Indian cricket: The retreat of the Brahmin

ODIs are shaking the game loose of its brahminical traits

In a nation that has produced eight Brahmin prime ministers out of 13 (with non-Brahmins accounting for six years of rule in 55 years of Independence), a nation where despite decades of affirmative action and Mandalisation the top echelons of bureaucracy continue to be dominated by Brahmins, it should perhaps not be surprising that cricket, another national obsession, should also suffer from a similar statistical truth.

However, while the Hindu scriptures-backed dominance of the Brahmins in the political, economic and cultural realms owes to their centuries-old stranglehold over power centres – despite the Buddhist, Mughal and British challenges to such supremacy – it is their dominance in a sport that seems to be an aberration.

Sporting ‘soft’ Brahmins

There’s no escaping the facts (see box). Through the 1960s till the 1990s, Test-playing Indian teams have averaged at least six Brahmins, sometimes even nine. And this despite Brahmins comprising a little over 4 per cent of the population. What has never been addressed is the why and how of it. How is it that a community that traditionally and ritually distanced itself from, even abhorred, physical labour, forget working towards physical fitness, came to dominate a sport? The caste system expects the Brahmins to be involved in ‘intellectual pursuits’ by excluding other varnas from this realm. It also does not expect them to be robust and strong in matters physical.

Notions of Brahmin ‘softness’ and lack of physical vigour have the sanction of Hindu mythology. Karna, the much-wronged character in Mahabharata, assumes a Brahmin identity to acquire the brahmastra from Parasuram, a Brahmin. One day, when Parasuram sleeps off with his head on Karna’s lap, a bee stings the devout disciple. To ensure that the guru’s sleep is not disturbed, Karna endures the pain in silence. But Parasuram is woken up by the blood that trickles down to his cheek. The warrior-sage is quick to decipher that Karna is not a Brahmin. A ‘soft-bodied’ Brahmin can’t endure such pain, he concludes. In modern literature, Jnanpith award winner U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara explores the continued feminisation of the contemporary-traditional Brahmin.

The moral is that Brahmins have been traditionally believed to be soft; even effeminate. So, how did they come to dominate a sport? What was it about cricket that seemed to make the priestly class’ association with it appear natural, easy and uncontested? Why does such dominance not extend to other team sport such as hockey or football? The hockey team that played in the 2002 Busan World Cup, in fact, did not have a single Brahmin. Hockey is predominantly played by OBCs, Dalits, Sikhs, and Adivasis. A cultural equivalent in the basketball-crazy US can be found in the Black sentiment that White men can’t jump (80 per cent of NBA basketball players are Black, whereas 80 per cent of baseball players are White).

Cricket in India, especially the Test variety, appears to be a game that has inherently suited the bodies and temperaments of the ‘twice-born’. In the pre-Independence period, it was dominated by princes, Parsis (again, not known for robust physical proclivities) and the aristocratic elite (Kshatriyas), who mimicked the British, but it was waiting to be taken over by the Brahmins. Ashis Nandy, who has equated cricket with Hinduism and argued that it’s an Indian game, accidentally discovered by the British, writes in his The Tao of Cricket: “Particularly recognisable to the Indian elites were cricket’s touch of timelessness, its emphasis on purity, and its attempt to contain aggressive competition through ritualisation.” Further, for Nandy, cricket is a non-modern game that seeks to sustain a ‘hierarchy of values’ that defy modernity.

Why cricket was a ‘natural’ for Brahmins

That the Brahmins related to a team-game like cricket, more easily than to football or hockey, also owes to the fact that cricket involves very little body contact.For a community that has believed in touch-me-not ritual cleanliness (which socially translated into the practice of untouchability), cricket’s relative lack of physicality seems to have been an inducement. According to Ramachandra Guha, historian of the game who once described himself as an ‘anti-Brahminical Hindu’, “Cricket being a non-body contact sport was certainly one attraction for the Brahmin. Besides, to play this game you did not have to be physically very strong.”

Cricket being a largely relaxed game, where a player is required to be in action only in spurts, the Brahmin didn’t have to exercise himself much. He didn’t have to be very athletic but could turn technical correctness and rational self-centredness into assets (like Gavaskar). Reason why we perhaps constantly saw individual successes not translating into success for the team. You could be rated the best Test player in the world, the most accomplished, technically astute batsman, but need not make a difference to the team when it mattered. Besides, in this ‘gentleman’s game’, ideally you didn’t have to be aggressive. Guha also points out that those with a working-class background tended to be bowlers since it involved more sweat. “There are exceptions of course like Srinath, but Dodda Ganesh and Venkatesh Prasad shared a working-class background, though Prasad was a Brahmin.” There’s also the economic angle. Bowlers, unlike batsmen, says Guha, don’t have to spend much on paraphernalia. All you need is a ball and someone to bowl at. It’s much cheaper and easier to work towards being a bowler. “When I once drew up a Princes Eleven for my column there was not one full-time bowler in the team. The princely elite would look down upon a physically demanding activity like bowling,” says Guha. By this logic, Brahmins and the upper class have dominated batting, and cricket is a ‘batsman’s game’.

