India v England Tests have become a regular feature now, but in 1986 the Indian players had to fight to keep them alive © Getty Images
 

Imagine Test cricketers, on an international tour as recently as two decades ago, staying at the homes of fans. Shubhangi Kulkarni and the rest of India's women's squad did, when they went on their first tour of England in 1986.

Today the Indian women, led by Mithali Raj, kick off their five-ODI series in England. The 16-day tour includes a Twenty20 too. Their practice routine includes swimming, shuttle runs, volleyball and the like. On tours, they stay in hotels and get a daily allowance; each player has a respectable kit. Things were rather different back on the first tour.

The series, over a month long, was India's first full tour, with three Tests and three ODIs. The players, when not billeted, stayed in dormitories, college hostels, and at times hotels. "Some of us had been to England on a private tour in 1978," says Shanta Rangaswamy, the allrounder, who now returns to England for the first time since 1986, as the Indian coach. "But this was our first trip as the Indian team, and it was quite an experience."

There was plenty to get used to, especially for the vegetarians in the squad. "They had a tough time surviving on bread and cheese or salad," says Kulkarni, who is now the convenor of the BCCI's women's committee. "Today we encourage our players to try local cuisine, and I know that before their last tour to India the England players ate curries and Indian food to get acclimatised for their trip here. But at that time we hadn't thought of doing something similar and nor was Indian food easily available for us on the tour."

Help was at hand, though, in the shape of fans who had the players stay over at their homes. "We had been told we would be expected to cook our food and wash our clothes when we toured abroad," Kulkarni says. "But this elderly couple not only got their Indian friends to cook for us, they also washed and ironed our cricket-wear in between games."

Of course, comparing generations is not a healthy exercise, and changes over a period of 22 years are not news. However, if these pioneering women hadn't played the way they did - often selling souvenirs and collecting funds to finance their matches - even today's players may have found themselves knocking on the doors of friendly English folk for food and lodging.

"If we had played badly in our early games, women's cricket wouldn't have picked up at all in India, just like women's football failed to," says Rangaswamy. Since 1986, there have been six bilateral series between the two sides.

The pitches on the first tour were bouncy but good to bat and bowl on. The three Tests were drawn and India lost all five one-dayers, but some individual performances stood out for the tourists. Opener Sandhya Agarwal set a world record with her 190 in the third Test in Worcester, which followed her 132 in the second Test in Blackpool. "The 1986 tour was Agarwal's series," says Rangaswamy. "She frustrated the England players with her slow batting, but performed incredibly well for us."

India were under severe pressure to not lose any of the Tests, given that there were reports that the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI) had told the players they would lose all their funding if they lost a Test. In the light of those reports, India's complaints about sunlight reflecting off the windshields of cars parked outside the ground were seen as desperate delaying tactics to save the first Test in Wetherby. England were doing well in a chase of 254 runs, and eventually fell short by 25, with five wickets in hand.

Rangaswamy and Kulkarni deny India used delaying tactics. "There was no such mandate from the association," says Kulkarni, India's second-highest scorer in the Test series. "We were criticised for our slow over-rate, but the thing was, we weren't accustomed to the cold, nor had we played any four-day cricket on our domestic circuit.

 
 
India were under severe pressure to not lose any of the Tests, given that there were reports that the Women's Cricket Association of India had told the players they would lose all their funding if they lost a Test
 

"The sun was indeed reflecting off the windshields, and by the time we had a car moved, the sun had shifted position." Cathy Mowat, the England chairman, criticised the team for its tactics, but Kulkarni maintains things never got ugly.

Kulkarni's most memorable moment of the tour was her maiden century, in Wetherby. "It was the context that made my century special," she says. "We had collapsed to 114 for 7, and I batted with Minoti Desai and Manimala Singhal, who were making their Test debuts. Minoti got a half-century and Manimala scored 40-odd in our partnership as we rebuilt the innings. It was a determined effort from all of us."

Away from the field, the players spent their time watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, visiting local fairs in Blackpool, and attending the men's Test match at Lord's. "Dilip Vengsarkar had scored a century and some of us made the trip there to watch one day of the match," says Rangaswamy. Clive Lloyd dropped by to watch the women play as well. "Sunil Gavaskar also wrote positively about us in his column," says Kulkarni.

Overall it was an ordinary tour, leaning towards the dull side, but it made sure women's cricket wouldn't peter out in India. The WCAI didn't organise any series between 1986 and the 1993 World Cup, and India toured England for their next bilateral series only in 1999. However, the Indian women's game had survived to enter the new millennium, and the BCCI's fold, with the promise of better things to come.

Nishi Narayanan is a staff writer at Cricinfo