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Feature

Shireen Contractor was the pioneering Indian triple-international you didn't know about

In the Calcutta of the 1970s and '80s lived a young Parsee who made her community proud with her sporting achievements

Shamya Dasgupta
Shamya Dasgupta
06-Jul-2024
Shireen Kiash

Cricket, hockey, basketball: Shireen Contractor played three sports at high levels  •  Kermeez Kiash

It was 1972 or 1973. Kumkum Banerjee was part of a group of five well-connected society ladies with an interest in sport who were tasked with finding young players to put together a Bengal women's cricket team for the launch of the three-day national women's first class championship.
"But there were no players," Banerjee says with a laugh, 50 years on. "There was no structure. Some clubs let women play, some girls played in their neighbourhoods with the boys, but it wasn't serious. We were all excited about it, but there really was nowhere for us to start."
So the group that made up the "selection panel" decided to go out and find them: athletic girls, young, fit, hopefully tough, ready to give cricket a try. They went around the sprawling Calcutta (now Kolkata) Maidan in search of candidates, almost like a casting crew looking for the perfect face for a movie. Only, they needed a whole bunch.
Banerjee can't recall where it was that she saw two girls she liked the look of. Likely at the West Bengal Basketball Association premises at the Maidan, west of Red Road, she thinks. One of them was Sreerupa Bose, the other Shireen Contractor.
"They were both so fit, agile. Back then, everything was different. I was in a saree. I always am. But these girls, they were in shorts and T-shirts. They were fantastic. I knew they were right for us."
Banerjee didn't know then that while Bose was just waiting to exhale, so to say, as a cricketer, Contractor was already a top athlete. She had represented India at the Asian Women's Hockey Championship in New Delhi in December 1967. And, while being a regular in India's hockey team, had also made her international basketball debut, playing for India at the Asian Women's Basketball Championship in Kuala Lumpur in 1970.
She had never played cricket seriously but had played enough of it with the boys in the neighbourhood to know that she was ready if given a chance. She got it soon enough - and so became the first female Indian triple-international.

****

Though the name was new to me, "Shireen Kiash" seemed to be on everyone's lips as I scoped around the Calcutta Parsee Club. As it turned out, she was something of a legend there.
The Calcutta Parsee Club was established in 1908, about the time that Parsees started moving to Calcutta in numbers from the west of the country. The city was then the capital of British India (though not for much longer), and the Parsees, a trading community, were looking for opportunities on the eastern coast.
"She was a triple-international," just about everyone in Kolkata will tell you. And add, "She is in the Limca Book of Records." And often: "A natural, she could play any sport, and she was better than everyone else, even the boys."
Such praise comes from, among others, the likes of Rusi Jeejeebhoy, the only Calcutta Parsee to get anywhere near an India cap in cricket. He was the reserve wicketkeeper on the historic India tour of the West Indies in 1971, but didn't play a game. He was, by all accounts, a good wicketkeeper but not much of a batter, as a first-class average of 10.33 tells us. They are still upset about his missed chance in Kolkata, especially since P Krishnamurthy, who played all five Tests - the only ones he ever did - scored just 33 runs in six innings and averaged 5.50. His first-class average was only slightly better than Jeejeebhoy's: 14.98.
Jeejeebhoy's family lived in Khorshed Madan Mansion, a building in central Calcutta built for impoverished Parsees by a wealthy businessman from the community, Jamsetjee Framjee Madon, who, it is said, owned 120 cinema halls at one time. Jeejeebhoy moved out later but, now past 80, continues to live in the vicinity. The building is where Contractor's family lived when they moved from Bombay (now Mumbai), and that's how Jeejeebhoy met her.
"There were 23 flats in that building," Jeejeebhoy says. "I was already there, I must have been 15-16, and I was playing cricket quite seriously.
"She was a proper tomcat [tomboy]. She was quite young still. Not yet in her teens. She would play all the games with the boys. Hockey. Cricket. Football. Badminton. And she grew up to be… what's the best way to put it? A jewel. She was a jewel of the Parsee community in Calcutta."

