Palwankar Baloo – the first great Indian cricketer

Who do you think is the first great Indian cricketer?

Is it CK Nayudu, the tall, lanky, handsome bat who hit sixes for so long he became part of a cricket mythology that still reigns?

Or was it Lala Amarnath or Vijay Merchant, the quintessential batters, who captivated cricket crowds across the subcontinent?

The answer is none of the above.

The first great Indian cricketer was Palwankar Baloo.

Have you heard his name before? The NCERT 9th grade history textbook gives him a worthy mention in the chapter entitled History and Sport: The History of Cricket. But since most people sleep with their eyes open in history lessons, expectations are irrelevant here.

Baloo remains an unknown entity in Indian cricket history. It can be said that this is because he played most of his cricket during the first two decades of the 20th century. However, those who know her Indian cricket history or those who are familiar with the history of Palwankar Baloo and his family know that it is because of his social identity.

The thing is, Palwankar Baloo was a Dalit, a Chamaar – a caste belonging to the lowest levels of the Hindu social hierarchy. This is his story.


Palwankar Baloo’s father was born to a Marathi family in Dharwad (present-day Karnataka) in 1876 and worked for the British India Army. He had no connection whatsoever with cricket. But when Baloo moved to Poona after his father took a job there, he and younger brother Shivram started playing cricket, using equipment discarded by army officers. Baloo later took his first job as a pitch sweeper and roller at a Parsi cricket club. Occasionally he even bowled to the members.

He later moved to a European cricket club in Poona to do the same menial job and it was there that he was spotted by JG Greig, who was considered the best white batter in India at the time. Greig was impressed by Baloo’s smooth left arm movement and had him bowling into the nets. Here Balu perfected his technique by bowling against Greig for an hour every day. Greig later helped him get a place at the Hindu Cricket Club in Poona. Many members, composed mainly of upper-caste Marathi Hindus, were concerned about playing a ‘chamaar’ on their team. But Greig firmly believed that the Hindus would be fools to refuse Baloo’s services.

Baloo played for the Hindus and took many wickets for them. In fact, he was so good that on a visit to Satara where they played the Europeans, Baloo made seven wickets with his spin on a pitch that was leveled into a road by rolling it for a week. Baloo was celebrated and even garlanded by the likes of MG Ranade, the great social reformer of the time. A little later, in a public gathering, he was praised by a nationalist leader (and a Brahmin) even greater than Ranade – Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

However, all these accolades failed to undermine his social identity. He was still a Dalit and was treated as such. While his aristocratic teammates drank their tea in white china cups during the tea break, he was served his tea in a kulhad (a clay cup). A colleague from a so-called low caste was assigned to bring a cauldron to the corner of the field when Baloo needed to wash his face. It didn’t matter that he twisted and spun the “leather” ball better than anyone. He belonged to a community of “leather workers”. He was still a Chamaar.


Palwankar Baloo’s bowling skills brought him to Bombay in the last years of the 19th century. Bombay was the city where all the major cricket matches of the time were played. He worked in an army unit and also joined the newly commissioned PJ Hindu Gymkhana. By 1907 the triangle had begun. It was a tournament reserved for the players of the Bombay Presidency and the three teams – The Hindus, The Parses and The Europeans – that competed in it were set up under common rules.

The Triangular was played in September, the end of the monsoon in the West Indies. As a result, the gates were green and the sky was overcast. The conditions were more like England. Baloo was exceptional at this tournament, and in the five games he played between 1907 and 1911 he won 40 wickets on an under-10 average. Ultimately, that performance proved to herald what was to come at the All India Tour of England was to happen in 1911, when Baloo shone like the North Star in the dark night of a poor trip for the Indians.

Baloo and his brother Shivram, who had become a very good slugger for the Hindus, traveled to England with the team led by the 20-year-old Maharajah of Patiala. Baloo played on the tour in a team that, for various reasons, was always missing their key players. The Maharaja was busy attending parties and took Keki Mistry, his secretary and India’s top batsman, with him.

Baloo still ended up with 114 first class wickets at an average of 18.80. It is worth noting that this number of wickets would have been even greater if opponents had batted twice in most games or if the Indians had backed Baloo in the field. Despite this, Baloo took wickets against all the major counties and fought against all odds – 7 against Lancashire, 4 against Yorkshire, 7 against Leicestershire and so on. He bowled against Oxford, at Cambridge and also against the MCC at Lords (Marylebone Cricket Club).