Palwankar Baloo — after him we’ve had no Dalit cricketer at the national level, unless you count Vinod Kambli

TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, whose father Dilip Sardesai was one of the several Saraswat Brahmins who played Tests for India, thinks the Brahmin dominance continues to reflect on some crucial aspects of the game. “We have not produced great fielders. In fact, we have neglected fielding.” Sardesai links the Brahmin penchant for cricket with the community’s greater access to metropolitan centres. “You will see that Brahmins tended to be good at sports that sprung around the Gymkhanas. They dominated these sports for decades. Cricket in Maharashtra was also a vehicle for upward mobility. However, post-Independence other sports became democratic. Other communities not only proved equal to Brahmins, but also better in the physical sports. On a level playing field, the Brahmin became just another player. Not so in cricket.” Sardesai argues that “cricket and the values it promoted fitted well with the hierarchies that our feudal and caste society engendered. It did not break them”.

If the metropolitan connection explains the Brahmin domination in Bombay, in Madras it threatens to become a fight among the Brahmins. A retired Ranji level off-spinner, in fact, complained about the “Iyengar dominance at the expense of Iyers. Only two Iyers seem to have made it. L. Sivaramakrishnan and V.V. Kumar. Otherwise, it’s an Iyengar roll-call from wicket-keeper S.V.T. Chari to Sadagopan Ramesh. They network well.” Says Guha: “From the 1950s through the 1980s, the South Indian and Bombay Brahmins dominated the scene. Besides, the Brahmins were also powerful in the administration of the game. This has changed over the years, what with Kumbhat displacing the Iyengar monopoly. In Bengal, where the bhadralok dominated, you today have Baniyas like Dalmiya taking charge.”

Impact of ODI’s

Things of course began changing with the advent and popularity of the result-yielding, competitive, one-day format.Excessive one-day cricket has, in fact, even made Test matches more result-oriented, thus leading to a general debrahminisation of the game. The current team does have a Brahmin presence, led by Saurav Ganguly (Brahmin of course, but more importantly in Bengal terms a bhadralok) and Sachin Tendulkar, but they can hardly be called brahminical in the conventional sense. True, Saurav is physically inactive, tends to get others run out to save his wicket, even fields poorly, but otherwise he embodies an aggression and body language that would have got Parasuram suspicious about his caste. And when he removes his shirt, like he did at the Lord’s in July 2002, he doesn’t stand the risk of exposing his Brahmin identity. Tendulkar, who loves to tuck in his chicken, is known to work out and is a fitness freak unlike mentor Gavaskar.

The team India has pegged its World Cup [2003] hopes on certainly does not suffer from a karmic indifference to the result, though someone like Nandy celebrates such brahminic virtues modelled on the Gita. It is powered by young, aggressive turbo jats like Sehwag, Nehra and Sardars like Harbhajan. “Ten years ago we could not have thought of Jats making it big in the game. Thanks to television, ODIs and the market culture that accompanies it, the game has penetrated geographically. So, the options have widened,” says Sardesai. In Guha’s words, “the catchment area of players has improved. Even Orissa and Kerala are producing players”. And as a football-obsessed Kerala is performing like never before at the Ranji level, we see that the Madras-Bombay Brahmin axis has also weakened.

That the times are a-changing is proved by the fact that Javagal Srinath, once dubbed the ‘world’s fastest vegetarian bowler’, turned meat-eater on his trainer’s advice to improve stamina levels. When a Brahmin breaks caste taboos for the sake of the team, we know that debrahminisation of the psyche has set in. Since the sport has become more physically demanding, post ODIs, the Brahmin body is slowly being thrust out. It has to shape up (like Tendulkar’s, Srinath’s) or be shipped out. What cricket needs is more an attitudinal change than a weeding out of Brahmins. Mandalisation, forced affirmative action, is neither the solution nor is it possible in a sport. Equal opportunities need to be created. A team that reflects the diversity of the nation better not only taps a range of talent but also becomes truly ‘national’. It is ironical that the English, the prudish originators of the game, today have the most ethnically diverse team led by an Indian-born Muslim. The England and Wales Cricket Board set up the Racism Study Group in 1998 to investigate issues of racial inequalities in the sport in line with its Equal Opportunity/Sports Equity policy. The group submitted a report called ‘Hit Racism For a Six’ in June 1999.
But is Indian cricket democratising?

Guha would not go that far. “In a regional sense, it has democratised. But caste-wise, the composition of the team hardly reflects the diversity of our society. After Palwankar Baloo in the early part of the century, we haven’t produced a single Dalit cricketer (save Vinod Kambli) at the national level.” And given that Baloo never played Test cricket, this would mean India hasn’t had a single Dalit cricketer in a Test or ODI team. Kambli’s troubled stint is an exception that only proves the rule. The non-Brahmins entering the team come from the upper crust of the society. Though the game has penetrated rural India, kids from the countryside can hardly think of making it big. Cricket gives the marginalised an imaginary sense of participating in the national.
Why drag caste into cricket? One is not dragging it; only pointing to what is already there. And to those who think ‘it’s not cricket’, we are only asking for a little more India in the Indian team.

Published in the November 2009 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine

(Originally published in Outlook, February 10, 2003. Brahmans & Cricket, S. Anand. Navayana, 2003. Reproduced with permission from Navayana Publishing)

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