The Untouchable Who Became India's Jackie Robinson

The Untouchable Who Became India's Jackie Robinson

By Sean Braswell


Because some sporting performances are truly transformative.

By Sean Braswell

Some of the greatest athletes in history never got the attention or acclaim they deserved. In this series, The Unsung, OZY looks at some of the most talented sports figures in history who were underappreciated, overshadowed or forgotten.

If you wanted to travel back in time to witness one of India’s first great cricket players, then a good place to start would be the pitches of Poona (now Pune), a small village near Mumbai on the west coast of the country. There, in the final decade of the 19th century, you would see a left-handed teenage spin bowler having his way with opposing batsmen.

Then, when the match broke for tea, you would watch something even more remarkable unfold. As his teammates and opponents are served their tea in porcelain cups in the Poona Club pavilion, the young bowling phenom named Palwankar Baloo remains outside, separate, drinking his tea from a small clay vessel. Why? Was Baloo too young? Was he anti-social? No, Palwankar Baloo was an untouchable, a member of India’s ostracized and downtrodden Dalit underclass. But, over the next quarter century, Baloo’s bowling would electrify the cricket-loving nation, touch the hearts of millions and shake Indian society’s hierarchy to its very core.

The pantheon of Indian cricket history is long and filled with many legends of the game. But most local histories of the sport do not start their story until 1932, when India played its first official test match with England. “The sport press in India started developing in the 1930s,” says Souvik Naha, a historian and an editor at Soccer & Society, “with imaginative ways of presenting news and analyzing events from and beyond the field.” But, of course, by that time Baloo had retired, says Naha, and so rarely anyone beyond a few historians talk about him these days.

Word of Baloo’s bowling prowess soon began to spread.

At one time, however, Baloo was the most famous bowler — and untouchable — in India. As Ramachandra Guha chronicles in A Corner of a Foreign Field, Baloo grew up in Poona, where his father worked in a British ammunition factory. He and his brother would play cricket with the equipment discarded by British soldiers. Baloo’s first job as a boy was sweeping and rolling the pitch at the local cricket club. Soon he was also bowling to club members to help them improve their batting skills. Baloo bowled for hundreds of hours, fine-tuning his own technique in the process. Not once was he given the opportunity to bat.

Word of Baloo’s bowling prowess soon began to spread, and he was invited to play for the local Poona Hindus squad. Baloo was kept separate from his teammates off the pitch, and some were reluctant even to touch the same ball as he did. That reluctance appears to have been short-lived, as soon the dapper, mustached Baloo was helping the squad to victory over local British and European teams. Baloo moved with his family to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1896, and soon proved he was not just a big bowling fish in a small pond. 

Palwankar baloo (1)

Palwankar Baloo.

Source Creative Commons

Baloo had incredible control, and varied his delivery in subtle ways to keep batsmen guessing about his arm angle and speed. One opponent summarized him as “a left-handed medium-pace bowler with an easy action. Has both breaks and a curl in the air and has a lot of spin on the ball.” He also had remarkable stamina. As another opponent put it, he “seldom tires [and] can bowl all day long.”

In 1905, the Prince of Wales visited India, with one of the highlights being a cricket showdown between some of India’s and England’s best players. Baloo’s bowling helped the Indian side cruise to victory over their imperial opponents, and Baloo, now 30, was allowed to dine with the rest of the team. Papers across the nation hailed it as a victory over caste prejudice. The Indian Social Reformer wrote that it was “a landmark in the nation’s emancipation from the old disuniting … customs.”

The Indian players did not fare as well six years later when they went on a cricket-playing tour through England. But Baloo took 114 wickets on the tour, and the untouchable played against teams from Oxford and Cambridge on some of the most prestigious grounds in England. The 36-year-old bowler received offers from several county teams in England to stay and play, but he refused them all. Back home, he continued to be an inspiration to India’s underclasses. The determined Baloo became, says Naha, “a torchbearer for minority rights in late colonial India. He campaigned for the full integration of untouchables in mainstream Indian society and the abolition of caste prejudice.”

Nevertheless, Baloo’s caste continued to limit his options. In cricket, the team’s captain, typically a veteran player, plays a key role, deciding, among other things, the order of the batsmen and bowlers. By virtue of his seniority and talent, Baloo should have captained his squad, but he was continually denied that title. Finally, in 1920, the same year that Gandhi began his campaign against untouchability, Baloo was selected as co-captain, an unprecedented honor for a member of the Dalit class.

Guha compares Baloo’s accomplishment to that of another sports icon, the man who broke baseball’s color line, Jackie Robinson. Like Robinson, Guha writes, “Baloo broke through a previously impenetrable social barrier as much by force of personality as by sporting skill alone.” Baloo’s on-field legend may have waned over the years in India, but, off the pitch, where he was once kept separate from his teammates, his impact continues to be felt.