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 at the 1900 Paris Olympics. He later became 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, 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. 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, who both studied and taught at St. Xavier’s, Calcutta moved with his family to England in 1961 and died in 1964.
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 CoochBehar 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, chasing 224 runs in 230 minutes for victory on the final day.
The erstwhile Indian Cricket Field Annual 1959-60 edition 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 Cann 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.”
Former Bengal and East Zone captain Raju Mukherjee (who in 2002 made the breakthrough discovery that Pritchard’s Hollywood screen name was Norman Trevor) remembers his school friend ‘Gilly’: “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.”
Though he has never been back to India, he hopes to do so in the near future. Born in Elgin Nursing Home, Gilbert lived with his family at Belvedere House at No. 6 Chowringhee Lane and still recalls the various tram routes in the city.
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 www.bbc.co.uk)
The writer is an independent Delhi-based sports journalist and writer. He is the co-author of Great Indian Olympians and a number of other sports books.