Khawaja details racism in cricket, calls for change
Veteran top-order batsman has joined a Cricket Australia working group aimed at increasing cultural diversity within the sport in this country
15 September 2020, 04:02 PM AEST
Queensland captain Usman Khawaja has joined fellow veteran Dan Christian in condemning what both men believe to be ongoing racism issues in Australian cricket.
Pakistan-born Khawaja, who moved to Australia with his family when he was five, has become this country's highest-profile cricketer of Asian descent, appearing in 93 internationals since his Test debut in January 2011.
The 33-year-old is now set to undertake a role adjacent to his playing responsibilities, joining a Cricket Australia (CA) working group tasked with creating an action plan focusing on greater cultural diversity and inclusion within both the governing body itself and Australian cricket more broadly.
It is an issue close to the heart of the top-order batsman, who has previously spoken of the racial vilification he received as a young cricketer making his way through the system, and which Christian discussed at length during the first episode of Cricket Connecting Country last week.
Speaking with cricket.com.au, Khawaja also revealed he feels the perception of him as a "lazy" cricketer, which has plagued him throughout his career, is at least in part down to his ethnicity, with ingrained cricketing stereotypes reinforcing that viewpoint.
"I always had that 'lazy' undertone when I was growing up and I think part of that was my relaxed nature but part of it was also because I was Pakistani, and subcontinent people were seen as lazy, not doing the hard yards and whatnot," he said.
"Running has never been natural to me, so when we used to do lots of fitness testing I wasn't as good as everyone else. When you put that against where I was from, that did play against me.
"I like to think we're starting to move on from that, but there's definitely still that undertone … I still hear (similar stereotypes), if someone's a bit different."
Earlier this year, Khawaja contacted former CA chief executive Kevin Roberts before his resignation in June, with the intention of getting on the front foot in conjunction with the governing body in addressing the issue of limited multiculturalism within Australian cricket.
"The older I've gotten, the more I've realised that when it comes to diversity – especially in cricket in general – I think we've been OK at it but we're still just not quite there," he said.
"If you look at the landscape in terms of multicultural cricketers around, we've got a few subcontinental cricketers – myself, Gurinder (Sandhu), Arjun Nair, Jason Sangha and Tanveer Sangha coming up through the ranks … (but) we've still got a long way to go.
"I called up Kevin Roberts before he resigned to talk about this. I said, 'Look, I know there's a lot of stuff going on with coronavirus, there's cost cutting going on, but cultural diversity in cricket, it's something I'm really passionate about, so if you need any help from me, please reach out. I want to make sure you don't make too many cuts in this respect because I think this is a big part of where Cricket Australia is going'.
"During this time we're living in, there are a lot of civil rights issues going on, especially in America with the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We can't just stick our heads in the sand and say, 'Everyone's perfect, everything's fine, and there's no way for us to improve'.
"We can improve in so many different ways and this is just one of them."
Khawaja hopes Australian cricket can reach a point where its national teams "are more reflective of our country", in turn producing more role models who children from different ethnic backgrounds can more readily find relatable.
The starting point, he says, is cricket's grassroots, where he suggests two critical factors – one internal, and one external – have combined to limit the progress of young cricketers from Australia's subcontinental community; a traditional parental focus on education over sport and ingrained racism within the game.
"When you come from a subcontinental family – all of Asia, really – studying is very important," Khawaja said. "My mum wanted me to stop playing cricket and study, and that happens a lot to guys my age coming through the ranks.
"The (general message is), 'You should study, get yourself a good education'.
"People need to realise that, one, you can do both like I did (Khawaja has a degree in aviation), and two, not everyone has the God-given gift of being able to pursue a career as a professional sportsperson, so if you have that opportunity you should take it, because if you do well in it, it's a lucrative lifestyle that can help you and your family out.
"There's a lot more money in cricket now than there was in the past and that's an important factor – whether people like to admit it or not – when mums are looking at their kids' careers.
"But you can do both things at the same time. Cricket has great welfare programs that allow players to study and train at the same time. There is a really good level of support through Cricket Australia and the state associations. Most of the younger guys at Queensland are studying, and even some of the older guys.
"Generally with the subcontinent community I know how important that is to mums and dads, so we need to emphasise that, especially with technology these days and studying from distance, there's no reason why you can't do both, so long as you have the discipline and you're prepared to make a lot of sacrifices along the way.
"There's also the issue of people getting disheartened if they get racially vilified when they're coming up through the ranks. The amount of times I heard, 'They won't pick you', 'You won't fit in' – if enough people keep saying that to you, you might start actually believing it.
"The racism (Khawaja has been subjected to in cricket) has been both overt and casual. But I had the confidence to speak up when something didn't feel right, and I know not everyone does.
"Kids need to be given support, we need to talk openly and let them know that, 'Hey, you're not the only person going through this, we've been through this, we've seen this, we've dealt with it and we've pushed on. You can do the same thing'.
"I think that's a really important message, because it can be demoralising when you feel left out or segregated. Until you've been in that situation, you don't know what it feels like. But if that's your dream and your passion, then you should go for it. Because when you do come up through the ranks now, everyone – from Cricket Australia to the teammates you'll have – they are all great people. They don't give a crap who you are or where you come from."
Khawaja recalls regularly hearing derogatory jokes being told about Indigenous people when he first arrived in Queensland in 2012, which he says had "become the norm" within the squad environment.
He has since helped significantly shift that culture and hopes it is possible to do the same at lower levels.
"It's gotten a lot better … but that doesn't mean we can't keep improving, and it's the same for everyone – it doesn't matter who you are, it's all about acceptance," he said. "Whether you're black, white, Asian, Caucasian. Whatever your sexuality may be. Whatever it is, at the end of the day it's all about being respectful and tolerant to other people.
"That's what it's all about, and that's what we're trying to achieve."
Khawaja's work with CA will fall under a broader 'diversity and inclusion action plan', which will include three specific strands: disability, diverse genders and sexuality, and cultural diversity.
The governing body will group CA staff with external members, like Khawaja, to utilise their lived experiences to provide a more accurate framework around which to devise each action plan.
As well as 25 years' experience as a player of South Asian heritage in amateur and professional cricket, Khawaja brings with him the perspective of being a new parent (his wife Rachel had their first child, Aisha, in July), while in 2019 he established the Usman Khawaja Foundation, which aims to "alleviate disadvantage experienced by youth through the provision of educational and cricketing opportunities".
Also involved in the working group will be Dandenong-based Kuwait women's cricket team captain Maryam Omar, AFL club Richmond FC's diversity and inclusion manager Rana Hussain, cricket journalist Gaurav Joshi, and Sri Lankan cricketing great Asanka Gurusinha, who is the new head coach of the Nigeria men's team and a digital and marketing expert.
And while Khawaja is at pains to point out that selection at the professional level should remain strictly on performance-based criteria, he reiterates the need for a more inclusive environment at the grassroots level.
"A big reason why I love sport is because when I first came to Australia, I couldn't speak English, and the only thing I could do (to mix with other kids) was play sports," he added.
"It breaks down all barriers. That's what I'm trying to push, and that's why the Usman Khawaja Foundation started, too – trying to break down those barriers, to teach parents, 'Hey, this is the best way to do it, get them into sports'.
"It doesn't matter what sport. Giving these kids the right opportunities to allow them to excel and exceed is so important."