Saad Shafqat February 2, 2010

Australia needs to introspect

In fact, what happened with Pakistani fielder Khalid Latif in Perth is a timely reminder that it is Australia where such incidents of uncivil behavior are being seen more and more

You have to ask, what is happening in Australian society to produce such agitation? © Getty Images

Imagine for a moment if the shoe were on the other foot. Pakistan has become so demonised, the spectacle is not hard to picture. During an ODI in Lahore or Karachi, an Australian fielder is standing at square leg. All of a sudden, a Pakistani spectator jumps the fence and sprints on to the field, tackling the Australian from behind and pinning him to the ground. What happens next?

Yes, security will run after the invader and subdue him, as happened in Perth. But after that? Do you imagine the Australian player picking himself up without fuss and walking up to his captain to describe the event with a wink and a smile? Do you imagine the Australian team shrugging the whole thing off and getting on with the rest of the game?

Probably not.

Far more likely, if a spectator jumped the fence like that in Pakistan – and despite the barbed wire they can still do it, trust me – Ricky Ponting would call his team into an exaggerated huddle, announce to the umpires that his team has had enough, and walk off the ground in a huff. The tour would be abandoned forthwith and the international media would start blaring nonstop what a rotten place Pakistan really is.

In fact, what happened with Pakistani fielder Khalid Latif in Perth is a timely reminder that it is Australia where such incidents of uncivil behavior are being seen more and more. Even a casual Internet search reveals several reports of crowd trouble in Australian sports. Australian football, it turns out, is no stranger to crowd disturbances, but over the last few years, a number of visiting cricket teams have also suffered and been forced to lodge complaints. This year even the Australian Open tennis tournament was marred by the need to eject unruly fans.

Still, I could not find any mention of a spectator assaulting a fielder in the middle of a cricket international. In over three decades of watching cricket obsessively, I certainly have never seen anything like it.

You have to ask, what is happening in Australian society to produce such agitation? The country has a troubling history. Its early settlers maltreated indigenous races, and even today there are reports of immigrants of South Asian descent being killed for no apparent reason other than prejudice. A widely cited survey conducted in Queensland and New South Wales during 2001 found that 40% of Australians felt certain ethnic groups did not belong in their country, and 10% had views that were considered overtly racist. Of note, the choicest venom was reserved for Muslims.

There is something arrogant and unwelcoming in all this – to put it mildly – and it is hard to deny that this attitude is now creeping into cricket. One would have expected more responsible behavior from an advanced industrial nation like Australia. In the event, the ones behaving responsibly in this matter were the Pakistanis. They showed great tolerance and good humor in picking themselves up and carrying on after the assault in Perth. But this should not and does not diminish the shocking scale of the incident.

Of course, it would be unfair to paint all of Australia with one brush, and it must be acknowledged that modern Australian society has opened its doors to many refugees and immigrants, the majority of whom enjoy a life of peace, fulfillment and dignity. At the same time, there is no denying that something is amiss. Incidents like the one in Perth are unwanted symptoms of a pervasive malady. There are forces in Australian society – government, social agencies, academia – that are hard at work to diagnose the root cause and fix the mess. The rest of the world is with them.

In the meantime, one must give full marks to the Pakistan Cricket Board for raising the issue in a formal complaint to the ICC. Unlike the national team, which had a spineless performance in Australia, the PCB is now standing up to this Australian boorishness. “Pakistan gets blamed for security breaches, but look at what happened in Perth,” a PCB official was quoted today as saying. This trenchant and hard-nosed attitude from Pakistan’s cricket authorities, who are forever playing off the backfoot, is long overdue.

For its part, Cricket Australia has tendered to the PCB an unconditional apology. Pakistanis are a forgiving bunch and the apology is accepted, but CA must make sure stuff like this isn’t allowed to happen again. If this becomes a pattern, we could soon be asking whether Australia is a safe venue for Asian teams.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

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