Unveiling the Story Behind the Buzz: Palwankar Baloo, India’s First Dalit Cricketer

How Palwankar Baloo shadowed the cricketing elite 140 years ago, forcing royals and wealthy Parsis to play with him. A player, revered by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, to be Immortalized in Indian cinema.
Spinner Palwankar Baloo's reputation echoed across the globe
Spinner Palwankar Baloo's reputation echoed across the globe

New Delhi: The country’s first Dalit cricketer, Palwankar Baloo, is in the spotlight these days. Film producer Preeti Sinha has brought him into discussion, announcing a biopic on his life. Actor Ajay Devgn will play the cricketer’s character on the silver screen. Sinha made the announcement on May 29, 2024, on X (formerly Twitter).

She has collaborated with Devgn and Director Tigmanshu Dhulia to execute the project. Shedding light on her commitment to share the story of the historic personality, she wrote, “Based on the book ‘A Corner of a Foreign Field’ by Ramachandra Guha, we are bringing to life the story of Palwankar Baloo.”

They have planned to begin the production by the end of 2024. Guha’s book delves into the profound exploration of the significant challenges faced by Baloo in his journey as a Dalit cricketer.

He began his career as a groundskeeper at a cricket club in Pune. However, his remarkable talent soon shone through, leading to his selection for the prestigious Hindu Gymkhana team in 1896. It marked the beginning of his illustrious cricket career.

Let’s Delve Deep into Baloo’s Life

Born in 1876 in Pune, Baloo grew up watching British soldiers play cricket. His father worked in the arms factory in Pune. Young Baloo would sit near the field, picking up balls that came his way and throwing them back onto the field. He would collect discarded balls from the trash and bring them home, attempting to play with his younger brother Shivram.

As the two brothers grew older, their father made them discontinue their education because of financial constraints. Baloo began working at a cricket club run by Parsis, where he would clean and maintain the pitch.

Sometimes, he would also bowl to the players practicing in the nets. He earned Rs 3 every month for this job.

In 1892, Baloo left the Parsi Cricket Club and secured a job at the Pune Cricket Club run by Britishers. He was appointed there for a monthly salary of Rs 4. His responsibilities included pitch maintenance, setting up targets and preparing the nets for practice.

One day, there was no bowler available at the club, and Mr Tross — a British batsman — needed to practice. He called Baloo, who was standing outside the field and asked him to bowl. Baloo bowled six balls, out of which three were difficult for Tross to hit with his bat. He was bowled out twice. He could only manage to hit one ball properly.

Facing Baloo’s swinging deliveries, the British batsmen found it difficult to protect their stumps. The next day, Baloo’s name was on everyone’s lips in the team. The team recognized him as a regular practice bowler. He got training under the mentorship of famous British fast bowler Barton — who taught him new techniques and variations in his bowling.

‘If You Dismiss Me, You’ll Earn Money’

Noted English batsman JJ Gregg was visiting Pune. He had several centuries to his name. Aware of his potential, he told Baloo that for every time he got him out in net practice, he would receive eight annas. If Baloo could dismiss Gregg even once a week, his salary would double for the month.

Baloo practiced for hours at the Pune club’s nets, but British players never let him bat because, much like in England, in India, batting was considered the domain of the upper class. Baloo, being a Dalit, was excluded. However, his deliveries started to gain a formidable bounce. His spin had a unique quality.

At that time, there was a Hindu club in Pune that played matches against Europeans in the city. Baloo’s reputation reached this club as well. They were in need of a good bowler, and he caught their attention.

Team's Behavior Towards Baloo

Since Baloo was a Dalit, and all the members of the Hindu club’s team belonged to “higher castes”. Now the question arose as to how to play with a Dalit. This question divided the cricket club into two factions. But in the end, Baloo was included in the team.

However, he faced unfair treatment within the team. On the field, all players would avoid touching the ball that Baloo had touched, but off the field, players from “higher castes” followed the religious customs of avoiding physical contact with him.

During tea breaks, Baloo would be served tea outside the pavilion, while other players would enjoy tea inside. If Baloo needed to wash his hands or mouth on the ground, a lower caste servant would bring water and help him in a corner. He also had to eat separately on a different table.

In 1911, the Indian cricket team was scheduled to tour England. For the first time, the United Kingdom sent a team, which included Parsis as well as Hindus. However, due to internal conflicts within the team, it consistently lost matches.

Despite playing 14 matches against the British county teams, the Indian team only managed to win two matches — with two ending in draws. However, amidst these defeats, there was one player who shone brightly. He was a bowler whose deliveries were unplayable for the English team. His balls were like thunderbolts, shooting like arrows. The trajectory of his deliveries was unpredictable, leaving the batsmen clueless. He set a record during the tour by taking 114 wickets, a record that remains unbroken to this day.

However, since cricket is a team sport, the team couldn’t capitalize on his individual brilliance — resulting in overall defeat.

On September 15, 1911, when Baloo returned from England, he was accorded a grand welcome in India. By then, he had become a hero and an inspiration to countless Dalits through his extraordinary performances on the cricket field.

Among those inspired was Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who was just 20 years old at that time. It is said that Dr Ambedkar himself authored the commendation letter given to Baloo at a felicitation ceremony upon his return from England.

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