Who is the first great Indian cricketer according to you?
Is it CK Nayudu, the tall lanky handsome batter who hit such long sixes that they became part of a cricket mythology that still holds sway?
Or was it Lala Amarnath, or Vijay Merchant, the batters par excellence who ensnared cricketing audiences across the subcontinent?
The answer is none of the above.
The first great Indian cricketer was Palwankar Baloo.
Have you heard his name before? Class 9th History NCERT textbook gives a worthy mention to him in the chapter titled “History and Sport : The Story of Cricket”. But since most people sleep with open eyes in history classes, the expectations are down the drain here.
Baloo remains an unknown entity in Indian cricket history. One can say it’s because he played most of his cricket in the first two decades of the twentieth century. However, those who know their Indian cricket history, or those who are familiar with the story of Palwankar Baloo and his family, know that it is because of his social identity.
The thing is, Palwankar Baloo was a Dalit, a Chamaar - a caste which falls within the lowest levels of Hindu social hierarchy. This is his story.
Born in 1876, in a Marathi family in Dharwad (modern day Karnataka), Palwankar Baloo’s father worked for the British India Army. He had no relationship with cricket whatsoever. But when Baloo shifted to Poona after his father took up a job there, he and his younger brother Shivram began playing cricket using the equipment discarded by the Army officers. Baloo later took up his first job as a sweeper and roller of the pitch at a Parsi cricket club. He occasionally even bowled to the members.
Later he moved to an European cricket club in Poona to do the same menial job, and there he was spotted by J.G Greig, regarded as the best White batter in India at that time. Greig was impressed by Baloo’s smooth left arm action, and made him bowl to him in the nets. This was where Baloo perfected his technique, as he bowled to Greig for an hour everyday. Later on Greig helped him to get an entry in the Hindu cricket club in Poona. Constituting mainly of upper caste Marathi Hindus, many members were apprehensive of playing a ‘Chamaar’ in their team. But Greig was adamant that the Hindus would be fools to deny themselves of Baloo’s services.
The All-India XI during a match at Hove in August 1911.— Dan Redford (@danredford70) March 23, 2020
It was the 1st tour by an All Indian team.
The team played 14 1st class games, winning 2, drawing 2 & losing 10.
The stand out player was Palwankar Baloo, who is standing second from left.
True cricketing pioneers! pic.twitter.com/flf3WifX6X
Baloo played for the Hindus, and took plenty of wickets for them. In fact he was so good, that on a visit to Satara where they played against the Europeans, Baloo took seven wickets with his spin on a pitch that was flattened into a road by being rolled for a week. Baloo was celebrated and garlanded even by the likes of MG Ranade, the great social reformer of that time. Little later, he was praised in a public meeting by a nationalist leader (and a Brahmin) even bigger than Ranade - Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
However, all such accolades failed to subvert his social identity. He was still a Dalit, and was treated as such. While his aristocratic teammates drank their tea during the tea break in white porcelain cups, he was given his tea in a Kulhad (a clay cup). A fellow so-called lower caste worker was assigned to bring a kettle in the corner of the field when Baloo had to wash his face. It didn’t matter that he turned and spun the ‘leather’ ball better than anyone else. He still belonged to a community of ‘leather’ workers. He still was a Chamaar.
Palwankar Baloo’s bowling prowess brought him to Bombay in the last years of the nineteenth century. Bombay was the city where all the major cricket of the time took place. He worked in an army unit, and also joined the newly commissioned PJ Hindu Gymkhana. By 1907, the Triangular had begun. It was a tournament restricted to the players of the Bombay Presidency, and the three teams - The Hindus, The Parsis, and The Europeans - that featured in it were constructed on communal lines.
The Triangular was played in September, which is the end of Monsoons in Western India. As a result, the wickets were green and the sky overcast. The conditions resembled more like England. Baloo was exceptional in this tournament, and in the five matches he played between 1907 and 1911, he took 40 wickets at an average below 10. Eventually this performance turned out to be a trailer of what was to happen in the All India Tour of England in 1911, in which Baloo shone like North Star in the dark night of a poor tour for the Indians.
Baloo and his brother Shivram, who had grown into a very good batter for the Hindus, traveled to England with the team led by the 20-year-old Maharaja of Patiala. Baloo played on the tour in a side that was always missing its key players due to various reasons. The Maharaja was busy attending parties and took Keki Mistry, his secretary and the best Indian batter, with him.
