Young fans enjoy the game


Advance Australia diverse

As Australian cricket attempts to keep up with the changing nation around it, South Asian immigrants find a home - at last

Sharda Ugra  |  

A blizzard blew through Australian cricket in the southern winter of 2013, in the form of a third Ashes defeat in a row. The centre of that storm, however, whirled largely around the workings of the national team, not the larger entity that makes up the Australian game: the thousands of grass-roots participants, officials, volunteers and families. In the last decade, though, the two worlds of elite sport and recreational cricket in Australia have found themselves facing a new reality that ties them together in policy and purpose. For the first time in its history, the game has - at an official, institutional level - sought to break free of its century-old "pale, male and stale" stereotype and respond to the transformed nation around it.

An Australian line-up of the future could feature Pakistan-born batsman Usman Khawaja, fast bowler Gurinder Sandhu, the son of Indian immigrants, and legspinner Fawad Ahmed, Pakistani asylum seeker and a new recruit into the national team. Khawaja, who made his Test debut in January 2011, Sandhu, who won the Steve Waugh Medal for the best New South Wales cricketer in 2012-13, and Ashton Agar, who has a Sri Lankan mother and played a memorable part in the 2013 Ashes, are contemporary representatives of Australian cricket's embrace of its growing South Asian populace. Like their predecessors, international batsman Dav Whatmore and first-class cricketer Richard Chee Quee, they are all products of formal Australian cricket structures.

Australian cricket's outreach outside these formal structures is more recent. It was set in motion at a Cricket Australia (CA) strategy meeting in 2010, which led, among other things, to the creation of the position of a "diversity manager" in early 2012. Since then, the official push by Australian cricket to reconcile itself with the new Australia has been distinctly etched and filled in by Fawad's remarkable story.

From Merguz to Melbourne: Fawad Ahmed's rise from obscurity has been inspirational

From Merguz to Melbourne: Fawad Ahmed's rise from obscurity has been inspirational © Getty Images

Fawad's progress through Australian cricket gained pace due to a combination of circumstances: his own efforts, encouragement from fellow Pakistanis in Melbourne, assistance from local clubs and Victoria's cricket community, recommendations from CA, and finally a push at governmental level that led to key amendments in Australia's citizenship law. In June 2013, Australia's senate cleared legislation that reduced the residential requirements for gaining citizenship by fast-tracking cases under "exceptional circumstances" - like those pertaining to elite athletes representing the country.

Two months after he was granted citizenship, Fawad made his debut for Australia in a T20 international against England. In five years he had gone from being a local club cricketer in Victoria to Australia's first-choice spinner in an international fixture. His case straddled refugee resettlement, immigration policy, citizenship debates, grass-roots cricket's engagement with diversity, and finally, an understanding of migrant involvement at the top of Australian cricket.

The shift in the policy towards multiculturalism is often treated lightly from the outside and derided by some quarters within. As Australia's 2013 Ashes campaign fell apart, a line in London's Daily Telegraph predicted that the team's "experiment with their Asian immigrant population will be shelved". This followed Khawaja's dismissal in the second innings of the fourth Test, leading to his being dropped for the fifth.

If the scorn around Khawaja's struggles in England came from an outsider, Fawad's decision to go without an alcohol sponsor's logo on his team t-shirt because of his religious beliefs was criticised by two well-known Australian sportsmen, Doug Walters and David Campese. Walters told a newspaper, "I think if he doesn't want to wear the team gear, he should not be part of the team. Maybe if he doesn't want to be paid, that's okay." Former rugby union star Campese tweeted in response, "Doug Walters tells Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmed: if you don't like the VB uniform, don't play for Australia. Well said doug. Tell him to go home." Charismatic during their careers, Campese and Walters now largely occupy "rent-a-quote" status for any media looking to stir up trouble.

"Doug Walters tells Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmed: if you don't like the VB uniform, don't play for Australia. Well said doug" Rugby union star David Campese on Twitter

CA's formal response was to term these comments "opportunism on some people's part to reflect bigoted views". It was a powerful, political word: "bigoted". The discourse around multiculturalism had been steered out to a point of no return from the shadowy space it previously inhabited.

