Khawaja factor: how Cricket Australia are targeting multi-cultural growth

Khawaja factor: how Cricket Australia are targeting multi-cultural growth

When Rohit Ramanathan started playing grade cricket in the late 2000s there was a cultural cricket festival called the Cricket Masala.

The event included 13 teams, representing India, Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka and more, drawing mainly from Sydney grade cricket for players in the senior competition; the idea being players represented the country of their descent.

Role model: Usman Khawaja, Australia's first Muslim Test player.

Role model: Usman Khawaja, Australia's first Muslim Test player.

Photo: Getty Images

"We got ring-ins, we had two guys who weren't Indian - and it was a six-a-side tournament," Ramanathan, a former first-grade player with Blacktown, says. "There weren't a lot of Indians in the top couple of grades."

The same could have been said about other subcontinental backgrounds, but, says Ramanathan, "that's not the case now, look around the top grades there's a lot of diversity".

That, of course, cannot be put down to Usman Khawaja's rise to stardom this summer but Australian cricket, once derided for being run by "pale, male and stale" administrators, has taken major steps in the past few years to put itself in a position where it can capitalise on his feats.


Khawaja, however, remains a "deviation from the default", according to Australia's race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, at elite level.

The batsman became the first Muslim and Pakistan-born player to wear the baggy green, in 2010, though leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed has since played for his adopted country in the one-day and Twenty20 teams. More recently Ashton Agar, whose mother is Sri Lankan, and Gurinder Sandhu, Sydney-born and of Indian descent, have also played for Australia.

Australian cricket has not been known for its multiculturalism. It's only been in the last three years, says Cricket Australia's head of community engagement Sam Almaliki, that participants have been asked questions about their cultural background and disability.

Of the 29 who have played for Australia this summer (before Friday's game), outside of Khawaja only one was born overseas - Stephen O'Keefe, who was born in Malaysia. That's a percentage of 6.8, well below results from the most recent Census, in 2011, that showed 26 per cent of Australia's population was born overseas and a further 20 per cent had at least one parent born abroad.

Before Khawaja, you have to go back to Dav Whatmore to find an Australian Test player born on the subcontinent.

According to figures from Cricket NSW, multicultural participation in club numbers are up 50 per cent from last season and 130 per cent from the season before. Overall multicultural participation for club, school and entry level programs is at 24 per cent, which is more in line with national Census numbers.

Almaliki believes there are three major factors why the game struggled historically to attract interest from Asian Australians.

The perception it was a colonial game and had "discriminatory or systematic racism", he says, plus the time constraints which made it less appealing for first and second-generation migrants who place a greater emphasis on education and work.

The Khawaja factor kicks in here. A trained pilot, he is proof, Almaliki says, "that you can finish university and can also play for Australia because there isn't systematic racism to preclude you from selection if you are the best player".

There is hope in the not too distant future it will be the "norm to have three or four born out of Australia in state or territory teams", Almaliki says.

The time demands of cricket is one of numerous areas addressed in Cricket Australia's "A Sport for All" diversity education program aimed at clubs to encourage inclusion.

Launched last year, the $350,000-a-year program includes a 93-page resource guide, of which almost a quarter is devoted to multiculturalism. It teaches clubs about the customs and values of ethnic groups, how to communicate and also advice on attitudes towards food and alcohol.

The post-match beer and barbecue is a ritual for many clubs though a Muslim player may not find a sausage and VB overly enticing.

Blacktown Cricket Club, one of the more culturally diverse clubs in Sydney's grade competition, provides halal and vegetarian options and soft drinks at their functions.

Racism can also be an issue. Blacktown's Mohammad Shinwari, a Muslim who moved from Pakistan as a child, says he has been racially vilified "a couple of times", from sledges like "go back to your country" to accusations of being a terrorist.

His response is to turn the other cheek. "Better off letting it go," Shinwari, 22, says. "If you say something back it'll cause a big drama."

Last October, CNSW launched a program called the Mosaic Cricket Association in a bid to engage more communities in the game. Herman Lotey, who runs the program, figures there are some 200 teams in competitions that do not fall under traditional NSW cricket structures.

"We'd like to see in five to 10 years if they go to any club they will be comfortable, as opposed to some barriers like barbecues and alcohol that can occur," Lotey says.

The aim is to give players a pathway to the top.

"If I'm serious, I can still play in my own community on Sunday but I can also join a local grade club because I want to be the next Usman Khawaja," Lotey says.

Again the Khawaja factor comes into play. It is much easier for Australians of subcontinental extraction, Ramanathan says, to relate to a Khawaja or a Sandhu than they do Steve Smith or David Warner.

Khawaja, through his feats on the field, has become the face of diversity in Australian cricket, and gives his time generously at numerous grass roots initiatives. When he became the first Muslim to wear the baggy green he did not believe his background made it a more significant achievement.

He has, however, been identified as a role model for Muslim Australia, even if the religious beliefs of his national teammates is not of much interest to the wider public.

"It's a responsibility that comes with the privilege," Almaliki says. "Because Steve Smith's story is not distinguishably different to a story of Ricky Ponting or Steve Waugh from a superficial level, whereas Usman's diversity is notable, so people do take an extra interest in his background and faith.

"But it is their private world and we're very supportive of him of his private life. If he wants to shed greater light on his faith or doesn't then he's entitled to that."

Andrew Wu

Andrew Wu writes on cricket and AFL for The Sydney Morning Herald

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