Baloo still ended up with 114 first class wickets at an average of 18.80. It is worth noting that this tally of wickets would have been even more, had the opposition batted twice in most games or the Indians supported Baloo in the field. Still, Baloo took wickets against all major counties fighting all odds - 7 against Lancashire, 4 against Yorkshire, 7 against Leicestershire and so on. He bowled against Oxford, at Cambridge and also against the MCC at Lords (Marylebone Cricket Club).
It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of his achievements. However, an untouchable slow left-arm spinner taking wickets of some of the best batters in cricket at the time, that too in their own home, was an unprecedented achievement in the social history of sports. So great were his accolades, that he received offers to stay in England and play as a professional. At the time he was 36 and was also suffering with a condition called Synovitis, which led to swelling in his shoulders. The cause of it was over-bowling!
He was carrying the load of a team on his old injured shoulders, which didn’t even consider him as an equal. If any other cricketer from the so-called upper castes had achieved what Baloo achieved on that tour, he would have been carried back on the shoulders of his teammates and paraded around Bombay like he’s the new Viceroy. But due to the accident of his birth, Baloo was denied that and much more.
The All-India cricket team in England, 1911. The one Dalit player, Palwankar Baloo, is seated on the ground. I wonder why... pic.twitter.com/3cWHTURsjS— Tunku Varadarajan (@tunkuv) April 6, 2022
When Baloo came back, his cricketing acumen had started to be duly noted and even appreciated in the Bombay cricketing circles. To quote from Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field -
“Dr M. E. Pavri of the Baronet CC described him as one of the best native bowlers….Has both breaks and a curl in the air and has a lot of spin on the ball. The most deadly bowler on a sticky wicket…A sound bat and an active field.”
He was good enough to be the captain of the Hindu side that later played The Bombay Quadrangular. But M.D Pai, a Saraswat Brahmin batter, was chosen ahead of him. Being a bowler also went against his candidature for captaincy. After all, the batters have always been above the bowlers in the cricketing hierarchies. They were the aristocrats who led the sides, and the bowlers were the plebeians who bowled themselves to the ground. This intersectionality of social hierarchies ensured that it was not until 1920 and the arrival of MK Gandhi, that Baloo was given the honor of being a captain.
Before Gandhi’s vocal and popular movement against untouchability, social movements against societal discrimination against Dalits were limited in their influence. But Gandhi’s stature and legitimacy added a much needed impetus to such movements in the country.
Baloo and his brothers - Shivram, Ganpat and Vithal - were the bulwark of the Hindu side. Baloo himself was not just a cricketer anymore. His personality had grown and he was seen as the flag bearer for the Dalits in their community. Legendary figures like Babasaheb Ambedkar considered him an inspiration back then. Baloo was still denied the captaincy despite being the best cricketer of the side for more than a decade.
However in 1920, the tides were changing. The Palwankar brothers had resigned earlier from the team after Baloo was neglected for the captain’s job. But the selection committee requested Baloo and his siblings to be back in the side. To give them more reasons to join the Hindus, Baloo was now made the vice-captain of the team.
MD Pai, the captain of the Hindus, left the field during the second innings of the Parsis in their match against them. Guha calls it a pre-arranged move in his above-mentioned book. However whatever the reason might be, Baloo captained the Hindus in that game against the Parsis in the Quadrangular. For the first time ever, an untouchable was captaining a Hindu side filled with players of the so-called upper castes.
Social hierarchies were subverted on the cricket field that day, albeit for just an innings.
Modern sports is filled with examples of athletes who rose against their social identities and established themselves in the annals of sporting history. Jim Thorpe (Native American) and Jesse Owens (a Black runner) come to mind immediately. John Carlos’ Black power salute from the 1968 Olympics changed the way we look at race in sports. Even in cricket, the likes of Basil D’Olivera, who migrated out of apartheid-ruled South Africa, stand out.
Palwankar Baloo is just as big as them if not bigger. His wickets on the field rose him to the stars, but the accident of his birth pulled him mercilessly back to the ground. At every stage of his cricket career he faced ostracisation. He just didn’t face the batters when he went out to bowl. He faced his own teammates who didn’t consider him as an equal. He was merely an instrument to their sporting glory and was later discarded.
Baloo’s contribution to Indian cricket and also the movement against untouchability remains a mere footnote in the history of Bombay and Indian cricket. Historians like Ramchandra Guha have restored his dignity in their works, but one always craves for a full-fledged biography of Baloo.
As cricket fans and readers, we need to change that. From the next time, when you list the great slow left-arm spinners who have played for India, make sure to begin the list with Baloo. He was the pioneer of this art in India, which Vinoo Mankad, Bishan Singh Bedi and now Ravindra Jadeja excel at.
This was the story of India’s first ever great cricketer, who was born on 19th March, 147 years ago.
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