Immigrant involvement in Australian cricket has a chequered, largely unwritten history. Over the century following Federation, Australia's club cricket flourished and served its elite ranks well. Through the last decades of the 20th century, Australian politics dramatically reshaped its population demographic, not least with the dismantling of the White Australia immigration policy in 1973. Cricket, however, maintained an unconscious detachment from that changing reality.

Older cricket officials privately admit that during those years of flux they fell short at a governance level. In comparison, Australian Rules Football (AFL) ended up appearing proactive and forward-thinking on both its balance sheets and multicultural indices. Despite the presence of three other football codes - rugby league, rugby union, and soccer - the AFL is the highest revenue-earner across Australian sport today, and it has a wider interpretation of the idea of "participation". To Simon Matthews, the general manager of media and stakeholder relations at Melbourne-based AFL club Richmond, participation is "more than what is happening during the game. It means the fan, corporates, the broader community… cricket has traditionally been a very conservative business in Australia."

Until recently, the highest levels of the cricket establishment had been widely considered rooted in old ways. Sports historian Richard Cashman says Australian cricket had a history of being "very conservative" but had "got on top of issues relating to women playing cricket a bit ahead of ethnicity".

Ethnicity is now a front-and-centre issue in Australian cricket. During CA's 2010 strategy meeting, political and social commentator Waleed Aly asked the CA board why the South Asian communities - "a massive population already sympathetic to cricket" - had not taken to Australian cricket as their own.

Usman Khawaja became the first Muslim to play for the country

Usman Khawaja became the first Muslim to play for the country © Getty Images

Aly spelt out the fundamental reasoning followed by the producers of Sesame Street, the popular children's TV show. Sesame Street contained a vast range of characters because its producers believed that if a child didn't find a reflection of him or herself - through gender, race, ability - on the show, it was like looking into a mirror and seeing nothing. By that account, Aly told the board that the Australian game had been "fairly narrow" in the way it had tried to capture its audience.

Writing on ESPNcricinfo in 2013 about an Australian team of 20 years ago, the journalist Adam Cooper said that their first names read like "Home and Away regulars: Mark, David, Justin, Mark, Steve, Allan, Ian, Paul, Shane, Merv and Craig." This is well after Australia's migration demographic had changed from post-war Eurocentric arrivals to immigrants from far-east and south-east Asia.

Today one in four Australians was born overseas, with a further 20% belonging to homes with at least one parent born in another country. In the four-year period from 2007 to census 2011, nine out of ten "recent arrivals" to Australia came from Asian nations; immigrants from India made up the largest chunk - 13%.

The modern Australian nation has been created out of the migration caused by historical tidal waves - colonisation, the Second World War, the Cold War, globalisation. Its cricket team - which happens to be the most popular national sporting team - has however been dominated by cricketers of Anglo-Celtic origin. As part of his doctorate study, David Utting, a researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast, calculated that of the 272 Australian Test cricketers since 1946 there are just ten whose heritage is "unrelated" to Britain.

"If there is a new Australia and it is not going to look like the old Australia, why do we have cricket teams that look like old Australia?" Professor David Rowe, University of Western Sydney

This is a changing scenario. In a 1995 study of Under-19 cricketers in six states and two territories, Cashman found that all but one of 80 were born in Australia with only two stating that English was not the only language spoken at home. Eighteen years on, a cultural audit conducted by CA showed that in its elite programmes from the Under-13 level upwards, 29% of cricket participants were "multicultural" (with either one or both parents born overseas).

While these numbers would help administrators set "aspirational targets", must those targets necessarily involve a mirrored ethnic representation as seen in Australia's population? Does it matter?

Professor David Rowe of the University of Western Sydney's Institute for Culture and Society says that an accurate mapping of population demographics is rarely found in sports teams. More commonly, there is over-representation: like the Anglo-Celtic population in Australian cricket, or the fact that 9% of players in the AFL are Indigenous, as against 2.5% Indigenous Australians in the country's population.

What must remain central, says Rowe, is "the idea that there are no barriers to entry… and the question is about whether there are invisible barriers to participation into the Australian [cricket] team". The absence of immigrant cricketers in Australia's formal structures is, he says, "partly troubling".

