“The Parsee owes his cricket prosperity as much to the civilizing and inspiring influence of British Rule as to his own innate vigour and adaptability. He is a fine product of Persian pluck and English culture—a strong combination, indeed, which may account for his all-round and rapid progress, like the Japanese, in many fields of human activity.” This is from Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket, written in 1905 by J.M. Framjee Patel, an early Parsi cricketer from Mumbai. A lack of modesty in Indian cricket, it would seem, predates Virat Kohli.
Unlike Kohli, who recently declared himself the most important member of the Indian team, Patel and other 19th-century Mumbai cricketers chose to take pride not in themselves but in their religious communities. Cricket was used as a means of proving one’s community superior to another’s, and on par with the imperialist British.
In A Corner of a Foreign Field, Ramachandra Guha posits that it was because cricket in India was built on the base of communal pride that the sport has achieved its enveloping popularity. The stories of India’s oldest cricket clubs provide an insight not only into how cricket developed in India but into the desires, grouses and insecurities of religious communities at that time.
The Parsis, a community from Iran that had immigrated to India and one of the first to be Westernized, were proud of their close business relations with the British, so it is logical that they were the first community to play cricket in Mumbai. A schoolteacher named Mr Boswell taught Parsi boys the game in the school he ran in Mumbai’s Fort area. “In the 1830s, Parsi boys began imitating white soldiers… using hats as wickets, umbrellas as bats, and old leather, stuffed with rags and sewn up, as balls,” Guha writes in a research paper titledCricket and Politics in Colonial India in Oxford University Press’sPast and Present. It helped that the Parsis were already acquainted with the concept of playing with a bat and ball—the ancient Persian sports chugan gui and gooye bazi bore some resemblance to cricket.
The first Parsi cricket club was the Oriental Cricket Club, started in 1848. The club existed for just two years, and not much is known about it, though those familiar with Parsi names may be able to guess what the club’s Devecha Lamboo looked like or what N.P. Daruwalla did for a living. During the 1850s and 1860s, a whole spate of Parsi clubs were started. Interestingly, many were named after Roman and Greek mythological figures, such as the celebrated Mars Club, Jupiter, Spartan and Herculeans.
Framjee Patel writes that it is likely these clubs were formed from the remnants of old Sadri Fanas (mat and lantern) institutions, where a game of dice called chopat was popular. The Parsi cricket clubs began playing matches, sponsored by writer and social reformer Shapoorji Sorabjee Bengali, against each other. While wanting to appear gentlemanly, like the British, was a part of the Parsis’ motivation to play cricket, it did not, apparently, curb their enthusiasm for winning. Patel writes of a cricketer who during a game between two Parsi clubs disguised himself in order to bat again for his side.
While playing cricket was, in a way, an attempt by Mumbai’s communities to emulate the British, the game also caused conflict between the imperialists and the locals. Famously, in the late 19th century, the Parsi, Hindu and Muslim communities came together to appeal to the governor to stop the members of the all-white Bombay Gymkhana playing polo on the portion of the Esplanade maidan, or parade ground, where the locals played cricket.
But the reason the cricketers were even there is because the early Parsi cricketers had been pushed out of the Oval maidan because a “random cricket ball struck, not in the least injuriously, the wife of a European police constable whilst enjoying a stroll round about the cricket field”, as Shapoorji Sorabjee writes in his 1897 book A Chronicle of Cricket Amongst Parsees. Despite the support of British judge Joseph Arnauld and the English newspaper Bombay Gazette, the Parsis were told the Oval was not a safe place to play cricket.
In 1876, a significant club was founded by a patron named Ardeshir B. Patel, who, though never a cricketer himself, contributed significantly to Parsi cricket. The club was called The Parsi Cricket Club, and when Patel managed to arrange the first match between the Parsis and the Europeans, in 1877, most of the players in the Parsi team were, expectedly, from his club. When the Parsee Gymkhana was formed in 1885, with the backing of leading industrialists such as J.N. Tata and N.N. Wadia, it became the centre of Parsi cricket. The gymkhana had been allotted a space of land on the Esplanade and was the first Parsi club with its own pavilion.
Once the gymkhana was built, few of the clubs that had sprouted in the 1800s survived long. One exception was the Young Zoroastrians Club. A club called the Zoroastrian Cricket Club had existed since 1850, but in 1869, the wicketkeeper, Hiraji Costa—who M.E. Pavri, one of the first Parsi cricket stars, describes as the best keeper of the day in his 1905 book Parsi Cricket—decided to form a new club called Young Zoroastrians. This was, presumably, a club of younger cricketers and it exists to this day.
The team now plays in the Plate division of Mumbai’s Kanga League, and its players practise at Azad Maidan. It is no longer run by Parsis, though. The club’s authorized signatory is now Nitin Dalal, who is also the joint honorary secretary of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA).
Divide et impera
The Hindu community had a long-standing social and business rivalry with the Parsis and were not going to let them be the only local group playing the British at their own sport. That the first Hindu club was called the Bombay Hindu Union Cricket Club, founded in 1866, was ironic, as the Hindus were anything but united. Clubs were usually restricted to people of a specific caste or from a particular region, as names such as the Gowd Saraswat Club, Kshatriya Cricket Club, Gujarati Union Cricket Club and Maratha Cricket Club suggest. In fact, even the Bombay Hindu Union Club was formed by and for members of the Prabhu caste.
