BR. Ambedkar and cricket! That's nonsense! This was what Soli Sorabjee said during my interview for the Rhodes scholarship. A nervous interviewee would get flustered by such a remark. But I was dying for it to come my way, for then I could guide the interview according to my prepared strategy. In the numerous mock interviews I had with my professors in Calcutta I had come across a similar response and I had the answer pat, a fact Soli would not have known! In a nation apathetic to accepting the broader social significance of sport, this reaction was all but natural. The truth is, one of Ambedkar's foremost heroes was Palwankar Baloo, a Chamaar cricketer from Dharwad. The true predecessor to Bishen Singh Bedi (a fact he may be completely ignorant about), Baloo—the nation's best bowler in the early years of the 20th century—justifiably deserved this adoration, a story I am eager to tell while commemorating Ambedkar's birth anniversary.
In his classic The Epic Fast (1932), Pyarelal writes: "Confined in the Poona Yervada jail, in September 1932, Gandhi had been forced to undertake one of his fasts unto death. This was against the decision of the British government to institute separate electorates for the low castes, a decision supported by Ambedkar. This fast continued for several days to be finally broken by a compromise reached between Gandhi and a delegation of the untouchables consisting of Ambedkar, M.C. Rajah and P. Baloo." As Ram Guha has written, "historians who have written on the controversy do not generally bother to identify him (Baloo) quite possibly because they cannot." Baloo, he rightly says, was the first public figure to emerge from the ranks of the untouchables commanding enormous respect inside and outside the community. This was the time when caste prejudices were at their oppressive best, a fact evident from the history of the breast cloth controversy in south India. Under the prevalent norm in the south, women of lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts, an act perceived as a show of respect to the higher castes. Against this backdrop, Baloo, a Chamaar born in Dharwad in 1875, had by his sporting prowess forced the Brahmins of the Deccan Gymkhana—eager to beat the British Poona Gymkhana—to take him into the team. A few years later, he was recrui-ted by the Poona Gymkhana, and then the Bombay Hindu Gymkhana, who even admitted his brothers—Shivram, Ganpat and Vithal. This was the start of a spectacular family sporting history that reached its climax when Vithal, captain of the Hindu side in 1923, was carried out of the ground on the shoulders of high-caste Hindus after he had led them to victory in the quadrangular tournament.