When Cricket Triumphed Over Caste - The Story of Palwankar Baloo, India's first cricket hero
In the cricketing folklore of India, some heroes have been immortalised, but some, perhaps with even greater superpowers have been conveniently forgotten by the curators of history. Palwankar Baloo, a name that had once become the symbol of heroic Indian resistance, is one such superhero.
Born into what was then known as the “untouchable” chamaar caste, Baloo had grown up Poona where his father worked at an ammunition factory of the British Army. Along with his brother Shivram, he used to play cricket at the Poona Club with the discarded equipment of the British soldiers.
His first job was to roll and sweep the pitches at the Parsi Cricket Club. Occasionally, he would get the opportunity of bowling in the nets.
Later, when he moved the Poona Cricket Club, J.G Grieg – the best European-Indian batsman of that time – spotted his talent while watching him bowl in the nets.
He would pay 8 aanas to Baloo every time he took his wicket. Baloo was more than willing as he soon doubled his salary this way.
Even though he would get to bowl more often now, Baloo was never allowed to bat, because batting was a symbol of aristocracy – for Indians and British alike. By adding bowling to his other duties, Baloo had tripled his salary.
The word of his impressive skills with the ball had reached to the native part of the town, but some Hindus were apprehensive about the inclusion of a chamaar bowler in the team, especially when the rules of cricket required them to touch the same ball as him. However, in a press interview J.G Grieg spoke on how the Hindoos would be foolish to not avail the services of a genius bowler like Baloo.
Even when Baloo was selected for the squad, he drank tea in a separate clay matka, and ate in a separate plate on a separate table. But it was primarily due to his efforts that the Pune Hindoos were able to beat the Poona Europeans.
The Fearsome Palwankar Brothers
Soon after, Baloo had moved to Bombay with his family and his cricket skills were becoming known throughout the country. By this time, his brother Shivram was fast gaining reputation as a fearsome hard-hitting batsman.
Together, the brothers guided the Hindoo team to a landmark victory against the Europeans in 1906 at the Bombay Gymkhana. The match, played during the years of the Swadeshi movement, was hailed as not only as a huge nationalist victory but also as a victory of cricket over prejudice. The Palwankar brothers were finally allowed in the café and dined with the rest of the team.
By the time of the 1910 Bombay Triangular – played between Hindus, Parsis and Europeans – Palwankar Vithal had joined his brothers in the team.
An all-Indian team was sent to England in the summer of 1911, and Baloo was the only success from India’s point of view. He picked up 114 wickets without any support from his other bowlers, and Shivram was touted as the most promising Hindu batsman, scoring a brilliant 113 not out against Somerset.
Baloo had received several offers to stay back and play for English counties, but he refused all of them.
Back home, Palwankar Baloo had become an inspirational figure for the depressed classes.
Campaign for Captaincy
By 1913, the Bombay Triangular had turned into the Bombay Quadrangular with the admission of the Muslims, and the Palwankars were joined by the youngest brother Ganpat. Many felt that the captainship of the Hindoo team should be given to the most successful and experienced player, Baloo. But the selectors had chosen M.D Pai, a Brahmin batsman, ahead of Baloo.
In 1920 came the news of Palwankar Ganpat’s death. In the same year, Baloo was dropped from the Hindu squad, on the account of his age. Many felt that it was unfair, since Baloo was still the best bowler the Hindus had.
When the captain M.D Pai fell ill, D.B Deodhar, another Brahmin batsman, was appointed as the captain. The most senior players then were the remaining two Palwankar brothers, Shivram and Vithal, who stepped down in disgust.
By the time the Hindoos were supposed to face the formidable Parsis, M.D Pai had regained his health and was invited back along with the Balwankar brothers, who accepted the offer. It was in that match that Pai left the field in the middle for a break, and the vice-captain Baloo captained the side for a brief while.
In the 1922 Quadrangular, the brothers went on strike after another Brahmin batsman was appointed as the captain. After an embarrassing loss, the selectors had no option but to make Vithal the captain, who led the team to the cup thrice in four years.
In a time when members of their community were fighting for the right to be included in society, the news of Vithal captaining the Hindoo team was met with euphoric reactions. This was also the time when B.R Ambedkar was rising at the political stage and Gandhi was vocally advocating the abolition of untouchability.
In a community where there had been no heroes, the Palwankar brothers had truly broken the shackles of prejudice to give hope, and a sense of pride to their fellow community members. Cricket had finally triumphed over caste.