Why the Indian cricket team was not truly representative

Quite the most amusing aspect of the reaction in England to the denunciation of Azeem Rafiq’s racism in English cricket and wider society was the surprise of those who had to know it all along. That the gifted player (who is still only 30 years old) needed tears on television to trigger a reaction is evidenced both by his ubiquitous nature and by his occasional acceptance both by the perpetrator and in many cases by the victims.

Rafiq spoke with lucidity and controlled passion which gave extra weight to his words. The England and Wales Cricket Board apologized, while the whistleblower hotline in Yorkshire had 36 calls in the first week. The problem is perhaps too deeply rooted in society for the sport to remain isolated even as administrators try to make amends – if not for honorable reasons, then at least to prevent their sponsors from leaving.

When one of the board members asked Rafiq if he would consider helping Yorkshire attract new sponsors or bring back those who withdrew, he made it clear that he did not intend to sell for a few pennies. The question was part of the old thinking of how dignified the answer was.

Rafiq started not only the cricket of the government, he also activated the media. According to
Guard , “Privately educated white British players are 34 times more likely to become professional cricketers than state-educated British South Asians.” The newspaper cited a study conducted by the University of Birmingham City, which found that white British players are three times more likely to become professionals compared to their British South Asian counterparts, regardless of schooling.

Similar statistics are not available for India, and it is believed – conveniently, perhaps – that the cricket is an area where everything is to blame, and accidents of birth, parenthood, education and circumstances make no difference. Yet of the 302 players who played test cricket for India, only about five percent were Muslims (compared to 15 percent in the general population) and about eight percent were Dalits (compared to 25 percent in the general population).

There is no need to build a monument on those numbers, but things are obviously a little twisted. It boils down to a lack of opportunities, education and sports, as well as pressures to earn a living and contribute to family income.

A parliamentary committee like the one in England that questioned Rafiq on live television (Department of Culture, Media and Sport) could do a lot of good for Indian cricket as well. Gathering information, compiling it, and distinguishing forms may not require a parliamentary committee, but such a committee will have to recommend changes. It would also help to talk to stakeholders, perhaps on national television. It is important to remember that caste discrimination is as vile and pervasive in India as racism is elsewhere.

You cannot correct racism or casteism by taking care of it in a small section of society. But that’s at least a start, especially if the focus is on correcting things at lower levels. The major Indian players, from Vijay Merchant through Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar to Rohit Sharma, were Brahmins who were well educated and had greater opportunities than those born lower on the caste ladder. The percentage of Brahmins in the country is about five, but they make up more than fifty percent of those who have played for India.

It is not unknown, or even unusual, but it is not commented on. The worst is seen at lower levels – in the cricket age group, for example – and not so much at the highest. You have to perform to play for India, and do it consistently. This is fair. But in order to perform, the player must be given the opportunity to do so, and there is a problem at lower levels. We have no way of saying how much Dalita and Adivasi who could have made a difference lost to Indian cricket due to lack of opportunities.

Sunil Gavaskar wrote in his book that as a newborn he accidentally mingled with another baby. Uncle noticed that baby Sunil was not the same one he had visited earlier. A search was launched and Gavaskar was found in a crib in the hospital next to a fisherwoman.

Would Gavaskar have become a great cricketer if he had grown into a fisherman? Or would a fisherman’s son raised as Gavaskar play for India? Especially since it was done by his uncle Madhav Mantri?

As we applaud Rafiq and the British establishment, one time he spoke and the other because of an official investigation, we do not lose sight of the problem in our own backyard. Who will be the Indian Rafiq?

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