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The Parsees that played the first First-Class match on Indian soil. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji

 As Colonial India embraced the English culture more and more, it was only a matter of time that cricket would form a part of their lives. The Parsees were the first Indians to adopt the sport, touring England twice in 1886 and 1888. As the quality of Parsee cricket rose, a contest between them and the Englishmen was only inevitable. The first match, the first of many Presidency Matches, was also the first First-Class match played on Indian soil. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives the historic moment, on August 26, 1892.

Parsees and cricket: A brief history

How did it all start for the Parsees? Shapoorjee Sorabjee described in A Chronicle of 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 [sic].”

The Parsees were the first Indians to embrace cricket. It was not a rare spectacle to find young Parsee boys playing in Bombay grounds, with umbrellas for bats but certainly not short on enthusiasm.The efforts were amateurish to begin with, but the quality of cricket grew with time.

The story of the Parsee cricketers goes back to 1848, when they formed Oriental CC. In 1850 they founded Young Zoroastrian Club. By 1877 they were good enough for the British to take them seriously, and contested hard against the Bombay Gymkhana.

The matches were put on hold from 1876 to 1883 due a dispute over polo players ruining grounds (Ramachandra Guha, in his A Corner of a Foreign Field, has described the controversy in details), but resumed in 1884.

The 1876 match was marred by another incident. As the Parsees celebrated their victory, the 66th regiment soldiers did not see it in the same angle. JM Framjee Patel played in the match. He later wrote in Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket,that great chronicle of Indian cricket, that the soldiers dished out “heavy punishment on some of the spectators in the shape of black eyes by wielding their belts freely.”

Meanwhile, in 1878, a British soldier, officiating in a Parsee match, had called their ace bowler Rustom Gangar for chucking.The incident did not go down well with the Parsees, who asked for a Parsee umpire for the 1885 match once the contest resumed. Bombay Gymkhana refused.

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Robert Henderson coached the first Parsee team to England in 1886 © Getty Images

That winter they called Robert Henderson to India. Henderson was merely 20, but had already made his debut for Surrey. He would have a distinguished First-Class career, scoring 3,701 runs and taking 60 wickets from 148 matches.

Henderson played an extremely crucial role in Indian cricket, albeit unknowingly. After locking horns with their British rulers they embarked on their first tour to England, in 1886. Henderson would act as their coach.

Eminent lawyer Pherozeshah Mehta delivered a speech — one that reflected the Indian mindset towards the British and cricket of the era — to the Parsees during a dinner before they left: “As artists go to Italy to do homage to the great masters, as pilgrims go to Jerusalem to worship at a shrine, so now the Parsees are going to England to do homage to the English cricketers, to learn something of that noble and manly pastime in the very country which is its chosen home.”

[Note: Eight years before the tour, AB Patel had planned a tour, but got involved in a libel suit with KN Kabraji. The parties decided on an amicable settlement, but the tour was called off.]

DH Patel led the first Parsee team to England in 1886. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji
DH Patel led the first Parsee team to England in 1886. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji

Led by Dr Dhunjeeshaw ‘DH’ Patel (who bowled underarm at a rapid pace), the side won only one match, drawing 8 and losing 19. Their only victory came against Normanhurst in a one-day match.

As is obvious, the tour was not a grand success. Wisden wrote: “From a cricket point of view the tour of the Parsees was a failure, and we had not thought it worthwhile to print any of the scores.” WG Grace, who played them for MCC, was no kinder in WG: Cricketing Reminiscences: “A team of Parsee cricketers paid us a visit, but met with very little success, even against second and third-rate club.”

However, there were some face-saving performances. Shapurjee Bhedwar took a hat-trick against Ashton-under-Lyne and finished with 6 for 27. Bhedwar was, to quote Cricket Chat, “an underhand bowler with a peculiar delivery… the best bowler of the team.” Ardeshir Major scored 97 against United Services Portsmouth, their highest score of the tour; and Pestonji Dastur scored 89 against Riding of Yorkshire.

By the time the next Parsee team toured England in 1888,the Parsee Gymkhana had been opened. Unlike the 1886 tour (where the players paid for their expenses), the Gymkhana paid for the tour. The team was undoubtedly a stronger one.

Several future stars emerged out of the tour: Pestonji ‘PD’ Kanga; MD Kanga (not related to PD); Dinshaw Writer; all-rounder Nasarvanji Bapasola; and most significantly,the great Dr Mehallasha ‘ME’ Pavri.

Pavri, a genuinely quick bowler, deserves special mention. Not only was he the first Indian cricketer (if one excludes KS Ranjitsinhji) to play county cricket, but he was perhaps the first great player to emerge out of India.

Raiji wrote in India’s Hambledon Men: “If the word ‘great’ is used a bit generously, Dr ME Pavri could be described as India’s first great cricketer.” Mihir Bose called him “without doubt the first great Indian cricketer.” On the tour Pavri claimed 170 wickets at 12.

The side, reasonably stronger than their 1886 counterparts, won 8 matches, lost 11 (one of them by 1 wicket and another by 9 runs), and drew 12. This time the press could not help but praise the performances.

Wisden wrote: “The team proved stronger at all points, achieved a greater amount of success than their predecessors of 1886.”

PD Kanga led the first Parsee team to England in 1888. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji
PD Kanga led the second Parsee team to England in 1888. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji

Grace provided a mixed assessment: “Native races of India, though hitherto unaccustomed to sports which demanded much physical exertion or endurance, were capable of assimilating the national game of the English people. In one thing they showed excellent promise, their consistent effort in playing an uphill match. More than once, when disaster stared at them and everything seemed to be going against them, they played most pluckily and made a close match of it.”

Northampton Chronicle wrote: “Their batting, if wanting in dash, is marked by care and judgement; the bowling is of fairly good length, and the fielding, judged by its standard yesterday, would not suffer in comparison with that of the best English elevens.” A day before the report they had beaten Gentlemen of Northamptonshire by 97 runs, bowling them out for 61 and 42.

GF Vernon brought his team of English cricketers to India in 1889-90. Barring Vernon, the team boasted of the likes of Lord Hawke, Hylton Philipson, Arthur Gibson, James Walker, Albert Leatham, and John Hornsby.

This time the Parsees, playing at home, proved their worth. It was easily the biggest fixture of the tour, and the match was promoted as ‘Cricket Championship of India’. The Parsees were led by Framjee Patel.

They conceded a first-innings lead of 15, but Pavri, opening bowling with RE Modi (sometimes spelled Mody), skittled them out for 61. Pavri claimed 2 for 3 and 7 for 34 in the match, and top-scored with 21 in the fourth innings during a chase of 77.

This time even Grace had to concede: “Six times they won in India in single innings, and the clubs they played against were the strongest in India, which makes their defeat by the Parsee XI on the 30 and 31 January all the more remarkable.” The side won 10 and drew 2 —but lost against the Parsees.

Thus began the Presidency Matches.

Build-up

The contest was not a new fixture. The Parsees had been playing both Bombay and Poona Gymkhana since 1886. But the success against Vernon’s XI changed things. The Gymkhanas, to quote Raiji, “felt themselves unequal to the task of combating the Parsees on even terms.”

Lord Harris, then Governor of Bombay, came up with the idea of the Gymkhanas putting up a combined team to take on the Parsees. Both parties agreed to this.BJ Stephens, Honorary Secretary of Bombay Gymkhana, wrote to Ness Wadia, cotton mogulof Bombay and Honorary Secretary of Parsee Gymkhana: “It must of course be understood that your committee will on every occasion try to place on the field that eleven which best represents the full strength of all Parsees.”

[Note: This was certainly not the last time the Wadia family would be associated with cricket. Ness’ grandson (also called Ness) is a co-owner of Rajasthan Royals, champions of the inaugural edition of Indian Premier League. Ness Wadia Jr is also a great-grandson of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.]

The proposal was a path-breaker. Jamshedji Tata, no less, got in touch with Wadia, who was then at Matheran. Wadia wrote to Dorabji, son of Jamshedji, then Secretary of Parsee Gymkhana. The content of the letter has been reproduced by Raiji in his wonderful book:

“Your good father called this morning and I have talked over the subject of organising the annual matches … The eleven should be selected from various clubs of willing and best representative men. I say willing because no dictating from individuals should be tolerated. For instance if Mr so and so says ‘If you take so and so then alone I will play,’ such a person should be allowed to retire. The Committee should make such arrangements for the comfort, enjoyment, dress and to being treated on equal footing, both on the field and in hospitality, as usual among the best English clubs.”

JM Framjee Patel led Parsees to their historic win over GF Vernon’s XI; he also wrote Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji
JM Framjee Patel led Parsees to their historic win over GF Vernon’s XI; he also wrote Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket. Picture Courtesy: India’s Hambledon Men, Vasant Raiji

The Parsees, thus, fielded their best men, as did the Gymkhanas, whose combined team came to be known as ‘Europeans’. The two teams were to meet twice, at Bombay and Poona Gymkhana. The overs would consist of five balls each.

The first Presidency match at Bombay Gymkhana(which would later become a regular fixture in years to come)was given First-Class status in retrospect; it was, thus, the maiden First-Class match in the country.

The match

By now Pavri was at the helm of the side. With him were brothers MD and Dinshaw ‘DD’ Kanga (their younger brother Hormasji‘HD’ would go on to be a legend in Indian cricket).Back were Writer and Bapasola. There also had DE Modi and RE Cooper, and a sound batsman in ‘Jessop’ Machhliwala (who masterminded the 77-run chase against Vernon’s XI with 20 not out).

The other members of the historic match were BD Gagrat, DF Dubash, and Shapur Spencer. The 1888 tour had several representatives in the side — Pavri, MD Kanga, Cooper, Dubash, Bapasola, and Writer.

Europeans were led by Ernest Steel (brother of AG Steel, and himself a Lancashire player). They also had Test cricketer and military-man Robert Poore — later known as The Army’s Grace, Gloucestershire fast bowler Arthur Newnham and Somerset batsman John Trask.For the record, the others were Francis Rhodes, Frederick Sprott, Ernest Raikes, Harry Lowis, William George, Edward Cox, and Frederick Clarke.

Steel decided to bat, and MD Kanga, opening bowling with Writer, removed Steel and Sprott (stumped by DD Kanga) with a mere 8 on the board. Pavri came on first-change to pick up a couple of wickets.

MD Kanga also accounted for Poore. Rhodes hung around for his 22 before Bapasola snared him. The score read 71 for 8 at one stage, but Newnham batted bravely at No. 9, top-scoring with 23, adding 17 for the ninth wicket and 16 for the last.

Pavri eventually got Writer to dismiss Newnham. The Europeans were bowled out for 104, MD Kanga taking 4 for 30 and Bapasola 3 for 12.

Pavri and MD Kanga added 17 for the opening stand before Newnham struck and removed the former. Cooper helped add 14, and Gagrat scored 11 in a stand of 12. Though Steel removed Gagrat and DD Kanga in quick succession, MD Kanga (16) and Modi (6) remained at the crease at stumps.

The score read 54 for 4. The Parsees trailed by exactly 50. A keen contest seemed to be in store.

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ME Pavri aptly led Parsees in the first First-Class match on Indian soil. Picture Courtesy: Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket, JM Framjee Patel

Unfortunately, incessant Bombay rain washed out the rest of the match. However, every possible measure was taken to get the match started. Even the fire brigade was called to draw the water.

As for the crowd, they tried to do their best to pull off an Oval 1968. Raiji wrote: “The large crowd which had gathered to witness the tussle cheered the appearance of the fire-engines and everyone around tried to help in clearing the ground. Their efforts made it possible for the game to start but there was more rain and the match had to be abandoned as a draw.”

The match, thus, ended in a draw, though it earned the name ‘The Fire-Engine match’. The sides then moved to Poona to play the other match of the contest. But that is another story.

Brief scores:

Europeans 104 (MD Kanga 4 for 30, Nasarvanji Bapasola 3 for 12) drew with Parsees 54 for 4.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)