Pale, male and stale? Fans enjoy a grade cricket match in Melbourne

Pale, male and stale? Fans enjoy a grade cricket match in Melbourne © Getty Images

"There is a sense that because if there is a new Australia and it is not going to look like the old Australia, why do we have cricket teams that look like old Australia?"

Even the most welcoming of clubs can, to the newcomer's eye, have a set of obstacles hardwired into the system. Club cricket in Australia is a volunteer-driven exercise, structured through precise seasonal schedules. It revolves around Saturday cricket in the summer, featuring two-day or three-day games (played on successive Saturdays), relatively few limited-overs matches, and infrequent Sunday games. An immigrant player wanting to test himself at a level just below first-class cricket - known as the grade/district/premier level - would need to set aside two evenings in the week for training sessions.

Every immigrant's primary necessity in a new country is financial security through employment, rather than leisure. Sam Almaliki, CA's senior manager for community engagement, says most immigrants work six days a week and send their children to language schools or private tutoring on Saturdays. "There is less of a chance that someone of a recent migrant background will be involved in our game on Saturdays. An all-week cricket offering is critical to us being a sport for all Australians."

To South Asian immigrants in Australia, cricket occupied a distinctive, distant space. Cricket was a sport "you loved watching on television but it was not for your sons", says Michael Jeh, an Oxford Blue who came to Australia as a Sri Lankan refugee. Representing the high school XI was the outer limit of ambition for South Asian immigrants' children.

Whatmore belonged to the earliest wave of Sri Lankan Burghers of Dutch ancestry who migrated to Australia in the early 1960s. He dealt with a range of differences: the "controlled and structured" junior club cricket, coping with a "different set of rules" at home and outside. "People expected you to be more independent, more confident [outside the home], whereas that was the area I had difficulties with… What came easier and naturally to the Australians was the ability to be loud and talk. Their skill level wasn't that great, from memory, but the confidence level was pretty high."

The game's cultural moorings - sledging, the post-match social drink, the "volunteer" duties - can turn into barriers for minority group newcomers

What remain the game's cultural moorings for the majority can turn into barriers for minority group newcomers: sledging, which writer and club cricketer Gideon Haigh calls "just sound effects… almost like the sound of bat on ball"; the post-match social drink; the graduation through team ranks up to the highest grade/district level; the "volunteer" duties around the club.

Harry Solomons represented Sri Lanka schoolboys before migrating to Australia, where he played A grade cricket at Association level. In the '70s, he says, club cricket in Australia was "much tougher and more competitive" than what he had played in Sri Lanka. He had neither experienced "sledging and arguing" in Sri Lanka or "not giving a damn for authority" with reference to umpires. Post-match friendliness after heated on-field exchanges "took a while to get adjusted to, and it sometimes made me angry".

A decade down the line from Solomons' experience came Jeh's understanding that club "culture" essentially represented the status quo. "If you didn't belong, if you didn't do what everyone did, if you didn't belong in the social fabric - that automatically legislated against you when it came to making the team, unless you were very good and were so far ahead of the group that people didn't care."

What also existed was an awkward handling of the "other". Leonard Durtanovich, the son of Yugoslav immigrants, changed his surname to Pascoe and would go on to play Test cricket. Cashman cites former Test bowler Geoff Lawson reporting that the Chappell brothers had "made a habit of baiting Pascoe about his ethnic origins when they faced up to him". Jeh changed his surname from Jehoratnam after an otherwise fair selector of a Queensland schoolboys representative team couldn't pronounce his family name when calling out a "fifty-fifty" selection. He picked the player whose name read more familiar.

In da club: young immigrants are starting to identify more with their adopted country

In da club: young immigrants are starting to identify more with their adopted country © Getty Images

Aly, of Egyptian parentage, played cricket in the 1990s and there were aspects of cricket clubs he found "alienating". Some were to do with drink, others with sledging - "only a matter of time before it became racial".

Jeh refers to the '80s and '90s as "the Billy Birmingham era" in Australian cricket. Birmingham was a comedian known for successful audio parodies of the Channel Nine commentary team, packaged as The 12th Man. Much of the popularity of the sketches stemmed from jokes around Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan surnames and accents. The enormously successful Billy Birmingham phenomenon in those decades led, Jeh believes, to "the marginalisation of Asian cricketers" and gave rise to the "curry muncher" epithet. "Many young Asian boys coming into the system were turned off from playing men's cricket for the abuse they copped - why would I turn up every Saturday and listen to the abuse?"

