Michael Jeh August 25, 2009

What's with the lack of ethnic players in Australia?

The nature of Australian pitches lends itself to bigger, stronger physiques dominating senior club cricket

In an interesting, perhaps even slightly provocative article today, the Sydney Morning Herald raised the issue of whether the Australian cricket team is “too white”.

I hesitated before deciding to writing this piece because I realise it is likely to engender polarised opinions that sometimes descend into unnecessary nationalistic vitriol that moves away from the original debate. I’m hoping that this time, the comments that inevitably flow will avoid the usual temptations to take an entrenched ethnic stance and view it instead as a friendly chat over the neighbour’s wall.

As a dark-skinned Australian who began his cricket career in Australia, I cannot claim any discrimination or disadvantage based on my ethnic background. Any bias that I’ve experienced has been down to the fact that I’ve been limited by this ridiculous obsession with picking the best players! I suffered from simply not being good enough.

The debate is one worth having though. Why has Australia lagged behind say England, South Africa and New Zealand in terms of players from Asian or indigenous origin pulling on the baggy green? I can think of a few very rational reasons to explain this anomaly, especially the Asian angle.

To begin with, many young boys from South Asian backgrounds have family expectations to deal with. Speaking from personal experience, I know that they come under immense pressure to follow academic pathways and ‘safe’ careers rather than chasing exotic cricket dreams. It’s ironic because these same families will watch every game of cricket and worship the stars but for their own sons, there’s a genuine desire to set them on a traditional career pathway that requires an emphasis on study. That will change but it might take a decade or so to show. Don’t ask me why this doesn’t manifest itself in England – I can’t figure that one out myself.

From a pure cricketing perspective, the nature of Australian pitches lends itself to bigger, stronger physiques dominating senior club cricket. You have to be strong and robust enough to hit the deck and get bounce, therefore more suited to the Anglo-Saxon body shape. In England and New Zealand, the nagging medium-pacers and spinners come into their own, thereby opening up the field to bowlers who may lack the pure ‘grunt’ but can do enough with the ball at 125 kph. Australian pitches need to offer more variety full stop. It will automatically create more opportunities for players with different body shapes and techniques. The added bonus is that it will allow our players to adapt better to foreign pitches too.

Put it this way; at 4 pm on a hot summer’s day when the pitch is flat and the ball isn’t swinging, players with my slender physique simply lack the power game to extract that little bit of extra bounce. Where I became cannon fodder late in the day, some of my stronger Aussie mates who were 15 kilos heavier, with strong buttocks and shoulders managed to hit the deck that little bit harder and get something out of the pitch. Ask yourself – how many wiry, Asian fast bowlers consistently dominated in Australia, especially after the new ball burst? Guys like Wasim Akram, Imran Khan, Safraz Nawaz, Kapil Dev and Ishant Sharma are strong chaps with height and bounce.

As a batsman, you need to be able to play the horizontal bat shots in Australia if you are going to make it into the top six of a Sheffield Shield team. Again, that has not traditionally been an Asian strength, although that too is changing slowly. If you can’t score off the short ball, you become too one-dimensional on these pitches. Give it a few years and the young lads from Asian descent will have been spoon fed on these shots from birth and they’ll be hooking and cutting instinctively. It’s certainly not an instinctive shot for my migrant generation.

Psychologically, it’s no secret that Australian club cricket is played hard and uncompromisingly, sometimes too much so perhaps. It’s easy enough to mistake some of the sledging as ‘racist’ but from my experience, I found most of it to be opportunistic rather than redneck. They’ll do anything to put you off your game and if you react to a jibe relating to colour or race, you’ve then got a reputation for taking the bait and the vicious cycle continues until it then becomes a bit personal or heated. That’s where the trouble really begins. Believe me, the white cricketers get sledged just as much but their sensitive points might be fat/ugly/cowardly/parentage/whatever. Don’t get me wrong – I find this whole sledging thing distasteful in the extreme but I cannot honestly say that any of the sledging I’ve experienced has been motivated by pure racism. Normally, I don’t bat long enough to hear the rest of the repertoire anyway!

That style of cricket may not come easily to players from Asian or Aboriginal descent so perhaps that filters a few youngsters out of the game. That will change too as more young kids are born and bred in Australia, rather than having learn to cope on the run as I did when I came here as a 15-year old. This abrasive style is not easy to get used to but once you accept that there’s generally no malice in it, you tend to laugh it off and they leave you alone. That’s been my experience anyway.

Of course there will be exceptions and individual tales of discrimination. That happens anywhere and it is a travesty of justice for the victim. But I cannot agree that it is systemic in Australia. I can only speak for myself but I cannot truthfully claim to have been disadvantaged for any other reason than a plain absence of talent.

Change will come but when it happens, I hope it happens naturally and to those who deserve it. Perhaps we need to make sure that we don’t lose talent to the game at a younger age for all of the reasons described above but I’m sure the Australian cricket team of the future will have an ethnic diversity to it that will one day make this essay redundant. It’s not a black and white issue – just shades of glorious colour!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane