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Gilbert Cann And His Fifteen Minutes Of Fame

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Kolkata’s rich sporting heritage can be traced back to the 19th century and it was Norman Gilbert Pritchard, born in the city on 23 June 1875 who as per the official International Olympic Committee records was the first Indian to compete in the Olympics.

Pritchard won silver in the 200 metres and 200 metres hurdles (since discontinued) at the 1900 Paris Olympics, apart from competing in 100 m., 110 m. hurdles and 60 m. (also since discontinued) and was one of the world’s leading track athletes of his time. He later become a star of the stage in England and the silent screen in Hollywood (taking on the name Norman Trevor) where he died in 1929.

Now after nearly four decades of research, with invaluable help from UK-based genealogy researcher Natalie Cook and cricket historian and collector Martin Chandler this writer has managed to track down Pritchard’s descendants in England—and there is a strong connect to both Kolkata and cricket.

Gilbert Norman Pritchard Cann is the grand nephew of Norman Pritchard and lives in Middlesex. His name recalls that of his illustrious relative. Gilbert’s father Trevor Pritchard Cann was the son of one of Norman’s two sisters, Selena Francis and was born in (then) Calcutta in 1902. Trevor’s first wife died in 1937 and he remarried Jessie Majorie Shirt (born in then-Bombay) in Calcutta in 1943. Trevor, who both studied and taught at St. Xavier’s, Calcutta moved with his family to England in 1961 and died in 1964.

In a video interview with this writer, Gilbert (born in Calcutta on 10 January 1945) fondly recounted his schooldays in North Point, Darjeeling and then St. Xavier’s where his famous grand uncle Norman Pritchard also studied in the 1890s.

Gilbert, now a retired government official was amazed when told this writer had traced his brief moment of glory for East Zone in the Cooch-Behar Trophy national schools tournament in the 1959-60 season.

East were narrowly beaten by 17 runs in the final by South in the final at Poona (now Pune), “a match we really should have won” recalled Gilbert with a tinge of regret even after nearly 60 years.

But it was in the semifinal, also at Poona in January 1960 that Gilbert saw his side to victory against West by just two wickets in the very last minute of play.

West, who had a vital first innings lead of 12 runs resorted to time wasting tactics with East—captained by Pankaj Roy’s younger brother Nimal and including nephew Ambar–chasing 224 runs in 230 minutes for victory on the final day.

“Do you remember the game gulli danda?” Gilbert asked as he vividly recalled those tense moments. “The West bowlers kept bowling down the leg side and I took my stance wide of the stumps in order to counter their negative tactics.”

The erstwhile Indian Cricket Field Annual 1959-60 edition, edited by the late Dicky Rutnagur has a detailed match report.

“This dramatic success which ended West Zone’s seven-year monopoly over the championship was made possible by a 15-year-old Calcutta-born Australian Gilbert Cann, who scored a mercurial 51 not out. His side required 84 runs for victory when Cann entered at number six and he put the versatile West Zone attack to the sword in no uncertain manner. Cann was chaired back to the pavilion by his jubilant team-mates, and the spectators, forgetting partisan interests cheered every stroke by the little Australian as he steered his side to a sensational victory. For a long time after the match ended, the entire Deccan Gymkhana vicinity echoed with cheers for young Cann.”

In the final Gilbert had less success, scoring 11 and 15 as East set 156 for victory collapsed to South’s bowling—including future Test all-rounder Abid Ali—for just 138.

But what is the Australian connection? Gilbert has an amusing story about this. One of his closest friends in the team was Mario Donnetti, Madras-born with Italian parents. “I was too shy to speak to the media after the match so Mario who was a prankster spoke on my behalf and pulled a fast one by telling them I was an Australian. Australia was a top team at the time and they were famous for their fielding. Since I was known for my fielding, Mario (who also lives in England) fooled the media with that line”, said Gilbert chuckling.

Gilbert also played his part in the 1960-61 season where East were beaten in the semifinals by West Zone. The versatile Gilbert kept wickets in one match and also captured a wicket in another game.

Former Bengal and East Zone captain Raju Mukherjee remembers his school friend ‘Gilly’ (as he was nicknamed): “He was an exceptional athlete and very good fielder in the deep. Maybe something to do with his genes. Apart from being a very good athlete, he was primarily a pace bowler, a hard-hitting batsman and a brilliant fielder in the deep. My elder brother Deb [also an accomplished first-class cricketer] was his team-mate in the Cooch-Behar Trophy.”

It was Raju Mukherjee in fact who in 2002 stumbled upon the stage and screen name—Norman Trevor—when he came across a write-up of Norman Pritchard’s most famous Hollywood movie Beau Geste (1926) in the school alumni magazine. He was listed in the magazine as having studied at St. Xavier’s in 1891. Till then his screen name had been a mystery to researchers.

Like his illustrious ancestor—who also excelled at rugby and football—Gilbert too was an all-round sportsman. He won a bagful of gold medals in both track and field events in his final year in school in Calcutta in 1960 when he was captain of the football, hockey and cricket team. He was also the youngest to play first division hockey for Calcutta Police as well as cricket and hockey for Dalhousie Institute which he remembers fondly.

Though he has never been back to India, he hopes to do so in the near future with one of his daughters who is settled in Australia. Born in Elgin Nursing Home, Gilbert lived with his family at Belvedere House at No. 6 Chowringhee Lane and recalled the various tram routes in the city. My chat with him he says brought back very fond memories of Calcutta and he is greatly looking forward to his visit.

Gilbert also has a request which he asked me to pass on to the sports loving people of Kolkata. He has for many years in vain been trying to get a copy of his birth certificate which he lost. Can anyone help please?

(A version of this article was earlier published at bbc.co.uk and also in The Statesman, Kolkata)

 

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