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Parsis, the pioneers of cricket in India

The tiny community of Parsis were actually the pioneers of cricket in India

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A minority community in India – only about 50,000 live there now – Parsis are the pioneers of cricket in India. Being anglophiles, they were the first to learn cricket from the British and took a cricket team to tour England way back in 1886. That was before the legendary Ranji and Duleep mesmerised Englishmen with their elegant run-making.

Originally from Iran, the Parsis (also called Zoroastrians, being followers of Prophet Zoroaster) settled in India about 1200 years ago because of religious persecution in Iran. 

Parsis in cricket
India in England 1936. Kharshed Meher-Homji seated extreme right, bottom row (Source: Supplied)

In all, 11 Parsis played Test matches for India from 1932 (the first ever Test India played) to 1975. In alphabetical order they are: Soli Colah, Nari Contractor, Farokh Engineer. Jehangir Irani, Rustomji Jamshedji, Kharshed Meher-Homji, Rusi Modi, Piloo Palia, Rusi Surti, Keki Tarapore and Polly Umrigar.

Three of them – Engineer, Meherhomji and Irani – were wicket-keepers.

Yes, if you’re wondering, Kharshed Meher-Homji was a relative, my uncle. A daredevil batsman, he was full of fun and jokes.

Farookh Engineer (Source: ESPN Cricinfo)

From the above 11, only Contractor (aged 89 years) and Engineer (85 years) are alive. Umrigar and Contractor captained India with distinction. Handsome Farokh Engineer was a flamboyant personality, scoring runs aggressively and keeping wickets like an acrobat.

In the first two Tests against West Indies in 1961- 62, the Indian team included four Parsi Test Cricketers: skipper Contractor, former captain Umrigar, wicket-keeper Engineer and all-rounder Surti. Four out of 11 works out at 36.36%. The percentage of Parsis (about 50,000) in India is miniscule, only about 0.000000003%.  Amazing! in cricket

Jamshedji (right) was 41 years 27 days old when he made his debut against England in the Bombay Gymkhana Test of 1933 and remains India’s oldest Test debutant even after 90 years. The second oldest Test debutant for India was Cotar Ramaswami (40 years 39 days).

Below are statistics of all 11 Parsi Test cricketers
(in alphabetical order) 

Tests

Runs

Batting average

100s

Wickets

Bowling average

Catches

Stump

ings

Soli Colah

  2

   69

17.25

  0

   0

   –

    2

   0

Nari Contractor

31

1611

31.58

  1

   1

80.00

   18

   0

Farokh Engineer

46

2611

31.08

  2

   0

   –

   66

  16

Jehangir Irani

  2

      3

3.00

  0

   0

   –

     2

    1

Rustomji Jamshedji

  1

      5

   –

  0

   3

45.66

     2

    0

Kharshed Meher-Homji

  1

      0

   –

  0

   0

    –

     1

    0

Rusi Modi

10

  736

46.00

  1

   0

    –

     3

    0

Piloo Palia

  2

    29

9.66

  0

   0

    –

     0

    0

Rusi Surti

26

1263

28.70

  0

  42

46.71

    26

    0

Keki Tarapore

  1

      2

2.00

  0

   0

   –

      0

    0

Polly Umrigar

59

3631

42.22

12

  35

42.08

    33

    0

     TOTAL

181

9960

34.34

16

  81

46.31

   153

   17

 

The first two Parsi cricketers to play Test cricket for India were Colah and Palia. Both were selected in the first ever Test match India played. It was against England at Lord’s in London in June 1932. Jamshedji was the third Parsi to play Test cricket.

Parsis in cricket
Parsi Test Cricketer Nari Contractor being assisted after his injury (Source: ESPN Cricinfo)

Contractor’s name is synonymous with courage. In West Indies in 1961-62, skipper Contractor very nearly became the first Test cricketer to die on the cricket pitch when a fast chucking delivery from Charlie Griffith fractured his skull during a match against Barbados. Two operations were performed in the West Indies and one at Vellore in India a few months later. The courageous opener survived, played a few first-class matches and is still alive 62 years after the near-lethal episode.

May he complete his life century in 2034!

Parsi Dream 11

Here’s my favourite Parsi Test cricketers dream team (all time):

In batting order: Nari Contractor, Farokh Engineer (wicket keeper), Rusi Modi, Polly Umrigar (captain), Rusi Surti, Soli Colah, Piloo Palia, Keki Tarapore, Jehangir Irani, Kharshed Meher-Homji and Rustomji Jamshedji.

Outstanding all-rounder Surti will open the bowling of this XI with Tarapore. They will be assisted by Umrigar and Modi. Jamshedji is the sole spinner of note. There are three wicket-keepers: Engineer, Irani and Meher-Homji. Engineer will keep wickets.

Cricket on Parsi stage

To celebrate the centenary of the Parsis’ inaugural tour of England in 1886, and Parsis in cricket generally, the Parsi Zoroastrians in Sydney produceed a 40-minute play on Parsis in Cricket in 1986. It was in both Gujarati and English. Believe it or not, actual cricket was played on the stage climaxing with an actor (played by me) hooking the legendary and bearded Dr WG Grace (played by the late Noshir Sachinwalla) for three fours in an over, the red tennis ball racing towards the startled but delighted audience.

So nostalgic. I remember it 37 years on, as if it was last week.

Read more: On the nicknames of cricketers

 

Kersi Meher-Homji
Kersi Meher-Homji
Kersi is a virologist by profession and a cricket writer and cricket statistician by hobby. He is an author of 17 cricket books and over 17,000 cricket and scientific articles.

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