Winds of change are blowng in Oz

2008-02-16 00:00

OVER the years, Australian cricket has been dominated by players of Anglo-Saxon extraction. Admittedly, the first Australian team to go overseas was an Aboriginal side that toured England in 1868. Led by Tom Wills, the ’68 side was popular and mostly well treated. Wills was a colourful sportsman who witnessed a massacre of aborigines and also helped to create Australian Rules (which is not only the outlook of certain local papers, but also a game created to keep cricketers fit in the winter months that seems to have no rules whatsoever — much as fellows with red hair are called Bluey).

Otherwise, black cricket has been a flop. A few pace bowlers emerged only to be drummed out of the game owing, depending on your interpretation, to loose living or loose-limbed bowling actions (Australia was slower to condemn the dubious actions used by several local whites in the 1950s). Apart from these lamented pacemen and sporadic appearances from dusky batsmen, the national team has remained tanned, leathery but resolutely lily white. It has been a limitation. Australia likes to think of itself as a knockabout, egalitarian country, yet the national game represented only a narrow section of society.

Now and then a player might emerge from a surprising quarter. Richard Chee Quee, a batsman of Chinese origin whose mother made the best dim sum in Sydney, played a few matches for his state and had a thick enough hide to turn the taunting into teasing. His appearances reminded all and sundry of the increasing diversity of the country and challenged the game to change or else stumble towards irrelevance. By and large cricket has been unable to break out of its stranglehold. Meanwhile, Aussie Rules welcomed numerous, brilliant aboriginal players to its ranks, and other winter sports also opened their doors to allcomers. Soccer was the game of the settling Europeans.

At last there are signs that Australian cricket might be breaking out. Not the least significant part of the Harbhajan fiasco was that it concerned a coloured Australian cricketer. For once the boot was on the other foot and, after years of dishing it out, the Australian cricket community has not known how to respond. Andrew Symonds’s origins are mixed and include West Indian parentage. Not that he had been regarded in that light. Indeed the issue was hardly mentioned. It was not so much a matter of sensitivity. Just that he looked like another brown, muscular, tough Queenslander. Only his haystack hair set him apart, but the general view was that there was no accounting for taste.

Until Symonds was rudely treated by sections of the crowd in India, he had not been regarded as anything except a late developing all-rounder. Unpleasant or merely ill-informed, the monkey cries of the Mumbai crowd drew attention to his colour. Understandably the Australians set out to protect a popular team-mate. Of course it does not excuse Australia’s rage in Sydney, but it was a novel situation for all concerned. Now the same players must stand strong against any form of abuse from local supporters towards visitors. Sometimes it takes a personal experience to instil understanding of the hurt suffered by visiting cricketers in Australia.

But Symonds is not the only cricketer of exotic origin to be making his mark down under. Anyone scanning the names chosen to represent New South Wales in this weekend’s table-topping match with their arch-rivals from Victoria (sorry about the clichés, but it was a longish night on the turps) will come across Moises Henriques and Usman Khawaja.

Henriques is the offspring of a Portugese goalkeeper. A tall all-rounder blessed with lively pace and a bold batting style, he has made his mark at Under-19 level and is now striving to secure a regular place in his state’s one-day line-up. He has shown his promise in several matches and now wants to establish himself in the four-day outfit. Of course, he is not the first European immigrant to succeed in cricket. The only time Don Bradman was dropped was in 1928 and he was replaced by Dr Otto Nothling, a gifted sportsman who backed the wrong side in one of those periodic Prussian wars.

Chosen in the 12 to play Victoria, Khwaja is the first Muslim to represent an Australian state. A left-handed opening batsman, and bowler who casts himself somewhat mysteriously as “medium-attacking”, he has fought his way up by weight of runs and might have been promoted a month ago. Youngsters have to earn their spots down under. On the last occasion Weekend Witness spoke to him, he was listening on something called an iPod, to a gentleman going by the name of Fifty Cent. In other words he is a normal 21-year-old, except that he is a fully qualified pilot. He enjoys the jousting in the rooms and does not expect to be spared. Indeed, he rejoices in the nickname of Up Your Cardboard, which his coach reckons is close enough! Soon he may have company, as another boy of subcontinental origin has been chosen to play in Australia’s Under-19 side.

Australia is advancing. A bright-eyed 17-year-old girl is making her Test debut in Bowral. Aboriginal sides from every corner of the country are taking part in the Impaja Cup in Alice Springs.

And a government led by a mandarin speaker has just issued a formal apology to the original tenants of this vast, hostile continent. It is all part of the same process, a long-awaited and stiffly resisted move towards enlightenment.

•Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent based in the KZN midlands.

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