The exclusion of players based on caste from Hindu club sides proved an impediment to their development. In a prologue to Framjee Patel’s book, Lord Harris, the governor of Bombay from 1890 to 1895, who is remembered as one of the most influential Test cricketers by virtue of the work he did to further the game both in England and India, writes that Hindu clubs had very few members because their patrons only let people of their own caste play.
“It has been charged against British Administrators that their policy in India is divide et impera (divide and rule); but there is no need for the British Raj to try to divide; the natives of India do that most effectively of their own motion,” he writes.
The Parsis had established a strong tradition of school cricket. The Parsi students of Elphinstone High School had formed a cricket club that later became an open club called the Elphinstone Cricket Club, one of the top Parsi teams of the 1870s. Hindu students at Elphinstone High School learnt cricket from their Parsi classmates and started the Hindu Cricket Club in 1878. Their side practised at the Esplanade maidan and played matches against Parsi sides.
In Bombay, the Muslim community was the slowest to take to cricket. Badruddin Tyabji, a reputed lawyer and member of the Indian National Congress, and other community leaders attempted to popularize the game, and in 1883 the Mohammedan Cricket Club was established.
When Lord Harris granted the Parsis a space on a plot of reclaimed land on Kennedy Sea Face, now Marine Drive, to start their Parsee Gymkhana, the Muslims requested they be offered the same. They founded the Islam Gymkhana next to the Parsee Gymkhana in 1892. Two years later, the row of gymkhanas on the sea face was completed when the Hindu Cricket Club that had been founded in 1878 became the P.J. Hindu Gymkhana. It was named after Parmanandas Jivandas, whose son Gordhandas had contributed Rs10,000, a fortune in those days, to help build the gymkhana.
Awards displayed at the P.J. Hindu Gymkhana in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The three sea-facing gymkhanas became nurseries of Bombay and Indian cricket. They were in charge of selecting the Parsi, Hindu and Muslim teams in the famous Quadrangular and Pentangular trophies and played a role in the formation of the Bombay Presidency (Proper) Cricket Association, which is today the MCA, one of the most powerful sports bodies in India.
The gymkhanas still occupy prime property on Marine Drive, for which, by the way, they pay all of Rs12 annually as rent, courtesy Lord Harris’s generosity and Mumbai’s complex property laws. The status of the three gymkhanas in modern Mumbai cricket, however, is somewhat less than prime.
Once the Pentangular Trophy was abandoned in 1946, in the face of growing protests that it promoted divisive communalism, the Ranji Trophy became the premier Indian domestic tournament. The gymkhanas, over the years, tried to move with the times by becoming open clubs that embraced all communities. Their premises and facilities ensured they did well in Mumbai’s premier competition, the Kanga League, till the 1990s, but they then began to struggle as commercialism gushed into Indian cricket.
“The gymkhanas have an old way of thinking. They don’t want to hire professional cricketers to play for their sides,” says Arman Mallick, who has been the secretary of the Islam Gymkhana for the past 17 years. Other sides, he says, pay cricketers in excess of Rs1 lakh to represent them in the Kanga League, while in the gymkhanas, members protest when outsiders are hired to play for the club. “I have managed to arrange funds myself for our Islam Gymkhana team, which is the only reason we are in the B division of the Kanga League. But if I was president of the club and had freedom to run it the way I wanted to, I could construct a team that would rule Mumbai cricket.”
The Parsee Gymkhana has managed to stay in the A division of the Kanga League, having contracted well-known first-class players such as Suryakumar Yadav, who briefly captained Mumbai’s Ranji team, to play for them. The P.J. Hindu Gymkhana finished first in the D division last year and will be promoted to the C division in 2015.
The grounds of the Islam Gymkhana.
The influence of the gymkhanas on administration has waned. There are no longer reserved seats in the managing committee of the MCA for representatives of the three gymkhanas, explains Mallick, who is on the managing committee because he was elected to it.
From a historian or archivist’s point of view, the most disappointing thing about the three gymkhanas is how little documentation they have maintained of their interesting histories.
The P.J. Hindu Gymkhana and Islam Gymkhana have brochures that were created for their centenaries but these contain only basic details; the MCA has no records of the histories of its member clubs either.
“I don’t think any of the current members or players know much about the history of this gymkhana,” says Ramesh Panchmatia, president of the P.J. Hindu Gymkhana.
The coach of the Young Zoroastrians Club laments that none of his pupils know how old the club they represent is.
“These days, players are only interested in money, not history or prestige,” says Islam Gymkhana’s Mallick.
The more positive outlook would be to attribute the disinterest in the clubs’ legacies, which are tied inextricably to the communal pride they were built to display, to the secular nature of modern cricket. The Parsee Gymkhana has no Parsis in its Kanga League side, the Islam Gymkhana has more non-Muslim players than Muslim ones, and the P.J. Hindu Gymkhana makes no distinctions on the basis of caste, unlike the Hindu clubs of old. If India’s cricket history is a revelation of the communal tension that existed, perhaps its current state is a celebration of the country’s secularism.