It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of his accomplishments. An untouchable slow left-arm spinner who beat some of the best batsmen in cricket at the time, and in their own home at that, was an unprecedented feat in the social history of the sport. His accolades were such that he received offers to stay in England and play professionally. At the time he was 36 years old and also suffering from a condition called synovitis which caused swelling in his shoulders. The cause of this was over-bowling!

He carried on his old injured shoulders the burden of a team that didn’t even consider him an equal. If any other so-called upper caste cricketer had achieved what Baloo has achieved on this tour, he would have been carried back on the shoulders of his team-mates and strutted around Bombay as if he were the new viceroy. But due to the accident at his birth, Balu was denied that and much more.


When Baloo returned, his cricket acumen was duly noted and even appreciated in Bombay cricket circles. To quote from Ramachandra Guha’s “A Corner of a Foreign Field” –

“Dr. ME Pavri of Baronet CC described him as one of the best homegrown bowlers…. Has both breaks and a curl in the air and has a lot of spin on the ball. The deadliest bowler on a sticky wicket… A sonic bat and an active field.”

He was good enough to be the captain of the Hindu team that later played The Bombay Quadrangular. But MD Pai, a Saraswat Brahman batter, was selected ahead of him. Being a bowler also went against his candidacy for captaincy. After all, in the cricket hierarchies, the batsmen always ranked higher than the bowlers. They were the aristocrats leading the sides and the bowlers were the plebeians bowling to the ground. This intersectionality of social hierarchies ensured that it was not until 1920 and with the arrival of MK Gandhi that Baloo was bestowed the honor of being a captain.

Before Gandhi’s vocal and popular movement against untouchability, social movements against societal discrimination against Dalits were limited in influence. But Gandhi’s caliber and legitimacy added a much-needed impetus to such movements in the country.

Baloo and his brothers – Shivram, Ganpat and Vithal – were the bulwark of the Hindu side. Baloo himself was no longer just a cricketer. His personality had grown and he was considered the flag bearer of the Dalits in their community. Legendary personalities such as Babasaheb Ambedkar considered him an inspiration at the time. Baloo was still denied the captaincy despite being the team’s top cricketer for more than a decade.

But in 1920 the tide turned. The Palwankar brothers had previously left the team after Baloo was neglected for the captain’s job. But the selection committee urged Baloo and his siblings to stand by the side again. To give them more reason to join the Hindus, Baloo has now been appointed as the team’s vice-captain.

MD Pai, the Hindus’ captain, left the field during the second innings of the Parsis in their match against them. Guha calls it a pre-arranged move in his book mentioned above. Whatever the reason, Baloo led the Hindus in this game against the Parsis in the quadrangular. For the first time ever, an Untouchable was captain of a Hindu team filled with players from the so-called upper castes.

Social hierarchies were undermined on the cricket pitch that day, if only for an inning.


Modern sport is replete with examples of athletes who rose up against their social identities and went down in the annals of sporting history. Jim Thorpe (Native American) and Jesse Owens (a black bishop) immediately come to mind. John Carlos’ Black Power Salute from the 1968 Olympics changed the way we look at racing in sport. Even in cricket, players like Basil D’Olivera, who emigrated from apartheid South Africa, stand out.

Palwankar Baloo is as tall as her, if not taller. His gates on the field carried him to the stars, but the accident of his birth pulled him mercilessly back to earth. He was ostracized at every stage of his cricket career. He just didn’t face the batters when he went bowling. He faced his own teammates who didn’t see him as an equal. He was just an instrument to their sporting glory and was later discarded.

Baloo’s contribution to Indian cricket and also to the anti-untouchability movement remains only a footnote in the history of Bombay and Indian cricket. Historians such as Ramchandra Guha have restored his dignity in their works, but a complete biography of Baloo is always desired.

As cricket fans and readers, we need to change that. Next time you list the big slow left arm spinners who have played for India, make sure you start the list with Baloo. He was the pioneer of this art in India, in which Vinoo Mankad, Bishan Singh Bedi and now Ravindra Jadeja excel.

This was the story of India’s first great cricketer born on March 19th 147 years ago.


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