ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: Does caste play a role in Indian cricket? It’s an old question which the Australian social historian Richard Cashman addressed in a landmark book Players, patrons and the crowd (Orient Longman) 28 years ago, and an Australian journalist has raised it again today.
Sure, we have had Palwankar Baloo, the spinner who was India’s first pre-test Dalit cricketer. And we’ve had the likes of Eknath Solkar, the son of a groundsman at Hindu Gymkhana, and Vinod Kambli, the son of a mechinist born on the other side of the Kanjurmarg railway track, going on to join the cream revolution.
But, deep down, there has always been a lingering doubt over whether cricket, a colonial legacy, has been able to shake off the heavy shackles of caste that Indian public life and politics is weighed down by. We are not talking of Test match teams alone, but State teams and local teams and club teams.
This question is sparked by an article in the Sydney Morning Herald today by Andrew Stevenson titled “A class act?“, which effortlessly confuses between caste and class.
In the current Sydney Test Indian XI, there are 7 Brahmins (Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, R.P. Singh, Ishant Sharma), one Jat (Yuvraj Singh), one Rajput (M.S. Dhoni), one Muslim (Wasim Jaffer), and one Sikh (Harbhajan Singh).
In other words, nine Hindus (seven of them upper-caste) and two non-Hindus.
Given the preponderance of upper-caste Hindus in the team, Stevenson gets some experts to address the question whether caste is indeed a factor despite cricket spreading far and wide in the country thanks to one-dayers and television and the “cricket as religion” culture. The responses?
Harsha Bhogle: “I don’t think that anyone in the Indian team would even be aware that X is from one caste and Z from another,” adding he had no idea what proportion of India’s population were Brahmin.
Ravi Shastri: “It’s a coincidence that so many of the batsmen are Brahmins. They are not picked because they are Brahmins. They’re picked because they’re Indians.”
The only discordant voice in the SMH piece is that of Siriyavan Anand, a journalist cum Dalit pamphleteer: “[It's easy] to infer that cricket is a game that best suits Brahmanical tastes and bodies, and that there has been a preponderance of Brahmin cricket players at the national level.”
From the 1960s to the 1990s, the Indian team averaged six Brahmins, sometimes even nine, despite Brahmins comprising just a little over four per cent of the population. But then eight of India’s 14 prime ministers have been Brahmin, with just 10 out of India’s 60 year post-Independence existence being under the yoke of Brahmins.
So why do so many Brahmins play the game, and play it well enough to represent the country in such a distorted proportion to the general population, for the Aussies to ask such question? Why don’t Brahmins populate the hockey or football teams? And why does cricket fail to reflect the caste-wise diversity of our society?
# Is it because Brahmins are good at cricket, having been exposed to the game far longer thanks to their proximity to the colonial powers, especially in the urban pockets where the colonial administration was headquartered?
# Is it because, as the historian Ramachandra Guha points out, cricket is a leisurely non-contact sport, which broadly meets Brahmins’ subconscious notions of touch-me-not purity and cleanliness, madi and all?
# Is it because Brahmins are able to muster up far greater quantities of mental discipline and technical correctness that textbook Test match cricket requires? (And is this why there are fewer Brahmins in the shorter, aggressive, anything-goes versions of the game, which are also more physically demanding?)
# Is it because Brahmin administrators have for long obtained a stranglehold on cricket administration in the various clubs and associations, which lubricates the selection of Brahmins?
# Is it because upwardly mobile Brahmins have the time and space to play a long, leisurely game, without worrying where their next meal will come from, unlike the lower castes?
# Is it because Brahmins, having been squeezed out of everything, are using the game which has become a national obsession as one of their few spheres of public influence, protecting the status quo ante?
In The Tao of Cricket, Ashis Nandy argued that cricket is inherently suited to the culture of Hinduism: “Particularly recognisable to the Indian elites were cricket’s touch of timelessness, its emphasis on purity, and its attempt to contain aggressive competition through ritualisation.”
But does it still remain so in 21st century India?
And since Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t ask it, let’s do: “Are Brahmins showing their jaati buddhi to keep non-Brahmins and non-Hindus out?”