In his late 19th-century book A Chronicle of Cricket, writer Shapoorjee Sorabjee vividly described how the Parsis began playing cricket:
‘Some enthusiastic boys at first only gleefully watched from a distance the game played at Fort George, and then hunted after and returned the balls from the field to the players. For such gratis services rendered heartily and joyfully the officers sometimes called them to handle the bat, which was done with extreme pleasure and delight… thus were learnt the initiatory practical lessons in cricket by the Parsis.’
It was in the middle of the 19th century that cricket began to be played by the Indian populace in an organised manner. Prior to this, the Calcutta Cricket Club had been in existence since 1792, but the game was played entirely by the Englishmen. The real turning point came in 1848, when the Parsis of Bombay formed the Oriental Cricket Club.
The vast playing field outside Fort George was where the Parsis of Bombay fell in love with the gentlemen’s game. Known as the Esplanade Maidan, it was here that the seeds of India’s cricketing revolution were sown. What the Bengalis of Calcutta shunned fifty years ago, the Parsis of Bombay took to warmly and established themselves as the pioneers of cricket in India.
It would not be far-fetched to say that some of the ‘enthusiastic boys’ as mentioned by Sorabjee may have been part of the historic 1886 tour – the first by an Indian team to England. While the returns from the tour were ordinary, there was no doubt that Indian cricket was beginning to gain a foothold. The enthusiasm of the earliest pioneering Parsis soon spread to the rest of the nation, never to diminish.
About 225 kilometres from the city of Bombay, now called Mumbai, lies Navsari. Now located in the state of Gujarat, this long-lived city was earlier part of the Bombay Presidency. Following the footsteps of the Parsis of Bombay, cricket clubs were springing up in various parts of the Presidency – from Sindh to Surat to Poona.
Navsari was in those days a town with a healthy Parsi population, with a majority of them belonging to the priestly class. Naturally, the reverberation of the cricket revolution was felt here as well, as was the case in most Parsi pockets in the Presidency. The Parsis, in contrast to other communities, had an affinity with the British which made it easier for them to embrace the game.
It was in Navsari on October 10, 1866, that Mehellasha Edulji Pavri was born. He was brought up by traditional parents who believed that the only way to success was through the toil of academics, but he soon realised that his calling lay in the intriguing world of cricket. Not that his parents were too keen though – they reckoned that playing the game was simply not worth it.
Noted historian and former first-class cricketer Vasant Raiji has written of Pavri’s single-mindedness towards excelling at cricket in his book Cricket Memoirs: ‘Once, on returning home from school, he found his cricket bat missing. His grandfather had hidden it to divert the boy’s attention to books and homework. Pavri straight away went to his uncle’s timber yard, picked up a log and asked one of the employees to chop it and mould it into the shape of a cricket bat.’
The cost of this whole process turned out to be several times more than the cost of the missing bat, and needless to say, young Pavri was at the receiving end of some rather stern punishment from his uncle. But such incidents far from deterred Pavri, and soon after he was a key part of his school team.
When he was just sixteen, he moved to Bombay to play for the Baronet Cricket Club. While Dr. D.H Patel (captain of the 1886 team) and his band of Parsi gentlemen were in the midst of their path-breaking sojourn in the British Isles, the future was being nurtured many miles away in the form of Pavri, who was developing into an immensely talented right-armed fast-bowling all-rounder.
In the initial phase of his career, Pavri, barely out of his teens, concentrated exclusively on generating as much pace as possible. Raiji writes that during his tenure at the Baronet Cricket Club, some of his opponents who batted without boots, gloves and leg guards ‘went home with crushed toes and fingers.’
Mehallasha Pavri was among the pioneers of Indian cricket and deserves to be celebrated as India’s first great cricketer (source – Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket by J.M Framjee Patel)
The Parsis’ 1888 tour of England soon followed. Whereas the team of 1886 was considered to be mainly made up of enthusiasts, the 1888 team, led by Pestonji Kanga, was more representative of the actual Parsi talent in the country. Word had spread of Pavri’s bowling prowess and he was duly named in the side, which bore a completely different look from that of two years earlier, save for two members.
Prior to the tour, two one-day matches were arranged between a Parsi XI and a Bombay Gymkhana XI. In what could be considered as precursors to the Bombay Presidency Match, the Parsis triumphed on both occasions. In one of the matches, Pavri, according to J.M Framjee Patel in Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket, ‘distinguished himself by taking eight wickets for 23 runs.’
Pavri was well aware that there was a lot more to fast bowling than merely hurling the ball at the stumps. During the 1888 tour, he gained valuable tips from the Surrey pair of Bill Lockwood and John Sharpe, and coupled with his inborn talent, he used them to lethal effect as the tour unfolded.
His batting ability was lesser known, but he was good enough to open the innings on many occasions for the Parsis, including in their first match of the 1888 tour against the Gentlemen of Essex at Leyton. In this drawn affair, he scored three runs and took two wickets. It is to be noted that all matches on the tour were played against amateur teams and hence were not accorded first-class status.
It took him just two more games to stamp his class with the ball. Against Richmond at the Old Deer Park, he grabbed six top-order wickets in the first innings before the match petered out to a draw. He grew better as the tour progressed, and gradually established himself as the outstanding performer for his team.
One of the Parsis’ most convincing wins on the tour came against Bury at Radcliffe Park, and Pavri was the chief architect. Replying to the Parsis’ total of 156, Bury ran into Pavri, who took seven wickets in the first innings and four in the second to bowl the hosts out for 64 and 35. At Lord’s against the Marylebone Cricket Club, he took four wickets including that of English Test player Tim O’Brien.
Then in a tense low-scorer against Bournemouth, Pavri’s six-wicket haul in the first innings made the difference as the hosts (56 and 41) lost to the Parsis (61 and 37/4) by six wickets. The match against the Gentlemen of Norfolk ended in a heart-breaking one-wicket defeat for the Parsis, but it was herein that Pavri provided one of the memorable moments of the tour.
Defending a total of 71, the Parsis gave their all before going down narrowly. Pavri, wicketless in the first innings, collected 3/26. Among his wickets was a dismissal of which Framjee Patel wrote about in Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket. Pavri uprooted the leg-stump out of the ground, which, after turning a somersault, pitched itself again at a distance of about nine yards!
The Parsis’ most famous win on the tour came against Eastbourne at the Saffrons, and Pavri again rose to the occasion. Batting first, the Parsis were bowled out for 168 with Owen Bevan from Surrey claiming eight wickets. Eastbourne replied with 302, with Pavri taking four wickets. In the second innings, the Parsis fared better, scoring 256 mainly in thanks to R.D Cooper’s knock of 80.
The target for Eastbourne was only 123, but Pavri produced a devastating spell as he ran through the batting lineup. He finished with six wickets to tally ten in the match, and aided by four wickets from Pestonji Kanga, condemned the home team to 56 all out. During this innings, Pavri is said to have hit a bail and sent it flying almost 50 yards. This gives an indication of the pace at which he was capable of bowling.
Pavri’s personal best on the tour contributed to yet another win for the Parsis. Against Bridlington at Duke’s Park, he scalped 15 wickets (eight in the first innings, seven in the second) to enable the Parsis (169 and 73) to beat the opposition (91 and 131) by 20 runs. Their last match was against a formidable Gentlemen of Surrey at the Oval, where Pavri’s efforts of 5/20 and 5/48 could not prevent a nine-run loss for his side.
Overall, the Parsis managed to win eight and lose eleven of the 31 matches played, a clear improvement from the 1886 visit, when they won only one out of 28 matches. Pavri was a major factor towards the team’s success, finishing the tour with a total of 170 wickets at a stunning average of 11.66.
Wisden remarked of his bowling: ”Perhaps the most notable feature of the tour was the wonderfully successful bowling of Mr. Pavri, who took 170 wickets at a cost of under 12 runs each. Furthermore, James Lillywhite’s Cricketer’s Annual – edited by Surrey County Cricket Club secretary Charles Alcock – noted:
‘Pavri’s figures in particular were above the ordinary. He bowled fast round-arm, of a good length, and towards the end of the tour developed a very good style, varying his pace and pitch well, besides making the ball do a good deal at times.’ This encomium underlines the sustained improvement that Pavri experienced in his bowling during the tour.
The Saffrons Ground in Eastbourne, East Sussex – scene of Pavri’s match-winning ten-wicket haul for the Parsis on the 1888 tour (source – geograph.org.uk)
In 1889-90, yet another historic tour took place. Impressed by the feats of the 1888 Parsis, George Frederick Vernon’s team of English amateurs toured India, thus making it the first ever visit by a foreign team to the country. The team played eleven matches in India, preceded by two in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). The visitors were too good for most of the opponents, and lost only one match on the tour.
Significantly, this one defeat came against the spirited Parsis at the Bombay Gymkhana Ground. Young Pavri enhanced his status as the champion cricketer of his country with a match-winning all-round performance. Despite being bowled out for 97 in their first innings, G.F Vernon’s XI eked out a 15-run lead.
In the second innings, Pavri bowled like a man possessed, much to the delight of the Parsi supporters. The visitors had no answer to his magnificent bowling as they crashed to 20/5 and eventually 61 all out. Pavri returned figures of 7/34. Set 77 for victory, Pavri walked in at 14/2 and saw the score further plummet to 17/4. He top-scored with 21 to help his side overcome the jitters and post a four-wicket win.
As mentioned earlier, this was the visitors’ only defeat on the tour and it came against the only team they faced which was entirely composed of natives. J.M Framjee Patel, captain of the Parsi team for this match, has given an interesting account of the encounter in Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket. Again, these matches were without first-class status.
The advent of first-class cricket in India came in the 1892-93 season with the inaugural Bombay Presidency matches between the Europeans and the Parsis. By this time, Pavri was deservedly captaining the Parsis. He led the side to a three-wicket victory in the Presidency match at Poona, top-scoring as opener with 31 runs in a tricky chase of 87.
The second important tour by an English side to India was the visit of Lord Hawke’s squad in 1892-93. The team included six past and future Test cricketers, and this time, four of the 22 matches were considered first-class. The first of these first-class matches was against the Parsis at the Bombay Gymkhana Ground. The Parsis prevailed in this three-day fixture, and captain Pavri was in the thick of things yet again.
Underarm bowler Arthur Hill’s haul of 5/7 helped bowl the Parsis out for just 93 in the first innings. Then Nasarvanji Bapasola – one of the finest Indian all-rounders of that era – took 4/37 to help the Parsis take a 20-run lead. Pavri took 2/18. Bapasola did the star turn with the bat too, scoring a composed 52 from number nine which contributed towards setting a target of 203 for the visitors.
Pavri did the rest, capturing 6/36 – the best innings analysis of his first-class career – as Lord Hawke’s XI were skittled out for 93. In the second fixture between the two sides, Lord Hawke’s XI turned the tables with a seven-run victory as the Parsis failed to chase 98. In the last of the first-class matches, Pavri was among the three Indians (the others being fellow Parsis Bapasola and B.D Gagrat) in an All-India XI that lost by an innings by five runs.
In 1895, Pavri became one of the first Indians to play in the County Championship. He played a solitary match for Middlesex against Sussex at Hove as an amateur. The match ended in a draw, with Pavri scoring 19 and taking one wicket and two catches. Interestingly, he took the catch that dismissed the great Ranjitsinhji, off the bowling of future South African Test player George Thornton.
It can be said that Pavri was to Indian cricket what the legendary W.G Grace was to English cricket. Of course, cricket in England was being played way before Grace’s time, but the bearded doctor was an unparalleled personality in the nascent stages of the county and Test era in England and will forever remain a cult figure. Incidentally, Grace was born in 1848 – the year the Oriental Cricket Club was formed.
Grace first appeared in a first-class match in 1865, a year before Pavri’s birth. When Pavri was making the English notice his talent in the summer of 1888, Grace was captaining England to a series victory in the Ashes. Pavri many a time showed a Grace-like tendency to make an impact with aplomb, as proved by his exploits in the aforementioned landmark matches, and this temperament was what separated him from most other Indian cricketers of his time.
The incident that best described Pavri’s self-assurance occurred in 1889, when he single-handedly challenged eleven visitors to play against him at Matheran, a hill-station close to Bombay. He scored 52 not out and dismissed his opponents for 38, not counting byes and leg-byes. Earlier in the same year, he batted one-handed and went on to top-score for his side with 27 runs in a club match. In 1892, he took four wickets in four balls to help the Parsis win a match at Secunderabad with two minutes left.
The similarities with Grace do not end there. Just like Grace, Pavri too was a medical practitioner. He qualified as a doctor in Bombay and later went to England in 1893 for further study in medicine. During his stay there, he played for the Eastbourne Cricket Club and averaged 34.4 with the bat and 13.61 with the ball. The club presented him with a silver vase in recognition of his efforts.
Pavri authored ‘Parsi Cricket’ in 1901. The book gives an insight into his intelligent cricketing mind (source – sweetcouch.com)
While Grace is often known as the ‘Father of English Cricket’, Pavri came to be known as the ‘Grand Old Man of Indian Cricket’. In 1899, Pavri, in what was his final match on English soil, was part of a eleven led by Grace.
They played together for Grace’s newly-formed London County against Wiltshire at the Crystal Palace Park. The match ended in a draw, with Grace scoring 13 and taking eight wickets, and Pavri scoring three runs and taking three wickets. Both the doctors were involved in the dismissal of one Ernest Warrliow – ‘caught Pavri, bowled Grace.’
In his first-class career spanning from 1892-93 to 1912-13, Pavri played 26 matches. He scored 589 runs at 15.50, took 44 wickets at 20.25 and held 19 catches. His highest score was 69 in the 1897 Presidency match at Poona. His best bowling figures in an innings were 6/36, in the famous match against Lord Hawke’s visitors mentioned earlier.
Pavri also compiled a highly informative book titled ‘Parsi Cricket’ in 1901, in which he wrote about the history of Parsi cricket, statistics and personal profiles of leading Parsi cricketers and valuable tips on batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy. The book gives an insight into Pavri’s intelligent cricketing mind.
Pavri saw the Presidency match become the Bombay Triangular (with the inclusion of the Hindus in 1907-08) and the Bombay Quadrangular (with the inclusion of the Muslims in 1912-13). His last first-class match was the 1912-13 Quadrangular final against the Muslims. He did not bowl and failed to score, even as the Parsis won by an innings.
Raiji writes that in 1911, a sum of Rs. 4000 was collected by the members of the Parsi Gymkhana on the occasion of Pavri’s 25 years as a cricketer, and gold medals were instituted for the best Parsi batsman and bowler in the Bombay Quadrangular matches. In the same year, he was one of the members of the selection committee that selected the All-India team for the historic tour of England.
Following his retirement, he was invited to join the governing bodies of various local sports associations – indeed in his younger days, he had excelled in gymnastics, wrestling and swimming too among other sports. He took to social work and worked with many charitable institutions. As a senior and respected citizen of Bombay, he was appointed a Justice of Peace.
Pavri breathed his last on April 19, 1946 in Bombay, less than six months before what would have been his 80th birthday. A little over a year later, India attained independence and a fresh new phase began for Indian cricket.
Great names from the country have continued to grace the field over the years and India today has gone on to become the undisputed financial superpower of the game. But the genesis of it all took place at a time when India as a nation was struggling for its identity.
M.E Pavri contributed majorly towards the formation of that identity and thus deserves to be celebrated as the first great cricketer from India. He was the first among equals and the brightest jewel in the Parsi cricket crown, which more than held its own against the all-conquering Empire of yore.