Guest Column

What's caste got to do with it?

A recent Australian newspaper article points to the preponderance of Brahmins in India's Test side in Australia. That's merely a result of circumstances and not by design

Salil Tripathi

Irfan Pathan and Zaheer Khan are two of a fair number of Muslim players in the Indian side © Getty Images
The peculiarity of a multi-layered, multi-everything country like India is that if you assemble a bunch of Indians randomly, you can pretty much draw any sociological conclusion you want. And like all generalisations, it will carry a ring of truth. But like all correlations it will demonstrate coincidence, not necessarily causality.
In a provocative piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Andrew Stevenson has seen something in the Indian team in Sydney that has eluded most observers: that it is dominated by Brahmins. (Except Siriyavan Anand, who Stevenson quotes; Anand, of course, is a writer specialising in Dalit issues, and has even published a book, Brahmans and Cricket: Lagaan's Millennial Purana and Other Myths, critiquing the Bollywood classic, and the structure of Indian cricket.)
Stevenson's piece is well written, and quotes several cricket writers, including Cricinfo's Siddhartha Vaidyanathan and commentator Harsha Bhogle, and at first glance Stevenson's case seems formidable: seven of the 11 men are indeed Brahmins, if anybody cares about such things, and there is a Muslim, a Sikh, and two from other castes. The point? That caste-based discrimination dominates Indian cricket. But is it by design, or is it the result of circumstances?
The piece ceases to be legitimate commentary on Indian society because it misses what drives Indian cricket today: money. There is so much of it floating around that it is no longer possible for a selection committee to make odious decisions and select a caste-based, sub-standard squad. Choose someone for reasons other than merit and the wrath of a billion people visits the selection committee.
There was a time when zonal preferences kept out cricketers from the East Zone (or brought them in against better claimants, such as the wicketkeeper Saba Karim,) but today, when surprise decisions are made on the margin, there is usually cricketing logic justifying those decisions.
If anything, in recent years the Indian team has been more inclusive than almost at any time in post-independence India, if you take another yardstick: the number of Muslim cricketers in the team. Wasim Jaffer, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan, and arguably Mohammad Kaif have been regulars of the Indian XI in recent years. Add Harbhajan Singh to the list, and the Amar-Akbar-Anthony make-up of the Indian team almost matches the time when Kapil Dev, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Mohammad Azharuddin, and Roger Binny made up the Indian squad (and even graced a communal harmony poster). The only time the Indian squad had so many Muslim cricketers was probably in the 1960s and 1970s, when Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig, Abid Ali, and Salim Durani were part of the team. That the Indian team has so many Muslim cricketers today - in spite of the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and of Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister accused of doing nothing when hundreds of Muslims were killed under his watch in 2002 - and yet no one even notices it, (not even Pakistan's Shoaib Malik, who thanks the Muslims of the world for supporting his team in the Twenty20 final) reflects the maturity of the Indian nation.
The legitimate Australian reply to this is also the correct reply: judge the team by its results. And who would complain, even for a moment, about the Australian team's on-field performance?
Slice it any which way you want and you will see a pattern in Indian cricket, but it won't be a predictive pattern: time was when Ajit Wadekar, Bishan Singh Bedi, Abid Ali and GR Viswanath were all part of the State Bank of India cricket team, but did that mean the bank dominated Indian cricket? As many as five, and sometimes six, cricketers from Bombay could be seen representing India in the 1960s, through the early 1980s: was it due to factors other than merit, or did the nursery of Dadar Union and Shivaji Park Gymkhana have something to do with it?
This is not to suggest that the caste factor has been absent from Indian cricket. Stevenson correctly notes how Vinod Kambli was abused, even in front of his home crowd, Bombay. But while the public barracking was disgraceful, Kambli's fall from grace probably had as much to do with his off-field shenanigans, and even more so with his lack of form on wickets with some life. In his fascinating book, Corner of a Foreign Field: the Indian History of a British Sport Ramachandra Guha recounts the poignant story of the the "untouchable" Palwankar brothers - Shivram, Ganpat, Vithal, and Baloo. They were stars of the gymkhanas, and Baloo in particular bowled brilliantly on an all-India tour of England in 1911. And yet, in India, the cups in which they were served tea were made of clay - so much easier to dispose off after they had used them.
Indian cricket has come a very long way since then: the players huddle together in the middle, eat together during breaks, and if they do form their groups, that has more to do with class and not faith or caste. (English-educated cricketers stick together; cricketers not familiar with English hang out together - but where else does that not happen in contemporary India, or indeed elsewhere?)
A pot should not call a kettle black, and India is anything but a perfect society. But is it worthwhile asking why it is that 130 years after Australia started playing Test cricket, there has been only one Test cricketer, Jason Gillespie, of aboriginal heritage? In fact, the first Australian team to tour England, in 1868, was made up entirely of aboriginal players Why only cricket: it was the kindness of a few strangers that spotted the potential of Evonne Goolagong who emerged as Wimbledon champion in 1971 and 1980. And there was no Cathy Freeman to hold the Olympic torch at Melbourne in 1956; Australia had to wait till 2000 in Sydney for that, when that delightful athlete, a symbol of Australian reconciliation, not only ran with the Olympic flame, but also won a gold medal.

Is it worth asking why it is that Australia has had only one Test cricketer, Jason Gillespie, of aboriginal heritage? © Getty Images
Is it, then, a legitimate question to ask: why is it that despite its multicultural and outwardly friendly population, Australia is the only Test-playing country without a cricketer from one particular minority, say, the subcontinent, playing for Australia - unless Dav Whatmore is considered a Sri Lankan? Dipak Patel and Jeetan Patel have played for New Zealand. England has had plenty of cricketers of South Asian origin - you can field an entire XI, from Vikram Solanki to Sajid Mahmood and Monty Panesar, with Nasser Hussain leading the squad and Mark Ramprakash providing stability in the middle. West Indies has had captains and stars in the form of Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. And South Africa too has found place for Hashim Amla.
Of course, that is preposterous: a player should get in the team only if he merits a place. Which is why the legitimate Australian reply to this is also the correct reply: judge the team by its results. (Indeed, Lisa Sthalekar, of Indian origin, has played a stellar role for Australia's women's team, and she's in there because she is good, not because of her origin). And who would complain, even for a moment, about the Australian team's on-field performance? Whether or not they break their own record of uninterrupted victories at Sydney this weekend, the Australian team for the past decade and a half has been an acknowledged powerhouse because the players are chosen on merit, and even stalwarts like Mike Hussey, Matthew Hayden, and Justin Langer have had to wait for their turn and pile up runs in domestic cricket to earn their spot.
That's the way it should be: cricket teams are not the place for social engineering. Australia understands that. So does India. Which is why its team is the way it is. Can we think of even a single Indian cricketer kept out of the team in recent years because of his language, religion, or caste? No. That's because that sort of stuff happens in politics, in daily life.
Cricket is too serious for that.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London