I recently studied a paper on the history of cricket, ‘Cricket and Caste- the Heroic Struggle of the Palwankar Brothers’ by Ramachandra Guha. It discussed how social mobility operated within the game of cricket and how excellence on the field helps elevate Dalit players like Palwankar Baloo from poverty and inferior social status.
Guha gives his readers, as the title suggests a glimpse of the cricketing world before India became an ‘official’ test playing nation, a time when cricketers from the non-Parsee, non-Royal world were struggling to make a name for themselves. The ‘Heroes’ of his narrative are Palwankar Baloo, Shivaram and Vithal, brothers from the ‘Untouchable’ caste, from Poona who played between c. 1893 and 1924 and gave Hindu cricket its first victories against the Europeans.
Baloo, a brilliant slow left arm spinner and Shivaram, an equally gifted medium pace bowler and fielder, during their teen years perfected their technique by playing with discarded equipment and later, bowling for the gentlemen at the European-only Poona Cricket club.
Baloo’s struggle with Untouchability was ongoing, but his brilliance won him a place with the Poona Hindus, and later in Bombay, the Hindu Gymkhana. Though the ‘laws of Manu’ were suspended on the field, they operated off it. Baloo was not allowed to dine with the players, he was not felicitated in public for a long time, although it was his skill that helped the Hindus defeat both the Parsees and the Europeans in many series. His wins did change public reception and his situation.
Regarded as the “Rhodes” of India, Baloo’s felicitation by nationalist leaders and reformers like Ranade and Tilak Baloo also emerged as a role model for one of the most famous Dalit leaders- Dr B. R. Ambedkar.
The victory was gradual- at first, other player were encouraged to treat Baloo as a comrade and common dining was demanded by many reformers. Vithal’s position as a batsman was also a win, for, as Baloo recalls, batting was reserved for the elites. Wins against the Europeans were seen as national victories and the Palwankar brother were thus given the respect and admiration reserve for heroes. But could Baloo, a bowler and a Dalit be given Captaincy of the Hindu team?
The period between 1912 and 1919 was the struggle for the position of captaincy and the Palwankar brothers’ personal struggle against discrimination. Time and again, Baloo and Shivaram were overlooked when captains were appointed, the captains always being Brahmin and batsmen (“conventional wisdom holds that bowlers made poor captains”). The cricket loving public fought for this cause, uniting against discrimination and for the cause of victory. Guha gives us a poignant account of how the brothers had risen to this position of popularity and were symbols of pride and achievement.
In 1920, following the resignation of Vithal and Shivaram, Baloo was appointed Vice Captain. In 1923, his last year of first class cricket, he was appointed captain and lead his team to a spectacular victory. Vithal became captain in 1924 and lead the Hindu team to victory thrice in the next four years.
Cricket, as a game and a Western vocation helped Dalits like the Palwankars to not only rise above social depression, it also provided an alternate location for the fostering of the National spirit (in the early years, unity within the Hindu community). Baloo escaped dire poverty and deprivation, a part and parcel of Dalit life even today, educated his brothers, and gave countless Indians a role model. The spirit of sportsmanship and support from an admiring public opened new avenues for “low brow” cricketers who defeated the “gentlemen” (in this case, both the Parsees and the English) Guha calls this the ‘history of social emancipation’ and pointing out that all this had begun well before leaders like Gandhi had made an appearance in the Indian society and before black players were admitted into sports teams in Africa and America.
Sportsmen often become local and international heroes and Guha’s work, capturing the immense contribution of a family sinned against by the Hindu society of its time is hard hitting. His critique of the ‘Orthodox Brahmin’ society minces no words and Guha, acting as the “unsung” hero’s bard shows us a different arena of upliftment and enlightenment.