The Deep Creases of Caste in Indian Cricket

Palwankar Baloo’s rise to the pinnacle was exponential and he soon made his way into the Indian team establishing himself as the greatest Indian bowler despite the immense caste prejudices he had to face. (Image Source)

The announcement of a ‘Brahmins Only’ Cricket Tournament which was held at Hyderabad’s BSR Cricket Grounds on December 25 and 26 2020,   led to social media outrage sparking off some hilarious and hard-hitting memes. While the outpouring of sentiment against casteism and the social accounting over social networks is quite a welcome change, certain comments (as observed by this author on social media platforms) such as “Leave cricket out of this caste madness” or “They did not spare cricket either” seemed to be quite misplaced and misinformed as the history of the sport on the subcontinent has always had a complicated relationship with caste. While cricket, war and national disasters can arguably be called the three “unifying” factors that bring together Indians irrespective of their backgrounds or beliefs, a brief but careful examination of communal and caste equations in India vis-à-vis cricket proves to the contrary.

Those of us who went to school in the nineties and remember the implementation of Mandal recommendations on OBC reservations and the agitations against them would also recollect the paranoia in the middle-class, upper caste homes about the ‘loss’ of seats and ‘dilution of merit’. A ‘popular’ joke or counter-rhetoric to reservations which floated around during those days was that whether reservations would be implemented even in the Indian cricket team in the name of diversity.  Of course, mentions of the South African Rainbow Rugby team or that of affirmative action in sports in USA did not find any takers.

The history of Indian Cricket, unlike in the Indian movie Lagaan, was not propelled by the desire to beat the Master at his own game; rather it was an attempt to mimic the Master. Arjun Appadurai, the eminent social-cultural anthropologist, in his essay Playing with Modernity: The Decolonization of Indian Cricket argues that indigenization is often a product of collective and spectacular experiments with modernity and not necessarily that of the subsurface affinity of new cultural forms with existing patterns in the cultural repertoire. The adoption of cricket by Indians and its subsequent decolonisation are a result of complex negotiations of power, resistance and the shaping of national mythologies.

It was the group of British loyalists with the dream of making India a cricketing destination who gave traction to the game in India. Prashant Kidambi, Associate Professor in Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester argues in his book Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First All India Team that it was the efforts of the British loyalists along with the initiative of Kumar Shri Ranjitsinh ji or Ranji, an Indian prince (who has been immortalised through the Ranji trophy) known for his batting prowess which shaped the idea of the first ever Indian Cricket team.

The question of representation was important even in this endeavour and the initial attempts fell apart as a consensus could not be reached among the Hindus, Muslims and the Parsis, the three major cricketing communities which had separate teams, grounds and tournaments for the game. Appadurai claims that the groundwork for the lndianization of cricket was therefore laid through the complex, hierarchical cross-hatching of British gentlemen in India, Indian Princes, upwardly mobile Indian men who were often part of the civil services and the army and most importantly those white cricketing professionals (mainly from England and Australia) who actually trained the great Indian cricketers of the first decade of this century.

Historian Ramachandra Guha argues that cricket is the most complex game in the world in terms of its “rules, rituals and vocabulary” but it is also the “perfect relational idiom” to understand India with its oxymoronic unity and maddening combination of divisions and coherence. According to him the Parsis from the British province of Bombay were the first to develop a penchant for the game as a means to reinforce their ties to the colonial masters in the 1850s and 1860s. The Hindus took to the game partially as a response to the Parsis as there was both a business and communal rivalry between the two communities in Bombay. Unlike the Parsi or the British Army teams which were divided according to locality and cantonments, the Hindu teams were forged along caste lines from the very beginning. Thus, the 1860s witnessed a plethora of Hindu cricket teams such as the Gowd Saraswat Cricket Club, Kshatriya Cricket Club, Gujarati Union Cricket Club, Maratha Cricket Club, Telugu Young Cricketers etc.

Muslims, Christians and even Jews started floating their own teams by the late nineteenth century with the Muslim teams registering a formidable presence. Although it is true that the census classifications, the control of religious endowments and the issue of separate electorates were the major official arenas in which the issues of communal identity were reified as part of colonial sociology of India, the role of cricket in this process must not be underestimated.

