Former Indian cricketer Suresh Raina has said that being a Brahmin makes it easy for him to embrace the culture of Chennai and his statement has sparked controversy.
At the same time, the memory of India’s first Dalit cricketer who crossed the walls of caste and dominated the cricket field became fresh.
Casteism was rampant in the country in the 19th century. Indian society was rife with caste discrimination while British rule was dominating the country. During that period, in 1892, a certain Palwankar Baloo got a job in Poona Club on a salary of Rs. 4 per month.
Only British cricket was played in the Pune club at that time and Baloo was in charge of maintaining the pitch and net for practice. While he discharged his duties, the British came to know about Baloo’s cricketing talent.
Batting in that club was reserved for the British only and so Baloo only got a chance to bowl.
Balu turned out to be a skilled bowler and developed the technique of spin bowling by practicing for several hours at the Poona Club.
During the British rule, there were cricket clubs with names of different religions like Hindu, Muslim, Parsi etc. Hindus in Pune had set up a new club at that time and they needed Baloo to beat the European club. But since he was a Dalit, the big question before them was whether to include him in the team or not.
Finally, due to Baloo’s talent, club in Pune gave him a chance.
As it turned out, the club won matches mostly due to their quality bowling.
Even after that, the wall of caste discrimination remained. They used to get tea from a separate cup. The dinner plate was also different. Even after playing one on the cricket field, Baloo had to endure the ravages of caste off the field.
And then plague struck Pune in 1896.
During that time, cricket was flourishing in Mumbai and Baloo returned to the city looking out for a job.
He was later selected for the newly formed Hindu Gymkhana team in Mumbai.
In 1906, Baloo’s penetrating bowling helped the Hindu team defeat the British team. The defeat of the British at the cricket ground at the beginning of the freedom struggle proved to be a boon to the Indians. The wall of racism between the other players and them fell.
The Indian team first toured England in 1911 and it included Baloo. Even though they lost, on that tour, Baloo’s performances stood out.
Several English county teams had offered him to play for them which Baloo turned down since he was determined to play in India.
Even the likes of Lokmanya Tilak and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar have also appreciated the spinner’s cricketing skills. His younger brother also played cricket for a Hindu club.
Despite his talent and performances, Baloo was denied the captaincy for he was a Dalit and he never got to lead the team. However, he did become the first cricketer in the history of the Dalit community to play cricket for the country.