A hundred and twenty five years ago, in the summer of 1886, a team of 15 enthusiastic Parsis sailed from India to England to play some cricket.

They went with few hopes of winning. Among the people who saw them off was Pherozeshah Mehta, the nationalist lawyer and one of the first Indians to learn cricket on the maidans of what was then known as Bombay. He told the audience that the Parsi cricketers were going to England with the same intention with which artists went to Italy or pilgrims went to Jerusalem—to pay homage.

Pioneers: (above) The Parsi team of 1886 that toured England. Photo: Courtesy ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field’/Ramachandra Guha

He should know. The Parsi team ran into the world’s first great cricketer in their second match, against the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) at Lord’s. The visitors met with a crushing innings defeat, with Grace scoring 65 in his only innings and then taking 11 visitor wickets for 44 runs.

“It was not with any object of gaining victories that we made the voyage to England, but we decided to pay homage to the centre and home of a noble game, and we desired to learn some useful lessons in its play," explained D.H. Patel, the captain, on the team’s return.

However, the impact of the Parsi pioneers should not be measured in terms of their poor performance on the field. Patel and his men opened the gates for other such visits. The Parsi team that went to England in 1888 came back with a more credible cricketing record—31 matches, 11 losses, 12 draws and eight wins. Even Grace had a good word: “There was great improvement on their first visit, when everything went against them. In one thing they showed excellent promise, their consistent effort in playing an uphill match."

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Photographs of the early Parsi tourists show them dressed as English cricketers of their time would. But sartorial modernity was a recent acquisition. An early book on Parsi cricket had this wicked portrait of the fire worshipper at the wicket: “He went to the wicket with a white band around his forehead, giving him quite the air of the inmate of some hospital, and a still whiter apron dangling from his waist, which was encircled by the sacred thread of his faith. Thus equipped, with patent leather boots and silken trousers, he was a fit study for an artist."

Such honest attire was a testimony to the sincerity of the early Parsi cricketers, many of whom came from the emerging professional classes. It was in marked contrast to the resplendent outfits of the captain of the first national team to visit England many years later.

The first iconic English cricketer, W.G. Grace. Photo: Allsport/Hulton Archive

It was only after independence that a prince would not lead an Indian touring team to England. Even the 1932 team was officially led by the maharaja of Porbandar, who had the good sense to allow C.K. Nayudu to captain the team in India’s first-ever Test match.

The 1911 team has gone down in history as the first all-India cricket squad, since members of different faiths and regions were represented. Their travels across England were followed by the educated urban elite at a time when Indian nationalism was getting a more radical edge, in the last years of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and just before the emergence of Mohandas K. Gandhi. “Educated Indians followed the progress of the tour with great interest. As one might expect, the interest was greatest in Bombay. All the major Bombay newspapers (but especially The Times of India and the Bombay Gazette) provided extensive coverage of the tour. Educated middle-class people in other major cities—especially Calcutta and Madras—also took an interest in the doings of the Indian cricketers," says Prashant Kidambi, a historian with the University of Leicester, England, who has written an essay on the 1911 team in the new Wisden Cricketers’Almanack, the game’s annual Bible.

The most important inclusions in 1911 were two brothers, Baloo Palwankar and Shivram Palwankar, members of a caste that was then considered untouchable. Two other brothers—Vithal and Ganpat—were fine cricketers as well. Vithal later led the Hindu team in the Bombay Quadrangular, a revolutionary development in a society still stuck in malign notions of caste superiority.

My late father would describe the unbelievable scenes after the 1923 Quadrangular finals, which he saw as a schoolboy, when the crowd lifted the untouchable captain on its shoulders after the Hindus won in the finals against the Europeans, with Vithal hitting the winning runs at the end of a thrilling run chase.

Baloo was the star of the 1911 tour, taking 114 wickets at an average of 18.84. The historian, Ramachandra Guha, says he “received several offers to stay in England and play as a professional". He chose to come home.

When the team got back to Bombay, joyous crowds garlanded Baloo and Shivram. The brothers were felicitated by their community, at a function where one of the organizers was a young student named B.R. Ambedkar. Baloo and Ambedkar later became friends but then fell out. Baloo stood for local elections in 1933 on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket and in 1937 with the backing of the Congress.

The tours of the 1886 Parsi team and the 1911 Indian team had a wider political significance. Says Kidambi: “When the Parsis undertook their tours in 1886 and 1888, they wanted both to affirm their affinity with the British and to underscore their status as subjects of the British empire. Of course, they also saw these exercises as a form of education.

“The 1911 tour was also motivated by similar impulses, though it was different in some significant respects," adds Kidambi. “The first difference was that this was an attempt to bring together Indians of different communities and regions. Second, it also happened at a time when Indian nationalism was beginning to change in character as a result of growing disenchantment among nationalist Indians about the gap between British precepts and practices. But even though this made the context of the 1911 tour different, we cannot assume that it was an exercise in full-blown nationalism. In fact, the tour coincided with the coronation of King George V and became part of an imperial occasion."

Such sepia-tinted history has no place in the technicolour brilliance of contemporary cricket. But the stories of the men who went across to England in 1886 and 1911 still tell us a lot about early cricket in India and the development of political consciousness.