****

Contractor's daughter Kermeez, a human resources professional in Sydney, says her mother was born on November 1, 1949 in Bombay. She moved, with her parents and other members of the family, to Calcutta "when she was seven or eight".
"The family was very well off. They were major building contractors in Bombay but they lost everything in the stock market," Kermeez recalls being told when she was quite young. "My grandpa didn't get a job immediately in Calcutta. My granny worked as a manager at a hair salon to support the family."
She also says, in part from having heard from her mother and others, that growing up without affluence might have helped her mother become the person she was.
"She was in no way inferior to anybody," Jeejeebhoy says. "I mean, for a girl playing against boys - she did everything and asked for no mercy or any quarter.
"Attached to that building was a small playground. She would be there for every sport we played.
"I was a bit of a dada to the kids there, and she was my favourite. She would tell everyone that I was the greatest cricketer in the world. She was like a little sister to me. All the families had one or two children who played games, and they used to look up to me, because I was playing in the league in the city already. We were a sporting building. And I was the best known. But she was the best.
"Objectively speaking, she was a fantastic cricketer. She had style and grace as a batsman. She was a natural. And she was never scared of anything. Of getting hurt. She gave back as good as she got when she played football. She had the spirit to excel, which made her stand apart."
Gargi Banerjee, who started playing for Bengal a few years after Contractor did, agrees: "She was spunky. I think a lot of us were quite meek - most of us came from poor families and didn't know much about the world, but Shireen spoke English. She didn't take any nonsense from anyone."
Kermeez can attest to this. "[The Bengal team] went to Chandigarh once to play hockey, my mum told me, and a lot of the guys [who came to watch] were giving the girls a hard time, passing comments and wolf-whistling. The ball went out of the ground and no one wanted to fetch it because of the boys. Mum had to get it each time, and if anyone said anything, they got a tongue-lashing. One time, one of the boys said something to the girls, and mum picked up a stick and was ready to attack him.
"Another time, they were going to a country kind of area to play, and a guy on a [bicycle] went past them on the road and said or did something. And mum went chasing after him, caught up with him, pulled him off the bike and flung the bike away."

****

Contractor became a triple-international when Australia's Under-25s came over to play three unofficial Test matches in February 1975. From that visiting team, Christine White and Deborah Martin went on to represent Australia at the senior level.
The three "Tests" were played in Poona (now Pune), Delhi (at Railways' home ground, the Karnail Singh Stadium) and Calcutta's Eden Gardens. They were three-day matches, and all of them ended in draws. India were led by Sudha Shah in the first two games and Sreerupa Bose in the last. Their line-up was full of names who would go on to play international cricket. Fowzieh Khalili, Shobha Pandit, Meena Thakkar, Ujwala Nikam, Rajeshwari Dholakia, Sharmila Chakraborty, Lopamudra Bhattacharjee and Runa Basu from that team all played official Test cricket. Along with the captains Shah and Bose, Diana Edulji and Shantha Rangaswamy went on to become bona fide legends of the game.
Not Contractor, though. Despite returns of 21, 20, 4, 29 and 6 not out - not fantastic, not terrible - in the three Tests.
That year, before the Australia series, she married Khushroo Sorabjee Kiash, a marine engineer, amateur sportsman and motorbike enthusiast. The two met, Kermeez says, when they were kids.
A story many at the Calcutta Parsee Club remember is of how Kiash went to the railway station with his father-in-law to see his wife off for the Australia U-25s series, but just as the train for Poona was leaving, decided he had to go with her, took some money from Contractor's father and clambered aboard.
Sharmila Chakraborty, who played 11 Test matches and was a part of that 1975 squad - and one of the players Banerjee had found during her scouting days in the early 1970s - remembers the incident, and "Khushroo da", well.
"Shireen - she passed away, didn't she?" she asks, having lost contact after their days of playing together. "Oh, he was a good man, a very good man," she says of Kiash. "He was friendly and helpful. I remember how he got on the train, and we ribbed them both about it."
Contractor and Kiash moved from Calcutta to Sydney to give Kermeez and her older brother, Danesh, a better life. "They were trying to move to Canada or Australia for a while, and it came through in 1991," Kermeez says. This was when Contractor, at about 45, appears to have taken an interest in netball, a sport popular in Australia and a new thing for her.
"In 2000 my brother got married. That was the year mum got cancer," Kermeez says. They were trying times but there was also sport, and there was fun, she remembers.
"The Olympics were in Sydney. And mum had decided she would be there to see it. She hadn't seen an Olympic Games before that. She had surgery and radiation sessions lined up. But she said she wouldn't be doing them, because she had to go to the Olympics. End of story.
"Lots of negotiations happened, and she was allowed to go to the Olympics on condition that she got to the chemos immediately after that. That she did."
Later, when she was wheelchair-bound, Contractor joked - or maybe she was serious - that she would give the Paralympics a go, be a "quadruple-international".
She died in 2006, and Kiash four years later in a motorcycle accident on the Bombay-Pune highway.

