Michael Jeh Column: Usman Khawaja, you're a brave champ!

Oct 13, 2017, 09:38 IST | Michael Jeh

Khawaja's story made my spine tingle and hair stood up on the nape of my neck. My own experiences, coming up through the brutal world of Brisbane grade cricket two decades ago, mirrored his grouse to the smallest detail

Ever seen Usman Khawaja in full flow? India has not seen the best of him and she's all the poorer for it. His strokeplay is graceful and elegant, standing tall when he drives, flicking nonchalantly to leg and pirouetting like a ballet dancer when he pulls and hooks. Amongst today's Australian batsmen, he is arguably the most pleasing on the eye. And yet, despite being an excellent player of fast bowling, you will rarely hear him described as "courageous" or "brave". Such titles rarely get bestowed upon batsmen who make it look easy, artistes like Rohit Sharma and Mark Waugh whose nonchalance can often be mistaken for a lack of steel.

Australia cricketer Usman Khawaja, who spoke out against racism recently
Australia cricketer Usman Khawaja, who spoke out against racism recently

Courageous? Khawaja? Yes indeed. He plays cricket at my club in Brisbane, Valleys CC, boasting an alumni that includes Allan Border, Kepler Wessels, Greg Ritchie, Stuart Law, Matthew Hayden and Joey Dawes (former India bowling coach). Whilst I don't know him as well as I'd like to, his presence around the club is inspirational to the young lads. There's no edge to him, no arrogance. Just an easy grace that complements his quiet modesty. You don't always see that when Test cricketers return to their grade clubs but Usman hasn't got an arrogant bone in his body, even when he bats with flair. But courageous? Really?

It takes courage to speak honestly about the past failings of a system which currently sustains your livelihood. In a excellent piece of writing, Khawaja earlier this week talked about an elephant in the room that is often too difficult to confront head-on. I should know - as a wildlife ranger in Africa, I have to regularly deal with charging elephants and let me assure you; no one will think you're a coward if you choose to run instead of standing your ground. Ironically, to run from a problem as big as this is the worst thing you can do. In choosing to confront the topic of racism in Australian cricket culture whilst he is still playing for Australia takes serious courage. It would be all-too-easy to privately acknowledge aforementioned elephant but to actually talk openly and honestly about how it affected his journey from Pakistani immigrant to proud owner of the baggy green cap shows that Khawaja is a man of substance.

When I read his story, it made my spine tingle and the hairs stand up on the nape of my neck. My own experiences, coming up through the brutal world of Brisbane grade cricket two decades before Khawaja, mirrored his down to the smallest detail. He nailed it. The tiniest comments, the looks, the ultra-macho culture that made a joke of anything that was not part of the dominant narrative that Australian cricket prided itself on. Still does. Not much changed during the Andrew Symonds era. The emergence of Khawaja, Gurinder Sandhu, Fawad Ahmed belies the stories of a hundred more talented cricketers who walked away from the game because it was a forbidding, intimidating place that deliberately set out to be exactly so.

If you're not tough enough to cop some of the rubbish, you're not good enough son. That was the hidden narrative - "laugh at yourself first because we're going to take the p*ss out of you anyway." If you fail that test, if you don't learn to sledge yourself about your skin colour, or your mum's cooking or those hilarious Billy Birmingham 12th Man skits, you're probably too soft to face up to a quick bowler on a greentop. See, he quit. Self-fulfilling prophecy comes true again!

I forwarded Usman's article to a few people, some of whom I knew would bristle at the very thought that what he describes as anything but 'business as usual' The reactions from the hard-nosed brigade were as predictable as the casual insults that Khawaja talks about. They rubbished his opinions and then to add legitimacy to their sense of outrage at his temerity at questioning that toxic culture, they questioned his ability to play spin! What a laugh. These same redneck types normally dismiss Australia's poor performances in Asia as not being "real cricket" because it spins too much. Real cricketers are judged by their performances against fast bowlers apparently. But now, in a sad attempt to deny him his own truth, they reckon he's not fair dinkum because he apparently can't play spin. Clearly he's the only one who doesn't score runs in Asia!

But these sort of dinosaurs are dying out. Jurassic Park was a hit movie a long time ago. Courageous men like Khawaja are doing more than their share to make Australian cricket an inclusive place, not just in an ethnic sense. That is only one tiny aspect of what "inclusion" really means. What Australian cricket is striving for now is a culture where the only filter that is applied is the question - do you love cricket? That should be the only criteria for acceptance into the family. The barriers to entry that I personally witnessed 20 years ago are slowly being eroded away but change comes slowly. Reluctantly. Grudgingly.

I see this every weekend. I have two sons and a daughter who now play for Valleys. Usman is their hero. I umpire, coach and manage junior teams every weekend. I see change happening at close quarters and it makes me proud. Too often, I still see and hear the rubbish that comes from out of the mouths of babes (and their parents) and I realise that some habits die hard. They may never die. Not if the old school brigade, now the parents and coaches of the next generation, refuse to accept that there was anything wrong in the first place.

15 year old batsmen in club cricket being sledged with "c*ck sucking faggot". The wicketkeeper might be the President or Secretary of the club and he leads the pack of snarling dogs. Until it happens to a kid at his club and then he feigns outrage. The umpires claim they heard nothing so no one gets reported. The governing bodies talk about the spirit of cricket but at grassroots level, these are just corporate buzzwords that mean nothing to a kid who has been scorched by bile and is reminded that this is how "real men" play the game. And so it might ever be thus....it doesn't need to be racist to be a non-inclusive atmosphere that drives young cricketers away from the game. Homophobia, mothers, sisters, mental health...it's all fair game. That's ironic...fair game?

Lest I risk being accused of highlighting the negatives, far from it. My club, Valleys, two years ago started running an education session at the start of each season to remind all members that our club valued inclusion. Race, religion, sexual orientation, skin colour, gender...we don't care. The only thing we care about is making the club a welcoming place for anyone who loves a game of cricket. We started this program long before Usman penned his excellent article but as far as icing on the cake goes, this is also the cherry on top.

I've been a member at this club for 30+ years and I can see change happening in front of my eyes. My 12 year old daughter is welcomed into the senior women's squad at just 12 years of age and it is a healthy place for her to develop her love of the game. My 14 year old son has just graduated into the senior men's teams and I have none of the fears I had for myself three decades before.

Inclusion is not merely about formal policies. Ask Usman. He will tell you it is about all the little things that add up over the years. The looks, the whispers, the jokes and the culture of a club that can act as a filter without ever having to say the word.

Sometimes, as Usman will attest to, it is what's not said that tells you that you don't belong. The conversations that stop abruptly as you walk into dressing room, the deafening, uncomfortable silence when you know the joke is on you. Those are the moments that can't be written into policy. It can only come from the heart.

When I next bump into Usman at the nets, I owe him a debt of courage on behalf of all those kids who just love playing cricket. They needed a current Australian cricketer, equally elegant with bat and keyboard, to play some shots on their behalf. I never had the courage or the reach to tell his story with such simple honesty. It was an essay that needed to be written but I didn't expect it from someone who could potentially risk so much to speak out when he is not even a guaranteed starter for the Ashes. That's courage.

How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.

Michael Jeh is a Brisbane-based former first-class player

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