Phiroze Palia played in India's debut Test match at Lords © Getty Images
Phiroze Palia played in India’s maiden Test, at Lords © Getty Images

Phiroze Palia, born September 5, 1910, played India’s first ever Test. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the wristy genius who never really got going at the top level.

Few matched the tall, lanky Phiroze Edulji Palia’s elegance with the bat. His wristwork was in the league of the other Indian wizards — from KS Ranjitsinhji to VVS Laxman — and on his day was unstoppable. He was also a left-arm spinner who had more in his repertoire than it met the bare eye, and could be extremely tricky with some assistance from the pitch.

Palia, along with CK Nayudu, Amar Singh, Nazir Ali, and Naoomal Jaoomal, formed a formidable quintet of all-rounders in India’s first Test. Having played exactly 100 First-Class matches over the span of a quarter of a century, Palia scored 4,536 runs at 32.40 with 8 hundreds. He also picked up 208 wickets at 24.09 with 7 five-fors. Unfortunately, his Test career was limited to two Tests — both at Lord’s.

Early days

Palia was born in an affluent family in Bombay. His father ran a timber and furniture in Bangalore along with owning other franchises in Bombay. Palia made an early breakthrough, making his debut in the Bombay Quadrangular at 18: he claimed 4 wickets in the match and scored a flamboyant 69, and Parsees won easily on first innings lead against a team that the star-studded Hindus.

He played a crucial role in the final as well. The Parsees were down at 248 for 8, but Palia’s unbeaten 50 lifted them to 316. He also claimed 3 wickets in the match, the Europeans lost by 134 runs, and the Parsees lifted the Quadrangular. The wonder-kid had arrived.

Madras magic

Vizzy was quick to “pounce upon” the teenager and recruited Palia in his services. He toured Ceylon with Vizzy’s team, but did not achieve much success. On his return to India Palia pulled off what was one of the finest all-round performances in the history of the Madras Presidency Match of 1931-32.

Palia picked up two quick wickets, but hundreds from Humphrey Ward and Ren Nailer rescued the Europeans from 25 for 3. They added 250, and Europeans reached 425: Palia fought a lone battle to finish with a career-best 7 for 109. He was not through: coming in at 48 for 1 he top-scored with 65 as Con Johnstone and Harry White bowled out the Indians for 218.

Following on, the Indians lost two wickets for 18, but Europeans had Palia to contend with: with some assistance from Nayudu and MJ Gopalan, he helped avoid the innings defeat and eventually scored 143 as Vizzy made a token declaration at 334 for 9. Palia opened bowling and took another wicket before stumps were drawn.

Whatever doubt was there regarding Palia’s selection did not exist anymore after his two unbeaten cameos and 3 for 16 in the trial match at Lahore for the England tour of 1932. He followed it with 40, 24*, and 4 for 53 for Roshanara Club against Viceroy’s XI.

The 21-year old Palia was selected. Three months older than Amar Singh, Palia was the second-youngest member of the touring side. Amidst all the hullaballoo he had also managed to complete his graduation.

Test debut

It had perhaps to do with the weather, but Palia was under-bowled in the first half of the summer. He started the tour with amazing consistency, scoring 47 and 46 against Sussex and 48 and 45 against Glamorgan in his first four innings. He got a decent bowl against Oxford University, and came up with 4 for 46. He did not do an excellent job thereafter, but was nevertheless selected for India’s first ever Test at Lord’s.

Anyone familiar with a history of Indian cricket is familiar with the events of the Test at Lord’s, so it is hardly worth an in-depth recollection. Down to 19 for 3, England was saved by Douglas Jardine and Les Ames, who helped them defy Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh to reach 259. Palia was the fifth bowler to be introduced: his 4 overs went for a mere 2.

India were bowled out for 189 by a debutant Bill Bowes. Batting at No. 7, Palia was bowled by Voce for 1. Then India was struck by two unfortunate blows as both Palia and Nazir Ali pulled muscles and Nayudu injured his hand (Palia’s 3 overs went for 11). Chasing 346 India were bowled out for 187 despite Amar Singh’s valour. Almost unable to walk, Palia batted at 11 in the second innings and remained unbeaten on a solitary run.

Barring his 53 against Leicestershire, 3 for 26 against Scotland, and 3 for 10 against Kent, Palia did not have much to write home about on the tour. He finished with 476 runs at 21.63 and 17 wickets at 38.41 from 14 matches.

Back to India

Palia slowly got his form back once back home, he did not make it to the home Tests against England. He took 4 for 117 against the tourists at Madras, but that remained his only success against them. He was selected by Freelooters for the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup of 1934-35. In the final against Retrievers, Palia picked up 3 for 20 before playing a lone hand with 134 out of 233 against Nissar, Nazir Ali, the Nayudu brothers, Mushtaq Ali, and Frank Warne.

Back-to-back hundreds in 1935-36 put him back in contention for the upcoming England tour. He scored 61 not out for Nawab of Moin-ud-Dowlah’s XI against the touring Australians at Secunderabad, and peaked just in time before the tour. Playing for United Provinces (UP) against Northern India at Kotla, Palia scored 65 and 128 and returned a haul of 6 for 105 though his side slumped to an innings defeat. Once again he was selected.

Back to Blighty

The second tour, marred by Vizzy’s atrocious strategies to demean Nayudu, the send-off of Lala Amarnath, and the gradually decaying morale of the team were bound to provide poor results. Despite that India did not embarrass themselves, especially in the Tests, despite the 0-2 margin. The Indians were bowled out for 147 in the first Test at Lord’s by Gubby Allen. Palia scored 11 before Hedley Verity had him caught by Arthur Mitchell. Then Amar Singh and Nissar hit back, and despite Maurice Leyland’s gritty 60 England conceded a 13-run lead.

India should ideally have made the lead count, but Allen and Verity seemed to be too formidable for them. Only three men — Dattaram Hindlekar (17), Palia (16), and Jahangir Khan (13) — made it to double figures as they were bowled out for 98. Nissar removed Mitchell before England scored a run, but Harold Gimblett and Maurice Turnbull guided England to a 9-wicket triumph. Palia did not bowl in the entire match, and did not play another Test. He played 11 matches on the tour, scoring 331 runs at 17.42 (the 63 against Oxford being his only performance of any note) and picking up a mere 6 wickets at 34.67.

Domestic mainstay

Leading UP in the Ranji Trophy final against Maharashtra at Poona, Palia played a lone hand once again, this time in a 10-wicket defeat. After a strong Maharashtra acquired a 344-run lead, Palia went out to bat as the first wicket went down with a single run on the board. As E Alexander, the other opener, hung around for over two hours for his 41, Palia made his way to his hundred; nobody else managed to reach 20 as Palia stood tall, scoring a career-best 216 in 331 minutes with 25 boundaries. He had just about managed to save UP from the humiliation of an innings defeat: they managed to score 355.

India did not play Test cricket for another decade. Then 36, Palia was not reconsidered — though he continued to play till the age of 43, mostly in Ranji Trophy after the Pentangular was abolished. Even after severing ties with UP after 1943-44 (a stint that was uninterrupted barring two outings for Bombay in 1937-38) Palia played till 1953-54 for Mysore with a single match for Bengal in 1948-49.

Final years

During and after his playing days, Palia helped enhance his family business, diversifying into business with Steelage and Khira — agencies of steel furniture. He also became a radio commentator and a Test selector. Palia passed away at Bangalore on September 9, 1981, four days after his 71st birthday.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Editorial Head and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)