India are currently preparing to take on England, 79 years since the first Test series between the two on the subcontinent. That 1933-34 visit by Douglas Jardine's side followed on from India's first foray into Test cricket, which had taken place in England the previous year. But the first trip by a side from India to England had taken place much earlier, in 1886, when a team made up entirely of players from one small community - the Parsees - had toured.
The Parsees are an ethnic group that in India in the 1880s numbered around 80,000, almost entirely located in or around Bombay. They enthusiastically embraced all things English and were the first of the indigenous population to take up cricket. In 1848 the Parsees founded the first cricket club - Oriental CC - and two years later the Young Zoroastrian Club, which still exists, was formed.
The first plans for a Parsees side to tour abroad were floated in 1877 by AB Patel but were scuppered when Patel became involved in a legal case in Bombay. Undeterred, he persevered and in 1886 the scheme came to fruition. A far from representative group of players was picked for the trip; the team was formed exclusively from those who could afford to fund their own passage. Patel managed to get the influential Charles Alcock to act as the team's agent in England, thus ensuring some strong fixtures. Alcock was secretary of Surrey and the man credited with organising the first Test in England, six years earlier.
To help prepare the Parsees, a Surrey professional, Robert Henderson, was recruited to coach them, but he was only given three weeks before they departed for England. It was soon apparent there was too little time available to bring them up to speed.
A squad of 15 Parsees - 12 from Bombay, three from Karrache (as it was spelt then) - left on April 17. At a dinner on the eve of their departure from Bombay, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, a noted political leader, said: "As artists go to Italy to do homage to the great masters, as pilgrims go to Jerusalem to worship at a shrine, so now the Parsees are going to England to do homage to the English cricketers, to learn something of that noble and manly pastime in the very country which is its chosen home."
The Parsees arrived in England in mid May, and their opening match was at Sheffield Park, followed by a prestigious game against the MCC at Lord's.
The tour started with a first-day washout against Lord Sheffield's XI, but that proved fortuitous as, in unfamiliar and damp conditions, the Parsees batsmen were bowled out for 46 and, following on, closed at 54 for 4. It could have been worse but Alfred Shaw declined to bowl "out of politeness". This set the tone for the rest of the trip, although the Times did note the visitors' "fielding was excellent and bowling fair".
At Lord's, WG Grace led a strong MCC side of amateurs and showed little compassion, scoring 65 and taking 7 for 18 and 4 for 26 as the Parsees were bowled out for 23 and 66, losing by an innings and 224 runs. There was some solace for them as the MCC hosted a dinner in their honour at the end of the first day's play.
The tour continued in the same one-sided way. At Portsmouth, United Services amassed 577 and then forced the Parsees to follow on more than 350 in arrears, Another defeat seemed inevitable when MP Banaji was given out leg-before, much to the anger of the small crowd, who disrupted the game. It began to rain soon after and the visitors escaped with a draw.
There were high points as well. Their final game was against Prince Christian Victor's XI at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. The match was arranged at the request of Queen Victoria and on arrival the tourists were greeted by HRH Prince Christian, the Queen's grandson. The Prince made 24 and his brother, Prince Albert, an unbeaten 11 in a score of 90, and then the Parsees were dismissed for 33. A garden party hosted by the Prince concluded the day.
The consensus was that while they had been outplayed throughout, the side had proved extremely popular, and that the captain, Dr Dhunjishaw Patel, had led them well. Some players returned home with reputations enhanced. Muncherjee Framjee, who bowled overarm, took 79 wickets at 26.71, and Shapurjee Bhedwar 59 at 19.57. The best bowling came against MCC, when Ardeshir Major took 9 for 119, and that game also provided a rare batting highlight when Jal Morenas, the only tourist to pass 500 runs, hit Grace for three fours. Only four fifties were scored all trip.
The team departed for home on August 24 with a record of one win and 19 defeats in their 28 matches. Dr Patel sent an open letter to the London newspapers thanking people for "the many kindnesses and friendly encouragement" the players had received. "We have never aspired to pass as good cricketers here. All our defeats were expected. We have had many difficulties, mainly owning to our ignorance and inexperience of the country… [but] we are leaving with strong feelings of affection for the country and its people.
"The visit of the team of native Indian cricketers to England is an event of no small significance, not only from the standpoint of cricket but also from the political point of view," said an imperialist-flavoured review in Cricket Chat. "The Parsee fraternity is the most intelligent as well as the most loyal of the races scattered over our possessions.
"For some years past the Parsees have given substantial proof of their affection for our national game and striven hard, in spite of climactic disadvantages, to acquit themselves with great credit on the cricket field. It is no exaggeration to say the visit of a Parsee team will stand out conspicuously as one of the most pleasant memories of English cricketers of the present generation."
What happened next?
- A second tour to England by a Parsees team took place in 1888, but it only included two members of the 1886 squad, Morenas and Sorabjee Harwar. Captained by Pestonji Kanga, they won eight of the 31 matches played, drawing ten and losing 11, with two abandoned.
- In 2010, Dinshaw Mehta, head of the Bombay Parsi Panchayet (BPP), the community's legal body, blamed the internet for the lack of Parsee cricketers, saying today's youngsters spend more time on Facebook than they do on sports grounds.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa