Delhi: Avid cricket fans may be forgiven for not noticing the cast differences in Indian cricket, but as the country takes a leading role in the sport worldwide, questions are being asked.
Why is the national team made up mostly of high cast players?
Boys play cricket against a cloudy sunset in India.
In the Indian Test team's nearly 85-year history only four low-caste dalits, formerly the "untouchables", players have made the national team out of 289.
But the issue is gaining traction with growing calls for
affirmative action by the country's selectors: namely reserving a certain number of places in the team for lower caste cricketers.
Village children play cricket in the street. Calls are growing for affirmative action to give more cricketers from a lower caste in India an opportunity to play for their country.
Dalits, who occupy the lowest position in the Hindu caste system and make up 17 per cent of the population, already enjoy quotas in government jobs and universities. Some have argued that there should be job quotas for them in the private sector too. So why not in the country's sporting teams?
A recent article in Mumbai's Political and Economic Weekly raised the question of affirmative action calling on selectors to take a leaf from South Africa, which two years ago decreed the national team must include six players of colour.
Ramdas Athawale, a dalit and minister for social justice, supports the idea of ''reservations'' – as affirmative action is called in India.
“If we have reservations in jobs and higher education, then logically cricket, and other sports, should be included too, for the same reason of historical discrimination,” he said.
Given the importance of popular culture and the colossal status of Bollywood films and cricket, the Weekly article argued their role models could be important catalysts for change. A disproportionate number of the country's cricketers have been Brahmins, the highest of the four Hindu castes largely made up of priests and scholars, they add.
The country's last well-known dalit cricketer was Vinod Kambli, who made his Test debut in 1993 and played his last one-day international in 2000. Kambli, a middle-order batsman, disliked any mention of his caste.
Batsman Vinod Kambli with a young protege.
But observers say that discrimination may not be the only reason dalits are scarce on sporting teams. Striving to escape poverty, many dalits have preferred secure professions such as medicine, law and the civil service. A career in sports could be seen as a luxury. Others have argued that Brahmins have dominated cricket because, being a non-contact sport, it suits the caste's concerns about who can and can’t be touched for reasons of ritual purity.
In a broader sense, India lacks a sporting culture. Parents urge children to cram for exams to get a well-paid job. Sports barely feature in their priorities.
For veteran sports journalist Harpal Singh, the quota suggestion was ''pure poppycock''. He says that over the years, the composition of the Indian cricket team has changed as society as evolved.
“Now 80 per cent of the players are from humble backgrounds, from lower middle class families, very ordinary families. You don’t see industrialists’ sons playing cricket. You don’t see ministers’ sons playing cricket,” he said.
Singh argues that, as dalits gradually rise to prosperity and more opportunities, they will eventually end up in the team.
But dalit columnist Chandra Bhan Prasad says the cricket selectors should be doing more.
"It’s not as if there are people standing with rods preventing dalits from becoming cricketers," he said.
“It’s just that a dalit will have to be twice as good as a high caste person even to be considered. If there are no dalits in cricket, shouldn’t the selectors be asking why? And doing something about it?’
MP Udit Raj, also a dalit, agrees, saying he has been inspired by South Africa to think about reservations in the national cricket team.
“It’s the only way to smash the domination of the upper castes in every sphere of life. Selectors say only merit counts but that is rubbish. Dalit cricketers never get to the point where they can even demonstrate their merit," he said.
Abhishek Jhatav, 22, a dalit in Nizampur village in Uttar Pradesh, said he loved cricket as a young boy and played for his school but moving on to district level was impossible.
“The nearest cricket ground is 50 kilometres away. There are no training facilities or coaching centres so even though I was very good, what more could I do? It doesn’t matter how talented I might be. I’m not going to get anywhere,” he said.
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