Does India Need A Caste-Based Quota in Cricket?

Dalits and Adivasis are severely under-represented in Indian cricket. Adopting a quota system similar to that of South Africa will help remove structural barriers and ensure more diversity.

In the 86 years since India attained Test status, 290 different men have played test cricket for India. However, only four belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. That’s four, instead of about 70, as it should have been per the population proportion. This is a disparity that just cannot be dismissed as insignificant.

Unfortunately, Dalit under-representation in Indian cricket has received scant attention. A similar under-representation of black players in South Africa resulted in the introduction of a quota for non-White players in the playing XI across all levels of the game. On the other hand, we don’t even have accurate data about the socio-economic backgrounds of players playing a sport which is followed religiously by most Indians.

Lack of debate on caste and cricket

Very few scholars have looked at possible reasons for this stark under-representation of Dalits in cricket. Sirivayan Anand wrote that this was a product of Brahminical tastes. Brahmins, who are historically indolent, like cricket because it involves hours of merely standing around and an absence of physical contact. This resulted in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Steven Anderson wondering whether this was true. This article also carried interviews with Indian cricketers and commentators like Harsha Bhogle, who promptly dismissed any caste bias in cricket by stating that players and selectors don’t even know each other’s castes. Even mainstream sites like ESPNCricinfo promptly dismissed this article for having cited Anand’s controversial thesis.

Palwankar Baloo. Credit: Public domain image.

Ramachandra Guha’s history of Indian cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field, chronicles the life of Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit, and India’s first great cricketer in Guha’s opinion. Guha’s shows that there were a number of Dalits playing at the highest level in the early 20th century, before India received Test status. This led Boria Majumdar in the International Journal of the History of Sport to conclude that the change of patronage from the princes to corporate houses post-independence resulted in a decline in Dalit participation. These corporate patrons required cricketers to meet certain educational qualifications so that they would be employable post their retirement from the game. Consequently, opportunities in cricket, as in other private, corporate employment, were shut to those who could not access education.

Structural barriers

We heartily agree with Majumdar that it is the structure of the sport, and not Brahminical tastes per Anand or choices as Guha seems to suggest in his book at one point, that is responsible for this decline in Dalit participation. Apart from the corporate patronage leading to the decline in the number of Dalit cricketers, we believe that structural impediments can be seen from the urban concentration of the game, the contrast with the women’s sport as well as the imbalance in the number of minority batsmen and bowlers.

The fact that the urban concentration of the game has an exclusionary impact can be seen from a study of Muslims, another minority community in India that is underrepresented in cricket. In 1970s-80s, about half of the Indian Test cricket team hailed from merely six cities: Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata. However, the share of these six cities has steadily declined to less than 40% in recent years.

This shift to smaller towns has coincided with a significant increase in the number of Muslims playing for India. A statistical review of Indian cricket found that Muslim representation has increased from about 4% between 1950s and 1990s to 12.5% this millennium. That this is not merely a correlation but involves an aspect of causation can be seen from the fact that only two of the eight Muslim players to have made their debuts in this millennium come from one of the six traditional powerhouses of cricket. Moreover, most Muslim cricketers come from families on the lower rungs of economic standing. Consequently, it is probable that the urban stranglehold and corporate patronage have had a similar impact on Dalits participating in cricket. We will discuss why their fortunes haven’t changed, unlike Muslims, later in the piece.

As Sukanya Shantha notes in Round Table India, the Indian women’s team that made waves in 2017 by making it to the finals of the World Cup had several women from “lower caste” backgrounds and did not reflect the upper caste homogeneity of its male counterpart. This also helps pinpoint that the structure is the culprit. The women’s game in India survives on the patronage of the Indian Railways, with 10 of the 15 member-squad being employed by them. Unlike corporate patrons, the railways is a vast employer, hiring across qualification levels, providing for reservations in employment, thus ensuring a more diverse employee pool.

The Indian women's cricket team. Credit: Reuters

The Indian women’s cricket team that reached the World Cup final in 2017. Credit: Reuters

Class hierarchy

The fact that most Dalit and Muslim cricketers to have played international cricket for India have been bowlers and all-rounders further points to inequities in the structure of the game. Cricket has historically had a class hierarchy. Until the dissolution of the professionals-amateurs system, it was fairly common for most bowlers to be professionals from the lower classes, while the upper class amateurs would only play as batsmen.

Unlike early 20th century England, while there might not be institutional barriers any more, that is not to say that systemic barriers have vanished too. In fact, these barriers have permeated across jurisdictions. For instance, Temba Bavuma remains the only black batsman to have represented South Africa in Tests, even after the introduction of transformation guidelines, that is racial quotas.

Even though the quotas have been in place at lower levels of the game for several years, last year’s charts show that despite being outnumbered 30-36, there are seven white players in the top ten run-scorers, while six of the top ten wicket-takers were non-white. Similarly, D’Arcy Short is the only batsman amongst the six aboriginals to have played international cricket for Australia across formats.

The limited data suggests that this issue persists in India as well. Three of the four Dalit Indian test cricketers have been pace bowling all-rounders; five of the eight Muslims to have debuted for India in Tests in this millennium were pace bowlers; as many as 27 Muslims to have played in the IPL are also bowlers, while another 8 are all-rounders, as opposed to only 8 batsmen. The expenses involved towards equipment and training of batsmen is the most likely cause of this disparity. Lungi Ngidi, South Africa’s latest black fast bowling sensation, even confessed that he became a bowler only because batting equipment was too expensive and unaffordable.

