130 years later, Parsis vs Englishmen in cricket

A crew of Englishmen will take on a group of Parsis to celebrate the 130th anniversary of a historic tour in 1886


Farokh Engineer, the last Parsi to play in a Test match. File photo: HT
Farokh Engineer, the last Parsi to play in a Test match. File photo: HT

Mumbai: In what would be a replay of a cricket match from a grainy sepia-toned era, a motley crew of Englishmen will take on a group of Parsis to celebrate an occasion—the 130th anniversary of a historic tour.

In 1886, the first team of cricketers from India travelled overseas, comprising entirely of Parsi players. According to Ramachandra Guha’s

A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of British Sport,

they played teams representing clubs and towns, but not first class counties. The tourists lost 19 matches and drew eight—their only win was against Lord Brassey’s side at Normanhurst, “a patron and venue otherwise unknown to the history of cricket,” Guha writes.

This time, the match will be held at the sea-facing Parsi Gymkhana in Mumbai on Saturday.

When Matthew Greenwell, who has been living in Mumbai for the last seven years, read the book recently, he did some quick math and realized that 2016 would be the 130th anniversary of that tour. Briton Greenwell is also a lover of history, a cricket enthusiast and a member of British Business Group’s management committee.

He quickly bounced the idea off a few Parsi members of the Group and decided to take this proposal to the Parsi Gymkhana. What followed next— in the space of just five minutes”—surprised Greenwell as well.

The Gymkhana, which traces its formation to around the same year, 1886, took Greenwell’s expectations many steps ahead. Not only did they agree to a Parsis vs Englishmen match to be held on 12 November, but instead of “a few beers afterwards”—as Greenwell was hoping for—they threw in a cocktail party as well in the evening.

Of course, the Parsis added their own flavour to the proceedings by inviting the UK-based aapro Farokh Engineer, the last Parsi to play in a Test match and a former wicket-keeper-batsman known for his flamboyant style and Brylcreem ads. The British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is currently visiting India, “would not be able to attend,” though Greenwell feels like that would have been a nice touch.

The two teams of 15 players each will play a 30-over-a-side match. The English team is will comprise of players from the local British community—including teachers and journalists. By his own admission, Greenwell plays “rubbish” cricket, but has enough enthusiasm to already manage a team of expats called Malabar Pirates.

The Pirates are Brits, Australians, South Africans and some Dutch, among others, who have been playing together for two years. They try to play every week, says Greenwell, and it also helps them get to know local people.

The all-Parsi team mostly has members of the Gymkhana. In attendance too would be some special guests, like Dubai-based 74-year-old Freddy Sidhwa, the managing director of Seven Seas Group of Companies and an active cricketer, and another Parsi former Test cricketer, Nari Contractor.

The vice-president of Parsi Gymkhana and cricket secretary, Khodadad Irani, says a team will travel to England in 2018 to commemorate the second all-Parsi tour to England in 1888.

“We decided to make this big. After 130 years, if we are remembering them, let our generation also remember that we played a match at Parsi Gymkhana in 2016,” he says.

“This match will help celebrate the relationship between UK and India,” says Greenwell, who has lived in Delhi in the past and has organized charity matches in cricket, football and golf among others.

The first Indians to play cricket were the Parsis of Bombay, mentions Guha in his book. That tour, 130 years ago, proved to be a cricketing and financial failure, the book adds, but the Parsi team did play at the Lord’s against “the greatest of all cricketers, Dr. W.G. Grace.”

This time too, both teams hope to play with grace.

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