Khawaja’s selection marks a new era in Australian cricket

2010-12-31 00:00

IN a few days Usman Khawaja will become the first Muslim to represent Australia at cricket. It might seem unfair to mention his faith, but it is the fate of minorities to represent more than themselves. Khawaja’s selection is another step towards the enlightenment, the time when every man is judged solely by the content of his character.

It is also a significant step for Australian cricket. To its modern frustration, Cricket Australia has been presiding over a monoculture. In its long history, Australia has not fielded a single Hindu or Buddhist. Aborigines have been few and far between and the team has remained mostly white. Large chunks of the population were not utilised. Other disciplines have been luckier (if it is luck). At last the barriers are breaking. And nothing advances the position along half as well as the sight of a bright and talented player stepping fearlessly forward.

Inescapably Khawaja’s background is relevant. Indeed it is a cause for celebration. It is not so very long ago that a youngster of his colour and conviction might have found his path to the top blocked. Even now tensions endure as caricatures persist. Simply by attending to his own affairs, Khawaja will help to break them down.

Already the newcomer has shown strength of character. His first few matches for the NSW second XI coincided with the Cronulla riots. Observing his name on the list, and anxious to show that neither Muslims nor Australians ought to be judged by the actions of a headstrong few, the Sydney Morning Herald went to meet him.

Khawaja proved to be bright, popular and cheerful. He is a playful fellow and none of the furies can be detected in him. Asked about the lack of Muslims in Australian cricket he observed that, “Maybe they don’t think they can go all the way. Also, studies are very important in subcontinental societies.” He is not fighting any battle or proving any point, merely trying to play cricket as well as he can. It’s a tough enough challenge

He was born 24 years ago in Islamabad, a few years before his family settled in Australia. Iqbal, his father, liked the country because of its open ground and big playing areas. He thought it’d be a good place to raise a family, and so it has proved.

In so many ways Khawaja is a typical young cricketer. Like his comrades he listens to rap and rock. He has a nickname, too, and rejoices in it. Team-mates call him “Used Car Yard”. Not that he is exactly the same. Aspiring cricketers cannot be put in a box. Perhaps he does not talk quite as much about clothes, or think as much about tattoos or poker. Still, he is part of the room, part of the cricketing family.

Undoubtedly he deserves his chance. After years of hard work and sturdy batting he has forced his way into the side. An alert left-hander, he has an acquisitive, orthodox and well organised game. He will bat at first wicket down, stepping into the shoes temporarily vacated by an ailing and ageing captain. It is his home ground and his family and friends will be watching, but still the heart will be pounding.

Whereas others dazzled their way forwards, Khawaja has earned his spot the old fashioned way, by scoring a stack of runs, including a double century in the first Shield match of this campaign.

No harsh words are said about him. It’s not because he is brown or Muslim, but because he is liked and respected.

Cricket counts amongst the most diverse of games. Its small group of senior nations includes brown, black and white, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. Of course it is not all sweetness and light but it is a miracle of sorts.

Of course Khawaja will not be thinking about that and rightly so. He will be concentrating on that proud moment when his captain hands him his baggy green cap and about the nerve-wracking prospect of walking out to bat for his country for the first time and facing the best Jimmy Anderson and all England has to offer.

• Peter Roebuck is an international cricket correspondent who is based in the KZN midlands, and is currently covering the Ashes tour in Australia.

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