Harmeet Saini, president of the Indigos Cricket Club in Melbourne, has a pragmatic view, divorced from culture and economics, about why the immigrant demographic is barely reflected in Australian cricket. "They had a good Sheffield Shield structure, they were really well set up with good players coming through. They didn't go out looking for anyone. Why would you? They didn't need anyone else."

Indigos is one of many clubs that feature a majority of South Asian cricketers and compete in formal club cricket in Melbourne. They play between eight or nine two-day games and four or five one-day games in the Mercantile Cricket Association's A grade competition. The club was set up in 2007, "with an aim of providing opportunity for everyone, particularly immigrants, to get a chance to play cricket at a competitive level and integrate into society".

Two of Saini's Indigos team-mates, teenagers Nakul and Nitin, were, respectively, born in Australia and arrived here as an infant. They had left a club where they spent many years as juniors because of an altered adult dynamic. "They would get girls to come and dance" and "disguise it as wine and cheese nights… the culture started to change as we started to get older and we felt we didn't fit in as well because of our mindset."

There are hundreds of registered cricket clubs across Australia and each account of an exclusionary or "blokey, boozy" environment can be countered with examples of inclusion or attempts to change.

Jeh changed his surname from Jehoratnam after a selector of a Queensland schoolboys team couldn't pronounce his family name when calling out a "fifty-fifty" selection

Actors such as formalised, timetabled cricket, a new social environment, and instances of exclusion have created another subculture of the Australian recreational game: Sunday cricket. It is in many ways quintessentially South Asian and played exactly like it is in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, around the year, in shorter formats (T20). There is also cricket on unconventional days and times during the week.

This has meant that the formal structures of the Australian game - state- and club-cricket bodies, as well as local councils that rent out grounds - have had to deal with a reshuffling of the calendar and the routine that has existed for over a hundred years.

Almaliki, who came to Australia as an Iraqi refugee, first saw cricket being played by Sri Lankans in a detention centre. In 2004, he set up the Sydney Junior Winter Cricket Association, starting with a group of 20 players. Within four years, it grew to over 1000.

Adnan Khawaja, a premier club cricketer in Melbourne, of Pakistani origin, set up a Sunday T20 competition, the Ausian Cricket League. The league was affiliated to Cricket Victoria, local clubs were given colourful new T20 names and logos, and a social-media buzz was created around the event, making it "like IPL or Big Bash at local level".

Navneet Ganesh, an Australian of Indian origin, set up the Infinity T20 Cricket tournament two years ago in Melbourne "to attract active, lapsed, irregular and new cricketers". From 14 teams in its first year Infinity expanded to 44 teams in 2013, and added a new winter event with 15 teams. In a survey of players in 2013, 67% were "multicultural", largely from Asian backgrounds, including a few Chinese.

Immigrant song: Gurinder Sandhu, of Punjabi origin, has made rapid strides with New South Wales

Immigrant song: Gurinder Sandhu, of Punjabi origin, has made rapid strides with New South Wales © Getty Images

Tournaments like the Ausian Cricket League and the InfinityT20 add to state cricket initiatives to do with multiculturalism, like "Harmony" in Victoria and "Mosaic" in New South Wales and South Australia. In July 2013, the South Australia Cricket Association held its first Multicultural Cricket League, a six-week indoor winter competition; the players came from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Italy, Iran, Nepal and New Zealand.

Former international bowler and current CA board director Michael Kasprowicz, whose father's family migrated to Australia from Belarus, believes that representational involvement in sport through ethnicity cannot and should not be forced. Cricket's formal responses to an "evolving" community must be adaptive and flexible, rather than what he referred to as over-structured or over-regulated.

While T20 is considered a "hit-and-giggle" format, CA strategy analyst Sachin Kumar says T20 helps in widening the sport's base to women, children and families, as well as to drive "local tribalism". It helps bypass tricky questions about where immigrant loyalties in cricket may lie. Kumar says, "We need to ensure consistent interest through the development of local tribalism. As such, T20 helps because it is not about the national team. For example, if you follow the Indian team, who will not tour every year, there is no reason you cannot also support, say, the Sydney Thunder in our BBL."

