Ghulam Mohammad (left) and Sorabji Colah in England, 1932 © Getty Images
Ghulam Mohammad (left) and Sorabji Colah in England, 1932 © Getty Images

Born September 22, 1902, Sorabji Colah was hailed a prodigy in his early days. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who could never make justice to his immense batting talent, but more than made up for it with his spectacular fielding.

If one looks at Sorabji Hormasji Munchersha Colah’s career records, the most astonishing statistic that stands out is his tally of 51 catches from 75 First-Class matches. He was also a quality strokeplayer, but lacked the much-desired consistency that separates the great from the good. However, a booklet with pencil-sketch portraits of members of the 1932 Test side wrote that Colah was “a player of uncanny judgement with forceful and graceful strokes.”

AFC Talyarkhan wrote in Colah’s obituary in his column Take it from Me in The Times of India: “His forte — a solid, punishing brand of run getting, and his work in the deep was equally spectacular and meritorious. As hard as he could hit the ball, almost with as much velocity could he throw it fabulous distances — not only to save the ‘four’, but very often to give the wicket-keeper a chance in a million to take off the bails before the batsman had run even the second one.”

Photo credit: Nate D Sanders’ auction list
Photo credit: Nate D Sanders’ auction list

Talyarkhan added: “Everything Soli did was done the hard and determined way; his mighty blade carved huge arcs in the air even as it delivered a vast thwack to the ball. Anything short of a length went the only way and very often, sheer daring —backed by brute force. Soli lifted the ball often, but deliberately; when he kept it on the carpet, it fairly sizzled its way past any sort of packed field. On-side and off-side, he drove with vigour, with a challenge to the half-volley which is now such a rarity in our cricket. Behind the stumps was no location for Soli’s many-sided stroke-production, but everything went in front, across the line and very often over it.”

Colah was tall (he stood at well over six feet) and weighed almost 85 kg during his playing days. He was marked as a teenage prodigy, but a career record of 3,578 runs (for several First-Class sides) at 29.08 with 6 hundreds and 14 fifties hardly bears testimony to that. He played the first 2 Tests for India, from which he managed a mere 69 runs at 17.25. His forte, however, lay in his excellent slip fielding, though he was, as Talyarkhan mentioned, an outstanding outfielder.

Having said that, Colah was the ultimate crowd-puller, a darling of the spectators. A chant of “Colah, Colah…” began every time he strode out to the wicket in anticipation of the bravado few dared to execute. He hit sixes, and hit them cleanly, with supreme indifference towards bowlers or pitch conditions.

The Colah brand of humour was also instrumental in making him a popular person. On the rare occasion of a misfield (leading to him being barracked), Colah waited for the occasion: when a batsman hit a boundary past him he would keep following the ball, making sure he ran over the fence and on the spectators. As Talyarkhan said, he “played cricket because he liked the game.”

Early days

Colah was the son the owner of seven textile mills (under Currimbhoy Mills) in Bombay and elsewhere. He went to St Xavier’s College, and made his First-Class debut at 19 in the Bombay Quadrangular against Europeans, scoring nine and 32. First-Class matches in India were a rarity in the 1920s, but when Arthur Gilligan brought MCC to India in 1926-27, Colah scored a composed 51 for Europeans and Parsees.

Against Hindus in the 1928-29 Quadrangular Colah scored 98 and 68 not out. Picked up by Freelooters for the 1931-32 Moin-ud-Dowlah Cup, Colah top-scored 109 — his maiden First-Class hundred — in the second innings in the final against Aligarh Muslim University Past and Present. Selected for the trial match for the England tour of 1932, Colah scored top-scored with 61 against Ladha Ramji, Jahangir Khan, and CK Nayudu. He was selected.

Test career

Colah took some time to settle down on the tour, but eventually found form with 63 against Northamptonshire and 96 against Cambridge in consecutive innings. With 44 and 38 against Worcestershire just before the Test, Colah got the nod.

As is known, Mohammad Nissar reduced England to 19 for 3, from which they recovered to 259. When India’s turn came, they were bowled out for 189, with Colah scoring 22 before Bill Voce had him, caught Walter Robins. Douglas Jardine set India 346, but not before Colah caught Frank Woolley (off Jahangir Khan) and Freddie Brown (off Naoomal Jaoomal).

India lost the Test by 158 runs. Colah failed in the fourth innings, being bowled for 4 by Bill Bowes. He more than made up for it against Lancashire, scoring 122 in a team score of 204 (the next best was 28, and nobody else reached 15) in a valiant effort. He added 94 to his tally against Gloucestershire, and finished the with 900 runs at 25.

It was a far from impressive outing for Colah for more reasons than one. He became great friends with Amar Singh, but unfortunately had a fallout with Nayudu. It is rumoured that things got so bitter on the way back that Colah threatened to throw his captain overboard. Many years later he admitted to Talyarkhan that “he should not have behaved as he did, which he knew had been childish”.

Back home he started with a vengeance in the Moin-ud-Dowlah Cup for Freelooters, piling up 61 in the semifinal against Rawalpindi Sports Club and 126 against Karachi. He also scored a match-saving 33 in MCC’s tour match against Bombay, and was selected for the first Test of the home series.

This time Nayudu batted. Colah found himself in at 148 for 5, and played a fighting knock to take the score past 200. He lost Vijay Merchant and Amar Singh early, but shepherded the tail to help India reach 219. He was last out — caught-behind off Maurice Nichols for 31 — which remained his highest Test score. England doubled that effort before reducing India to 21 for 2.

Lala Amarnath (who scored the first Test hundred for India) and Nayudu then scripted an iconic 186-run partnership, but once the partnership was broken Nichols and Nobby Clark ran through the rest. India lost their last eight wickets for 51; Colah fell for 12, once again caught-behind off Nichols. India lost by nine wickets, and Colah never played another Test.

Later days

Colah played Ranji Trophy for Western India. He won the 1935-36 Ranji Trophy encounter against Gujarat single-handedly, scoring a career-best 185 not out (Western India scored 318 during his stay) and adding 34 not out in the second innings. He top-scored in each innings.

He later shifted to Nawanagar and played a crucial role in their maiden Ranji Trophy title in 1936-37. He top-scored in each innings with 57 and 136 against Western India, and followed it with 66 and 25 against Bengal in the final (in the same innings where Mubarak Ali, batting at No. 11, scored 90 and added 133 in 96 minutes with Raj Kumar Yadavendrasinhji for the final wicket). Colah top-scored in Ranji Trophy that season with 384 runs at 48.

With time his appearances became less sporadic as he lost form. He did not score a single fifty since his Nawanagar’s Ranji title, and quit after 1941-42. He missed out on the flat tracks of the early 1940s when giants like Merchant and Vijay Hazare competed each other in gargantuan run-fests.

Final years

Colah had taken up employment in Nawanagar during his playing days, and stayed there from 1934 to 1943. A graduate, he also worked in as a Junior Officer in Imperial Bank before taking up employment at Associated Cement Companies at Ahmedabad. Unfortunately, he did not lead a very healthy life, was a heavy smoker, and gained weight (he weighed over 100 kg in his later days) after he quit cricket.

Colah suffered a massive heart attack, and passed away a week later — somewhat prematurely on September 11, 1950 at Ahmedabad, only 11 days before his 48th birthday. His brother Naval Colah also played for the Parsees in Bombay Pentangular.

Sorabji’s son Manchi Colah was also a good cricketer, but as he wrote to me, “I had some talent for cricket, but the parents steered me away (since there was) no future in those days! So St Xavier’s College, then a BSc (English) from London University in 1957, then an MS (from) Stanford University in 1960, worked in Silicon Valley till 2001, and cleverly avoided becoming rich.”

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