Andrew Stevenson, an Australian sports writer, recently wrote a column on the caste breakdown of the Indian squad, and concluded that upper-caste Brahmins still rule the roost in Indian cricket. The column provoked all sorts of angry reactions in the Indian press, with one Indian journalist asking what the players’ castes had to do with what happened on the field.
A fair point, except Stevenson mentions numerous (and plausible) ways that caste can affect Indian cricket: poorer fielding; more focus on batting than anything else; different social groups within the squad, etc. Historically, we know that this makes sense: many of the Indian elite who embraced cricket under the British refused to do their own fielding, which they saw as a lowly and “untouchable” task. And since upper-castes in India tend to be wealthier, it makes sense that they would have more time on their hands to sit and watch five days of a Test match unfold (as opposed to those who, you know, work during the day).
But the bigger question remains unanswered: does caste discrimination explain the disproportionate number of Brahmins in the Indian squad? Well, it’s not a Jim Crow world out there: no one in the BCCI refuses a player because of his Dalit origins (or at least I hope not). On the other hand, a subtler discrimination does exist, and it comes out in the twisted response that Salil Tripathi offered, writing in Cricinfo.
Tripathi argues that Indian players are selected nowadays chiefly on merit, if only because the BCCI knows that choosing players otherwise would result in defeats and, much worse, a loss of money. Tripathi also lists the large number of Indian Muslims who have played for the squad and, better yet, the non-existent minority players in Australia and South Africa.
I agree with all this, and I don’t think that caste plays as central a role as it once did in Indian cricket, and certainly not in urban India generally. Tripathi, however, makes a huge error when he takes the status quo at face value. Sure, Ganguly, Tendulkar, Dravid are all fine players first and Brahmins second, but he never asks if richer and upper-caste cricketers have had an easier time in terms of access to coaches, teams, and infrastructure. For a poor athlete, choosing cricket as a profession is a huge, immense risk, because the expected payoff — selection in the national team — might never ever come. This is especially true in India, where domestic players do not receive fame or wealth, and often go from match to match in highly deplorable conditions. And this is still especially unfair. Poor, rich, upper-caste, lower-caste: they should each have a fair shot at selection and resources.
I imagine that a whole range of equally excellent lower-caste and poor cricketers could have emerged, if only they’d have had the good fortune of being born in the right state (preferably Maharasthra or West Bengal) and into the family with the best connections (and being upper-caste never hurts here, unless, of course, you’re in Kerala).
The “merit” argument, then, offers far too much credit to the individual’s effort, without asking larger questions about the social context. If you had 20 children in front of you, each of the same capability but from different backgrounds and classes, chances are that the 11 who eventually end up in the Indian national squad will be from richer, more elite backgrounds.
Dennis Lilee, who heads the MRF Foundation that has done so much to develop pace bowling in India, once remarked how mysterious Indian selection can be at the lowest levels. Watching a young lad bowl brilliantly one day, Lilee would often be shocked to find that that same boy would disappear the next week, lost in the haze of administrative and bureaucratic grease that we know so well in India. Sometimes, you need connections, and for that to happen, you need a reason for a politician or a whatever to pay attention to you.
So if you accept that individual merit has very little to do with individual effort, but instead a large confluence of factors involving resources allocated, better coaching, etc. — you then have to ask, Why shouldn’t we give a helping hand to other lesser represented communities?
Tripathi backs away from this stance, decrying using sport for “social engineering,” but he makes no sense. First, Tripathi acts as if the current selection isn’t itself an act of engineering, but of course it cannot be otherwise. When the best players coincidentally turn out also have to come from the richest cricketing areas, their selection confirms the top over the bottom, and the hegemony continues. Don’t have any illusions about this: the upper-classes being well-represented is just as much a statement about our societal structure as a quota program for lower-castes would be.
Second, it’s clear that cricket is so much more than cricket — to paraphrase Neville Cardus — especially in India, as we recently witnessed after the Sydney fiasco. If we treat cricket as more than a sport, then why not make some use of the symbol? Why not proudly say, Yes, we have a team that has more than a few members of the lower-castes?
Ah, but here comes the counter-argument, brilliantly embodied by Kevin Pietersen, who fled South Africa in a huff about racial quotas. If we choose people by their race or ethnic background or whatever, performance will inevitably suffer. Fair enough, but this stance also accepts an unfair status quo. What the South African cricket board uses racial quotas, it’s arguing that racial diversity matters more to its fans than picking the best players, and the reason is simple enough: they know that without such an effort, under-represented communities will remain so, and cricket will remain the divisive symbol it always was in apartheid South Africa.
If you disagree with quotas pragmatically — they just don’t do the trick — then you should accept at the very least that India use its ridiculously full cricket coffers to build up its cricketing facilities in previously ignored areas, outside Bombay or Calcutta or Hyderabad. Dhoni and Sreesanth are welcome starts, but they are exceptions to the rule.