****

At the Calcutta Parsee Club, Prochy Mehta, community historian and an able sportsperson in her own right, handed me a copy of Our Own Little Piece of Earth, a nicely produced volume commemorating the club's centenary in 2008. Contractor features all over in the section on the community's sporting achievements. If in 1967 she is representing Bengal in the hockey nationals along with Zarin Rustomji, the next year she is at the Asian women's basketball tournament with Behroze Billimoria. In 1969, she is back at the basketball nationals. Then back at the hockey. Back to basketball. Club. Bengal. India.
In 1975, "Shireen Kiash represents Bengal in the cricket nationals at Kolkata. She follows this up by playing for India in all three Tests against the visiting Australia women's cricket team and also plays against them as a member of the East Zone team."
Not long after, "Shireen Kiash is felicitated on June 21 for being the only club member and possibly the only Indian at that time to represent India in three different sports" and "she is also awarded the Ladies Study Group Award for being the most outstanding woman in sports in 1974".
It goes on. Every year till 1982, after which, at 33, she appears to have eased off a bit. Marriage. Kids. Life, perhaps.
Dinyar Mucadum, one of the best all-round male sportspersons from the Parsee community in the city, is much younger than Contractor would have been if she were alive, still in his early 60s. Still quite active on the city's club sports circuit, a regular opening batter with Arun Lal for the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club, and much else besides.
"She was a mentor to me, and she loved me like anything," he says. "She was older than me, but not much. She saw me and thought of me as a younger brother or son or something…
"She was a lovely person, a superb person. No airs. There were others who played only one sport. She played three. She could have played more. I don't think there will ever be another like her."
How good was Contractor really? In an unprofessional era, with the people in charge only looking for athletic girls ("cricket can be taught") did she deserve to be an international cricketer?
"She played with a straight bat," Jeejeebhoy says. "She was tall. Solid defence.
"Those days you didn't need to score quickly. She played with a vertical bat and scored down the ground. Good student. She was not a great bowler - ordinary, but stuck to the basics. She used to get wickets. But she was good with the bat."
Gargi Banerjee is more emphatic. "She was very good, and she was a good team player. We needed someone like her, who wasn't scared of being a girl out in the world.
"And see, we weren't trained cricketers to start with. If Shireen had proper training, she could have been as good as anyone."
Contractor lived for many things, but most of all, she lived for sport. A love that became stronger after marrying a man who was always up for a kickabout. "Our car boot had a cricket bat, tennis racquets, footballs, cricket balls, tennis balls…" Kermeez says. "When we were out, if we happened to stop anywhere, we just opened the boot and started playing something or the other. Always."
Contractor is mostly forgotten now. Possibly she was never known outside of the circles she was part of. But in those she remains a legend. One of a kind, clearly.

Shamya Dasgupta is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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