Transformative Power of Cricket in India: Its potential and limits (Remembering Baloo Palwankar..)

Prashant Kidambi has written a book – Cricket Country  – which chronicles first tour by a representative Indian side to the British Isles, in 1911.

Priyansh, a doctoral student at Univ of Toronto reviews the book in The India Forum:

Prashant Kidambi’s Cricket Country has a conversation with this question of caste, among other things, and helps us to think in productive ways.

As a work of history, Cricket Country seeks to question the accepted narrative about cricket in India before Test status became a reality in 1932. The years before then are generally described as a period of antique curiosities when the princely states, in their desire to mirror the colonial royalty, took to cricket as a pastime. However, as Kidambi notes, cricket also turned out to be a site for political negotiations among religious communities, and its popularity spread deep and wide.

Many histories animate Cricket Country. From the life story of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala—the de facto captain on the tour— to the situating of the Indian tour within an English summer that was in the throes of cultural and political ferment, Kidambi draws disparate threads together. But it is his account of the Palwankars, four Dalit brothers (Baloo, Shivram, Vithal and Ganpat) who excelled at cricket and hockey alike that evokes the popular fascination with cricket and recovers “the small voice of history”3. The story of the lives of the Palwankar brothers, two of whom (Baloo and Shivram) made the team for the 1911 tour, is a stirring highlight of Cricket Country.

Palwankar Baloo and his brothers were afforded long overdue prominence in an English-language work of history by Ramachandra Guha in his much-celebrated A Corner of a Foreign Field. Yet the name of Baloo and his riveting career in cricket remains consigned to the backburner of Indian cricket memory. It is an account that is barely invoked in the popular imagination; rather it remains a trivial concern.

The story of the Palwankars is relevant as it allows us a glimpse into the history of Dalits in Indian cricket. When set against the remarkably low presence of Dalits in organised men’s cricket in independent India, it is worth noting that the historic tour over a century ago had two cricketers from the Chambhar (Chamar) community: Baloo and Shivram. The duo’s brother Vithal could have been a part of the tour as well, but he was unlucky to miss out as communal quotas were strictly enforced to keep all parties happy, namely, the Parsis, the Hindus, and the Muslims.

As Kidambi describes it, the tour was the result of a historic compromise that was reached following past failures to undertake a tour to the colonial metropole. But it is the ever-shifting compromise with the status of Baloo within the Hindu cricketing fraternity that suggests why we still have very few Dalit men in organised cricket. In fact, this may be the final frontier for what is the most popular game for the Indian masses. Post-Independence, it has not been unusual to see cricketers from different religious dimensions. But caste lines remain firmly entrenched.

Baloo’s inclusion, as noted by Kidambi, was motivated by a collective self-interest of the Hindus. Such were his exploits with left-arm spin bowling that the desire for communal supremacy in the Bombay Quadrangular4 ensured his selection. Anecdotes and accounts about Baloo’s talent travelled far and wide, helped in no small measure by his success on the 1911 tour where he was the leading wicket-taker. Nor was he a mug with the bat, playing a few crucial knocks over the course of the English summer.

Baloo’s indefatigable displays were a highlight in a side that had been considerably affected by late withdrawals of key figures and riven with disagreements. The Parsis and the Brahmins experienced continuing friction that had its roots in animosity bred on the cricket fields of Bombay. The tension was borne out particularly in the matter of dietary preferences. As recalled in Cricket Country, one of the Parsi cricketers explained the fragile fitness of a Brahmin cricketer by asserting, “He is a vegetarian and in Great Britain meat must be eaten if one is to keep fit.” What the Parsis thought of Baloo, beyond his cricketing abilites, is unknown.

Much more in the review…

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