distinction. Surti and Engineer carried the Parsi legacy in Indian cricket over the next few years. Surti played a major role in India’s win in New Zealand in 1967-68 and became the first Indian to play in the Sheffield Shield, Australia’s first-class competition. Engineer went on to become one of India’s most dependable wicket-keepers and was a crowd favourite while playing for Lancashire on the county circuit.
Engineer played his last match for India against New Zealand in the 1975 World Cup, which happens to be the most recent case of a Parsi representing the men’s team. The latest Parsi to play for India was Diana Edulji, who played her last match for India Women in the 1993 World Cup. While it has been more than two decades since a Parsi played cricket for India, two players of Parsi parentage – Ronnie Irani and Zubin Surkari – have played international cricket, albeit for England and Canada respectively.
Indeed, the West Indian tour of 1961-62 remains the high point as far as Parsi representation in the Indian team is concerned. Umrigar, Contractor, Surti and Engineer were a world-class quartet who made the country and the Parsi community proud.