The varieties of Sunday cricket now on offer, says Almaliki, speak of a move also to grab the attention of those Australians occupied on Saturday - "there are 50,000 kids in Saturday schools, about 250,000 Australians work on Saturday".

There is a new subculture of the Australian recreational game: Sunday cricket, quintessentially South Asian, played like it is in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh

One of CA's radical steps through T20 was the announcement of Community and Development Rookie Contracts. Every team in the Big Bash competition can hand out two "rookie contracts" to players from "rural communities, indigenous backgrounds, low socio-economic areas, and those from non-English-speaking backgrounds". It gives anyone, including South Asians disgruntled with Australian club structures, an opportunity to work alongside state-level T20 squads. The contract does not mean a spot in the squad, but it is the opening of a door.

Even as the drive towards multicultural participation is launched at a national level, the presence of South Asians in club cricket has increased significantly. Solomons remembers a total of four or five Asians playing alongside him at the highest levels of club cricket in the '70s. The current roster of about 60 players in every major club, he says, could include five or ten players of immigrant background. The junior-cricket averages on the Cricket Australia Weet-Bix My Cricket website are peppered with names from non-English speaking cultures - quite different from Cashman's findings in 1995.

The South Asian population keeps the wheels of Solomons' cricket equipment business moving all year, even in quiet winter months. Cricket on Friday nights, Sundays, and in winter, Solomons says, has "saved Australian cricket, because participation numbers were dropping drastically". He points out that the ageing Anglo-Celtic population has already led to the amalgamation of several club association leagues into each other.

The involvement of South Asians in club cricket - as participants and consumers - matters in many ways. The AFL's website states that the spending power of multicultural Australians has doubled to A$58b a year, with other calculations hitting A$75b. Aly told CA during the 2010 meeting that the South Asian immigrant communities "did not need rescuing" by cricket authorities working from a position of benevolence. Rather: "You may need them for your survival."

The presence in cricket of prominent multicultural figures these days provides markers. After Usman Khawaja and Fawad played for Australia, Adnan Khawaja, founder of the Ausian league, saw a change in "my community people".

The Half-Sri Lankan-blood Prince: Ashton Agar, who scored 98 on Test debut, with his family

The Half-Sri Lankan-blood Prince: Ashton Agar, who scored 98 on Test debut, with his family © Getty Images

"The children say there is a door open for us," he says. "Cricket is getting serious, kids think they can have a chance in high-level cricket." His conversations with Asian cricketers have changed considerably: from being asked how much they can earn in clubs, "they now say, where can I go, which district club should I play in? They're aiming at a platform for higher cricket."

Another outreach for fans and spectators could be useful. Australia has not had a "Tebbit test" imposed on its immigrants, yet "neutral" Aly remembers that his support for Australia at a game versus Pakistan was questioned by other fans in throwaway jokes. An Australian friend of Sri Lankan origin told Aly he would "barrack for Australia" only when the Australian cricket fan accepted him as a supporter.

In among the statistics and theories, a story from Matt Dwyer, CA's senior manager of market development, provides a living illustration of multicultural cricket's blessings. More than a decade ago Dwyer was a teenager playing for the Melbourne club Washington Park. He overheard resentful comments from his older team-mates when a much-respected rival club turned up with Sri Lankan players in their ranks for the first time. The older players grumbled that the arrival of the Sri Lankans had "ruined that club we enjoyed playing with".

The following season Washington Park, coached by Whatmore, signed on Sri Lankan players themselves and also set up a new women's team. This altered environment became 17-year-old Dwyer's epiphany. "I went, what were we thinking when we said the other club had been ruined?" Before the scene changed, Dwyer said, "It was pissheads on a Saturday night. Now there were families, weird and wonderful foods, and women around the club. It wasn't the whole last bastion anymore."

It became, Dwyer says, "like a normal society".

The old status quo is no longer the normal in Australian cricket. The Billy Birmingham era is over.

This article is an edited version of a paper titled "Fawad Ahmed and the Vanishing of Billy Birmingham: How ethnic diversity and the South Asian diaspora became front and centre in Australian cricket policy", presented by the author as part of an Emerging Leaders Fellowship at the Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne, August-September 2013.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo