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Fielding a Parsi


Polly Umrigar ... an all rounder

LATE last year, at a function in Bangalore, my son shook hands with a Test cricketer for the first time. It was, in more senses than one, an unequal meeting. As my son's little hand went shyly out, the cricketer noticed a plaster on the index finger, and asked, "how did that happen, son?"

"Playing cricket," answered the boy, adding, "it was a return catch."

"Did you hold it"? enquired the cricketer. "No," said my son, apologetically. At this point an onlooker butted in: "You wouldn't have missed the catch," he remarked, "if you had" — this said pointing at the cricketer — "hands like his".

The cricketer in question was Polly Umrigar. In this meeting in Bangalore, he sat unobtrusively in the crowd, refusing to draw attention to himself. He is a great gentleman, and was once a great cricketer. My son never saw him play, nor did I. We did, however, notice his hands. These are capacious, larger even than the hands of that other very safe catcher, Srinivas Venkatraghavan. But Polly could do more than field. He was an outstanding attacking batsman — recently described by Sir Garfield Sobers as a "beautiful player, the best Indian batsman of that era" — as well as a very handy off-break bowler. And he was a superb team-man besides. When the much younger Nawab of Pataudi was appointed captain over himself, Umrigar gave him all the support he asked for, and then some.

There was a time when Umrigar would have walked into an all-time Indian eleven. The advent of the Gavaskars and Tendulkars has changed that, but Polly remains the greatest of all Parsi cricketers, the finest representative of a community whose contributions to the sport have been stupendous. The Parsis were the first Indians to play cricket, and to play it well. They promoted the first cricket clubs in India, and in 1886 and 1888 organised the first-ever cricket tours by Indians overseas. In the next decade, they comprehensively defeated several teams of visiting English cricketers.

For many years the Parsis dominated cricket in Bombay. Among their early stars were Keki Mistry, a graceful left-handed batsman known as the "Clem Hill of the Parsis", and the fast bowler J.S. Warden. Superior to both was the remarkable all-rounder M. E. Pavri, called the "W.G. of the Parsis" on account of their penchant for breaking records on the field and their shared profession off it. On the 1888 tour of England, Pavri took 170 wickets in all, these coming at less than 12 runs apiece.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the showpiece of the Indian cricket season was the Bombay Quadrangular, played between the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis and the Europeans. (Later, a team called "The Rest" came in to make it a five-cornered contest). From the beginning, the Parsis comfortably held their own against the more populous and powerful communities. Alas, by the time India came to play Test cricket, the likes of Mistry and Pavri had long retired. Still, the first Indian Test teams, of the 1930s, had a fair sprinkling of Parsi players. They included the all-rounder P.E. Palia, a widely travelled man who played in Bombay and U.P. before finally making his home in Bangalore. Other Parsi stalwarts of that decade were S.M.H. Colah, known above all for his brilliant outfielding, and the slow left-armer R.J. ("Jamsu") Jamshedji. When Jamshedji came to play a Test match, in December 1933, he was already past 40. Ten years before this, he had the good fortune to play against the great English slow left-arm spin bowler, Wilfred Rhodes. "If I had your powers of spin," said the Yorkshireman to the Parsi, "no side would get a hundred." I like to think that Jamshedji had the wit to respond: "If I had your powers of flight, Wilfred, no side would get 50."

Jamshedji, sadly, played only once for India, as did another slow left-armer, Keki Tarapore. But some other Parsis exercised a more definitive impact on our Test teams. There was the slightly built and stylish right-hander Rusi Modi, who batted so well against England in 1946 and at home against the West Indies in 1948-49. Modi was also a keen student of the game — as witness his fine book, Some Indian Cricketers, every word written by himself. As Modi was leaving the Test side his mate Polly Umrigar was stepping into it. Polly was burly where Rusi was slender, a driver and hooker rather than a glider and deflector. And, as I have said, he could bowl and field too.

Umrigar's last years as a Test cricketer overlapped with those of Nari Contractor. A careful left-handed opening batsman, Contractor seemed set for a long innings as captain of India, before being felled by a bouncer bowled — perhaps thrown — by Charlie Griffith. A contemporary of Nari's was the left-handed all-rounder Rusi Surti, known as the "poor man's Gary Sobers". Truth be told, in at least one department of the game, fielding, his skills equalled those of the master's.

Umrigar and Contractor, and Surti too, played in Indian sides that occasionally won at home but always lost overseas. But one Parsi was young enough to have played a part, a more than active part, in the first Indian team to beat England in England. He was, of course, the exuberantly gifted wicket-keeper-batsman Farokh Engineer. Farokh ennobled and enriched Indian Test sides of the 1960s and early 1970s, attacking hard with the bat, and keeping very well to the spin quartet. He was a pesky fellow, a full-throated appealer on the field but ready to socialise with the opposition off it.

An all-time Parsi eleven would open with Engineer and Contractor, dash at one end, caution at the other. Umrigar, Modi and Mistry would make for an exceptionally strong middle order. Then come four talented all-rounders — Pavri, Palia, Surti and Colah — with the bowlers Warden and Jamshedji bringing up the rear. This side would, on a good day, give a real fight to any other side picked on the basis of religion. Then would have to win the toss, though. Then the likes of Umrigar and Mistry could bat for two days, before letting Jamshedji and Pavri lose on a crumbling wicket.

The Parsis were the first Indian cricketers, and also the first Indian cricket historians. (No serious book now written on the history of the sport can do without extensive borrowings from the early works of Shapoorjee Sorabjee, Manekji Kavasji Patel, and J.M. Framji Patel.) Some of the best cricket coaches have also been Parsi — think thus of N.D. Marshall in Jaipur, E.B. Aibara in Hyderabad, K.K. Tarapore in Bangalore and Homi Vajifdar in Bombay.

Tragically, over the years migration and attrition have taken their toll. Farokh Engineer might very well be the last Parsi to play cricket for India. That would be a shame, for Indian teams could do with Parsi style and Parsi sportsmanship. And with their fielding. For, as Shapoorjee Sorabjee wrote in 1897, "the Parsees have always fielded well and many times admirably as often acknowledged even by their opponents. Fielding in fact was then almost the only stronghold that rescued them from many a disastrous defeat ... " Would that we could say the same of some other kinds of Indians.

The writer is also the editor of The Picador Book of Cricket.

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