Few issues agitate Indians as much as caste. So when soon after France’s win at the World Cup, I tweeted about the remarkable multi-cultural identity of the French football team and attempted to draw a parallel with the Indian cricket team’s caste profile, I was immediately the target of a volley of abuse. ‘Send him to a lunatic asylum for seeking to divide the Indian cricket team on caste lines,’ was amongst the more charitable responses. Since the 280 characters on twitter hardly allows sufficient space to develop a cogent response, maybe a column like this is a better alternative.
At the outset, let me say that I was struck, like millions of sports watchers, by the sheer diversity of the French team: 16 of the 23 French squad are children of first generation French immigrants, mainly from former French colonies in Africa. Kylian Mbappe, the teenage prodigy and arguably the most influential player in the tournament, is part Algerian and part Cameroonian. From Zaire to Martinique, Congo to Angola, this French team represents a melting pot of sub-nationalities, all proudly playing under a unifying French flag.
Contrast that with the social make-up of the Indian cricket team. Yes, the team is blessed with a far greater regional mix than ever before. Where once Indian cricket was over-represented by the boys from the big cities, especially Mumbai, now the men in blue come from distant corners of the country. The ‘small town’ revolution in Indian cricket has meant that the Indian ODI XI in England only had three players — Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan –who could be described as ‘metro men’: the rest have all learnt their cricket in B town, tier 2 India.
There is also a greater diversity in social class and income backgrounds that suggests that the walls of privilege have been well and truly breached (princely benefits were first challenged in the 1950s and 60s itself by a generation of outstanding middle class cricketers but the sport’s patrons remained trapped in a feudal social order). Today, an Umesh Yadav, whose father was a coal mine labourer, sharing a dressing room with a KL Rahul, whose father is an NIT engineering professor, is the new ‘normal’, reflective of a ‘new’, aspirational India where cricket offers unprecedented opportunity for social mobility. The Indian Premier League and its regional avatars in particular have spurred an intensely competitive sporting ethos that has led to the ‘democratisation’ of cricket, a universe where the boundary between the elite city gymkhanas and mofussil maidans has been conquered. It is this transformation which is largely responsible for Indian cricket’s relentless drive to the summit.
And yet, while researching my book on Indian cricket, Democracy’s XI, I was struck by how few Dalit and Adivasi cricketers had represented the country. The pre-independence travails of a Palwankar Baloo, the great Dalit cricketer of Mumbai who was forced to sit apart from the rest of his team-mates during the tea break, have been well-documented (for more: read Ramachandra Guha, ‘A Corner in a Foreign Field’). But even post-independence, especially till the 1970s, cricket remained primarily an upper caste, middle class Brahminical sport: an Eknath Solkar, the son of a groundsman, was one of the few exceptions to the dominance of the privileged classes. Untouchability may have been struck off by law but an invisible discrimination meant that the boy from the slum had less opportunity to shine than those from more advantaged homes: cricket in particular is not an inexpensive sport (unlike football) and access was related to income.
It is only in post-liberalisation India, that there have been visible signs of change: agrarian middle castes like the Yadavs now have a greater representation, perhaps in keeping with their improved political and economic status. And the spread of the game to remote corners through cricket academies has thrown up exciting possibilities. The harsh reality though is that since 1932 , 290 individuals have worn the India cap but there are only three Dalits who have played for the country and no Adivasi, a striking anomaly that reflects how India’s premier mass sport is still monopolised by elite groups.
This is not to push for reservations in cricket, or even to make a case for a South Africa-like policy of ‘racial quotas’ in a national team. Far from it in fact. Sport is one of the last truly meritocratic spaces in society and must always remain so: there cannot be the dynastical or nepotistic principle applied on a sports field as is perpetuated in politics or cinema. Sports must be driven by talent alone and by an unswerving recognition that only the most skilled can rise to the top of the game.
But every talent needs an enabling environment to flourish which can only come with providing equal access and opportunity to all. This is where the French football system that has revolved around a firm commitment to coach and nurture potential stars from the backstreets of Paris and beyond, should be held up as a model project. The Zidanes and the Pogbas emerged from an eco system that consciously searched for talented teenagers in impoverished areas and then gave them the chance to succeed through a robust state-funded community club structure. In India, it is a few good men who enabled the Dhonis and the Umeshs to realise their dreams: the system itself wasn’t going to do them any special favours.
But forget cricket for a moment which, after all, is still blessed with a well organised domestic structure. Consider Olympic sport that really should be the benchmark to judge India’s global sporting status. At the core of our continuing Olympian failure lies the inability of the Indian state to have provided equal opportunity to all Indians to participate in sporting activity in schools. ‘The sports for all’ mantra of sports minister Rajyavardhan Rathore, himself an Olympic silver medalist, can only be realised when every school has access to a playground and the youth are encouraged to show off their skills.
Yes, the Sports Authority of India’s Special Areas Games scheme that sought to nurture natural talent from remote areas did throw up world beating archers like a Limba Ram; yes, sports like hockey have managed to produce an assembly line of national champions in the tribal belt of Jharkhand, Odisha and beyond (including my personal favourite, 1980 Olympic gold medalist, Sylvanus Dung Dung); and yes, the dramatic rise of Manipur and Haryana in Olympic sports has ensured a break from traditional centres of sporting power . But truth is, only a long-term public-private partnership aimed at promoting a sporting ethos that spots and rewards talent early enough can actually transform India’s sports landscape.
Indeed, it maybe no coincidence that the north-eastern states — the one part of the country that has kept away from India’s manic cricket obsession — are now the nursery of football and Olympic sport. In discovering raw talent in India’s tribal dominated areas and giving them every opportunity to succeed, lies the future glory of Indian sport. This is where we will find our own Pogbas and Mbappes who will give Indian Olympic sport the muscular edge and rich diversity that will sustain sporting achievement in the years to come.
Post-script: the Indian sports story of the year has undoubtedly been Hima Das, the 18 year old who became the first Indian gold medalist at a major international track meet. That the daughter of a humble rice farmer in a far-flung district of Assam could be an Olympic champion of the future offers some hope that ‘achche din’ for Indian sport may soon get even better.