Lungi Ngidi. Credit: Reuters.

The different tales of two minorities

Why have the fortunes of Muslims and Dalits in Indian cricket been different, even though they are both marginalised? It is important to note that even Muslims have been underrepresented in Indian cricket, just not to the same extent. Two answers present themselves for this difference. First, Muslim teams played in several cricket tournaments since the late 19th century. Quadrangular tournaments, between the British, Hindus, Muslims and Parsees or variations thereto, were fixtures in several Indian cities such as Mumbai, Lahore, Karachi and Delhi. Further, colleges such as the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh prided themselves on their cricket team. This resulted in the development of Muslim cricket across the country. A similar head start in playing cricket also resulted in a disproportionate number of Parsis having played for India.

While Dalits did occasionally play for Hindu sides, this was only after overcoming great opposition. Further, unlike other Hindu castes and communities, there were no dedicated Dalit teams. This also resulted in the second point of difference with the Dalits, i.e. the presence of role models. Players such as Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Syed Mushtaq Ali, after whom the Indian domestic T20 competition is named, captured the public imagination. In recent times, Zaheer Khan, Mohd Azharuddin and Irfan Pathan have been fan favourites; the latter two have also spoken of their Muslim identity at political rallies. On the other hand, there is a complete dearth of Dalit role models in Indian cricket.

Curing the disparities

The preceding sections show that the lack of Dalit representation is not due to choices or Brahminical preferences. Consequently, there is a need to address the issues rather than writing them off. Given the fact that the barriers are often invisible and are not isolable, a quota is perhaps the best way of addressing these simultaneously. Reservations can also ensure that the issues of potential bias in selection and the lack of role models are addressed.

Further, the example of South Africa shows that reservations have been effective. The first benefit has been an increased black interest and participation in cricket. But equally importantly, it is significantly changing the school cricket system on which South African cricket thrives. A few dozen schools provide majority of the cricketers to play for South Africa. However, these schools are primarily white and elite in their composition. The transformation guidelines have ensured a slowly increasing intake of black children in these schools. Similarly, in India, reservations across playing levels would ensure a larger pool of Dalit cricketers in the domestic structure.

While Ramdas Athawale has proposed a 25% reservation for Dalits and Adivasis in the international team, we do not intend to lay down a quota or percentage. Determination of a specific number requires data about the available players at the first-class level, as well as a clearly envisioned long-term plan. Unfortunately, at present, there is no publicly available data about the number of Dalits playing in the domestic structure.

While it is simple enough to rely on a list of Test cricketers from India to ascertain religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians, it is not as simple in case of caste identities, given regional variations in surnames and surnames contrived to erase such identity. In order to truly assess the status of Dalits in the game, data collection needs to be strengthened at lower levels of the game. Lower levels are also where structural barriers most often crop up. The lack of collected data is also a direct consequence of the fact that the issue has received hardly any attention from the mainstream media. The absence of a players’ association, the establishment of which has been recommended by the Lodha Commission, has also perhaps stultified the process.

Consequently, for now, the only input on the model for a quota in Indian cricket that we shall give would be to learn from South Africa.

In South Africa, the quota for cricketers of colour was introduced at the lower levels of the sport long before it was replicated at the national level. This ensured that there was no sudden dip in the quality of cricket being played. While a few people still tend to blame poor performances on transformation guidelines, since the enforcement of the quotas, South Africa managed to work their way up from being ranked seventh in tests to second. This is primarily because there was a ready supply line by the time the guidelines were imposed at the national level – with players like Kagiso Rabada, who would probably have been in contention for selection even in the absence of guidelines.

Reservation in higher education

We can also learn from the failure of the reservation model at institutions of higher education in India. The lack of support for students from disadvantaged classes in institutions of primary education, specifically after the age of 14, means that even though students are admitted into institutions of higher education, they face structural barriers which translate into high dropout rates and failures. Therefore, it is essential that support structures are created at the grassroots in order to ensure that the structural inequality can be tackled at its core. This would also ensure that the players who benefit thereby are not buried under a hailstorm of comments about sport being the domain of meritocracy when they perform poorly.

Before we conclude, we would like to note our own hesitation in authoring this piece. As cricket fans, we worry that a quota would lead to a deterioration in the quality of the Indian team. However, our own hesitation makes us realise how ingrained the idea of merit has become today. Without going into the value of the idea of merit, and there are several arguments against it, objective merit has often been extremely flimsy in the context of cricket.

There have been as many as 41 players, Hardik Pandya being the most recent, who scored their maiden first-class century in a Test match. While first-class statistics often forms the primary basis of selection, these players show that quite often, quality cannot be measured ‘objectively’ by numbers. Players such as Marcus Trescothick were selected despite very ordinary domestic performances and went on to lead great test careers. Such players are picked for their ‘grit’, ‘potential’, ‘spark’, any number of qualities that ensure selections are not carried out solely on the basis of statistics.

Consequently, if our argument results in the selection of a Dalit batsman with a slightly lower batting average, he might go on to become the next Trescothick. Even if he does not, and merely scores a single century, that century may inspire millions, as Temba Bavuma’s first – and only – century by a black South African did. It is with that hope that we have penned this piece.

A longer version of this piece has appeared in the Economic & Political Weekly. Read it here.

Shubham Jain and Gaurav Bhawnani are recent graduates of National Law School of India University, Bangalore.