Challenging the British at Cricket: Parsees to Vijay Merchant, Part 1: 1721–1947

The first All-India team toured England for a series in 1911.

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(This is Part 1 of a four-part series on the Socio-Political and Cricketing History between India and England. You can read part two here.)

Clement Downing, an employee of the British East India Company, once wrote about how they had been ‘playing at Cricket’ in Cambay (Khambhat) in 1721.

While this is accepted as the first known instance of cricket in India, the sport was largely restricted to the British until 1848, when the Parsees of Bombay formed the Oriental Cricket Club. Two years later, they founded the Zoroastrian Cricket Club; by the 1870s, they were challenging the British.

The British sometimes parted ways with the much vaunted 'spirit of cricket' in defeats. In 1876, after the Parsees beat a British team and their supporters celebrated, the 66th Regiment inflicted ‘heavy punishment on some of the spectators in the shape of black eyes by wielding their belts freely.’

The Parsees undertook two tours of England in 1886 and 1888, with ordinary results. On the second tour, Dr M E Pavri took 170 wickets at an average of 12 runs. He was the first outstanding cricketer of Indian origin.

In 1889-90, G F Vernon led the first ever English team to India. They lost only one match – against the Parsees, hyped as the Cricket Championship of India. Pavri took 2-3 and 7-34. Two years later, Lord Hawke led a stronger team. The Parsees played them twice and won once (Pavri 2-18 and 6-36).

In 1892-93, the Parsees played a two-match contest against Europeans – the first-ever Bombay Presidency Match. This was expanded to the Bombay Triangular (1907-08, when the Hindus joined), Quadrangular (1912-13, Muslims), and Pentangular (1937-38, the rest).

The Bombay Pentangular drew significantly larger crowds than the Ranji Trophy. Despite being an inter-faith tournament, there was no serious communal violence, even when communal riots spread across the nation.

In fact, the Hindus gave the Europeans a walkover in the 1937-38 semi-final after they were not allotted enough seats at Brabourne Stadium. In the final match, the Muslims beat the Europeans by an innings. Irrespective of their religion, the Indian fans cheered for the Muslims.

Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji Steps Up

Let us now return to the 1890s. As the Parsees were taking giant strides, the first Indian cricketing superstar had been establishing himself in cricket in England. But Ranji, the future Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, did not find it easy.

Stanley Jackson, his captain at Cambridge, had little ‘sympathetic interest for Indians,’ but Ranji impressed him enough to break through. Ranji also played for Sussex, where some teammates were not initially comfortable with an Indian taking to the field with them. They addressed him as Smith, as they would his nephew, Duleep.

But Ranji’s genius helped him overcome these barriers. Of course, his royal status helped. This was an era when English cricket was split by economic classes. While amateurs were represented by full names and (where applicable) titles, surnames sufficed for the professionals on scorecards. In other words, an amateur would appear as N Felix, Esq, while a professional would simply be referred to as Lillywhite.

Despite his skin tone, Ranji’s noble blood and financial status enabled him to enjoy amateur status: he was always Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji on the scorecards and had access to special facilities.

But not all was rosy. By 1896, he was considered for the Ashes Test match at Lord’s. However, Lord Harris (ironically, Trinidad-born), who presided over the committee, refused to include a ‘bird of passage.’ Ranji debuted in the next Test match at Old Trafford and scored 62 and 154 not out.

Back home, other kings and princes had been eyeing cricket as a means to rise up the social ladder in India, of which the top rung was occupied exclusively by the British. They realised that the 'Great British Pastime' of cricket was a status symbol as well as a political tool that would grant them access to the cream of British society.

The problem was that not all princes were as good as Ranji or Duleep. But they had immense wealth, so they did the next best thing: they owned personal teams.

In 1898, Rajinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, led his personal team against the Calcutta Rangers. The team included – apart from Indian cricketers – Ranji, J T Hearne, Bill Brockwell, and H Priestly; all four of them were British cricketers.

Thus, while the British ruled over India, an Indian king recruited British cricketers. This assumed greater dimensions when Rajinder’s son Bhupinder and the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram (Vizzy) pitted their private teams against each other in the 1930s. Vizzy, having failed to recruit Don Bradman, got Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, and Learie Constantine on his payroll.

India's First Tour of England

But let us return to Bhupinder, who sponsored (and obviously led) the first All-India team that toured England in 1911. The selection committee for this tour consisted of two Hindus, two Muslims, and two Parsees – but was presided over by ‘Jungly’ Greig, a British cricketer. Of course, Bhupinder was a Sikh…

Greig, a fantastic cricketer himself, was impressed by the spin bowling of Palwankar Baloo, a member of the ground staff, and wanted him to be picked for the Hindu sides. The Brahmins objected, for Baloo was an untouchable. Greig did not relent. Baloo’s Brahmin teammates had to touch the ball bowled by him, but off the field, he was served lunch on a separate table in a separate plate, and drank his tea out of a disposable earthen pot outside the dressing room.

Baloo played for the Hindus. He and his brother Shivram were allowed entry inside the Hindu Gymkhana and its cafeteria. Greig picked both Baloo and Shivram for the 1911 tour of England. They were among the best players on the tour. In 1923-24, Vithal, the third brother, led the Hindus in the Quadrangular.

Thus, as the British ruled over India and barred them from entry to specific clubs and train compartments, one of them attempted to break down the initial barriers of caste.

And it was a British captain, Arthur Gilligan, who convinced the Indians in 1928-29 to have a cricket board of their own. The first BCCI president, R E Grant Govan, was a British industrialist.

The royalty still called the shots in 1932, when the Indians toured England for the first time to play a Test match. The Maharaja of Porbandar was named captain, K S Limbdi vice-captain, and Vizzy – you had to give a touring prince some role – deputy vice-captain. Vizzy opted out.

Porbandar and Limbdi were both ordinary cricketers and did not play much, allowing C K Nayudu to take charge. Nayudu was also set to lead in the only Test match. However, the Indians, men of diverse geography and faith who had seldom met each other before, only agreed to be led by royalty and not by a ‘commoner’.

Thankfully, the Maharaja of Porbandar’s convincing power outstripped his cricketing skills. Nayudu would lead, there were no two ways about it. Nayudu did become the first Indian captain, as he did at home in 1933-34.

For the first Test match of the series, the Bombay Gymkhana allowed Indians – apart from waiters and servants – inside for the first time.

At the same time, the vindictive, ambitious Vizzy plotted a four-year-long Machiavellian scheme, at the end of which he led India on their 1936 tour of England. Perhaps the most authoritarian of all Test cricket captains, Vizzy divided the team, bribed his supporters with lavish gifts, and sent Lala Amarnath back home for misconduct.

This was India’s last tour before the Second World War. Until Independence, they played only one more series in England in 1946. This time, they were led by Iftikhar Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi – yet another royal family member.

A lot had changed between the two tours. When the Indians were in England, three members of the British Cabinet – Lord Pethick-Lawrence, Stafford Cripps, and A V Alexander – were already in India to discuss the transfer of power. Ahead of the Lord’s Test, Pataudi quipped: ‘The task before my Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is simpler than mine. I shall have to face eleven Englishmen tomorrow, whereas he will have to face only three.’

Sensing the potential of the Indian market, the BBC transmitted coverage of the cricket to India, despite disapprovals from sections of the British. It became immensely popular, more so because cricket had never stopped in India during the War.

The third Test match began on the day after the Direct Action Day. ‘Shouldn’t the white man stay on to secure the peace?’ a young John Arlott asked Vijay Merchant, who had to remind Arlott of the civil war the British needed to obtain political liberties.

An Indian cricketer saying that to an Englishman on English soil would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but the Indians were no longer afraid to look the British in the eye. Perhaps because Independence was imminent. Perhaps because the British, war-ravaged, battered, and bruised, had been reduced to asking for a loan from the USA.

Some things would change after Independence. Some would not.


(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor of CricketNews by day and biryani demolisher at night. He is the co-author of Sachin and Azhar at Cape Town, and tweets @ovshake42.)

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