The first Indians versus Europeans match was played between the Parsi and the European teams at the Bombay Gymkhana in 1877 in which the latter won. The enthusiastic response to the match soon turned it into an annual tournament and shortly after it became a Triangular Tournament in 1907 with the Europeans, Parsis and Hindu teams competing against each other. Subsequently it became a Quadrangular Tournament with the addition of the Muslim team in 1912. The sport soon caught the fancy of thousands of Indians across the country and tournaments were soon held in the Deccan, Madras, Calcutta and Punjab, but the Bombay competition, which had by 1937 become a Pentangular contest with the addition of another team titled ‘The Rest’, continued to hold pride of the place.

The conduct of the Pentangular Tournament meant that a unified Hindu team was to be shaped from the numerous caste-based Hindu clubs and this proved to be no ordinary task. It was during this time that an extraordinary talent in the form of Palwankar Baloo, a dalit belonging to the chamar (a leather working caste) community, a spin wizard was recruited by the Deccan Gymkhana. He was employed by the all-white Poona Gymkhana as a servant to mark the grounds, set up the nets and for bowling to the British cricketers during their practice sessions. His remarkable skill was noticed by the members and word soon spread about his bowling prowess which led to his induction into the Deccan Gymkhana. Baloo’s rise to the pinnacle was exponential and he soon made his way into the Indian team establishing himself as the greatest Indian bowler despite the immense caste prejudices he had to face. He was phenomenal on the field during the first ever English tour of the Indian team. He took 179 wickets with his best record of taking eight wickets while conceding 103 runs against Cambridge but off the field he was still not allowed to dine with the rest of the team which comprised of mostly high-caste Hindus.

His brothers Vithal, Ganpat and Shivram Palwankar joined the team, mentored by him, and proved to be exceptional players as well. In spite of being the most senior and talented player on the team and multiple campaigns run by cricket fans to make him the Captain he was never made one as the post was mostly reserved for Brahmin players. During the tea-time interval Baloo and his brothers were served tea in disposable cups.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, Baloo had not only become a favourite of cricket fans but also became a source of pride for the erstwhile untouchable community. Dhananjay Keer, the political biographer, in his book Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission claims that in 1927 and 1928 the most outstanding leader of the dalits “would tell village audiences of his early attempts at promoting the proper recognition of Baloo’s achievements”.

The campaigns to make Baloo the captain led to his elevation to Vice Captain, but never as Captain as the management was apprehensive of upsetting the caste hierarchy. Including a dalit or two in the team was acceptable, particularly against the backdrop of the country-wide movement against untouchability and the dalit movements emerging across the country, but handing over the captaincy of the Indian team would be emblematic of a caste re-ordering which was unthinkable. Quite resonant and emblematic of the Indian past and present, isn’t it?

This was a classic example of what Ambedkar meant when he said “I am not a part of a whole, I am a part apart” in response to a legislative council claim that he should think as a part of the whole (and what he also proves in the Annihilation of Caste.) Ashish Nandy, the political sociologist and clinical psychologist, argues in The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destinty and the Destinty of Games that the lower-class professional players thus did the dirty subaltern work of winning so that their class superiors could preserve the illusion of a gentlemanly non-competitive sport.

In post Independent India, particularly with the advent of television sets and live telecast of sports, cricket became a shared fantasy with it being a masculine space with the gaze, the audience, the commentators and the players, all being predominantly male; the experience of the few women who watched the game being mediated by men. Scholars have also argued that cricket has played an integral role in the self-fashioning of the nation, particularly the erotics of nationhood. While in the colonial past if cricket was thought to revitalise the lost virility of the effeminate ‘natives’, in the post independent past cricket became a site where the male imaginary could ‘experience’ the game not only as a display of national (read male) prowess but also as site of imagined embodied activity. It also became a safety valve; a substitute for war and thus a site of channelised aggression. Like the flag and the national emblem, the Indian cricket team became an entity where the nation could be embodied. But unlike the flag and emblem which could not be used at leisure, the Indian team could be ‘possessed’ on the luxury of their television sets.

It would not be hyperbole to suggest that cricket has dominated the male imagination and conversations for about five decades, if not more. It has also played a vital role in shaping and communicating class and gender values effectively. In the 89 years of Indian Test Cricket, the Indian team has had only five dalit cricketers among its 289 players. It is within this context of social exclusion that an event such as the ‘Brahmins Only’ Tournament makes visible the deeply strained and fractured caste relations within the game.

Malavika Binny is a historian who specialises in the History of Science and works on pre-modern Sanskrit and vernacular texts of South India. She teaches at School of Liberal Arts snd Social Sciences at SRM University AP.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author.)

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