Australia in England 2013 September 6, 2013

Fawad's choice opens cultural faultlines

Hurried in as the legspinning saviour of Australian cricket, Fawad Ahmed's choice to not wear the Australian shirt bearing their beer-company sponsors has sparked a wider debate on immigration

Fawad Ahmed arrived in Australia as a Pakistani asylum seeker. He became a Melbourne sub-district cricketer and net bowler, then a permanent resident, then a Melbourne Renegades, Victoria and Australia A player, and now a member of the national team. His rise has been hastened by a climate of inclusiveness and expansion championed by those who run Cricket Australia. What has become patently clear this week, and this election month, is that not everyone shares quite the same desire for his inclusion.

As part of their approach, CA lobbied for Fawad to be granted permanent residency, and then for a tweak to Federal legislation that would allow his citizenship to be expedited. With support from both sides of politics, the bill passed. Even before Fawad became eligible, CA asked whether or not he, as a Muslim and teetotaller, would be comfortable wearing the beer sponsor's logo that adorns the Australian team's kit on tour. When Fawad replied that he would prefer not to, uniforms were produced that excluded the Victoria Bitter badge.

He wore these personalised colours for Australia A in England before the Ashes tour, and in South Africa, without anyone raising so much as a hackle. Debuting for Australia in Southampton, and in the second T20 in Durham, the logo was again absent.

But now the matches were higher profile, beamed live back to the other side of the world. A story was written in the Sydney Morning Herald, observing that Fawad was not wearing the sponsor's logo. CA disclosed the bowler's preference not to, and their respect for his decision. A parody Twitter account cast the first stone Fawad's way, making the repugnant suggestion that the logo had been replaced with that of "a major brand of explosives".

CA's chief executive James Sutherland made his indignation plain, declaring: "Cricket Australia would like to express its extreme disappointment over racist comments towards Fawad Ahmed on social media this afternoon. CA does not condone racism in any way, shape or form. CA is fully supportive of Fawad's personal beliefs and he is a valued and popular member of the Australian cricket team and the wider cricket community."

They were strong words, and might have drawn a line under things. Yet two days later another story was published in a rival Sydney newspaper, The Daily Telegraph offering the unvarnished (though far from unprompted) view of the former batsman, raconteur and champion drinker Doug Walters, that "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".

A day later, with Fawad due to play his first ODI against England at Headingley, the former rugby international David Campese also weighed in, this time decidedly unprompted and via the medium of Twitter. "Doug Walters tells Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmed: if you don't like the VB uniform, don't play for Australia," he wrote. "Well said Doug. Tell him to go home."

Once again, Sutherland spoke for Fawad. "These comments are out of order," he said. "He is an Australian citizen and he is eligible to play cricket for Australia and he has been selected to play for Australia irrespective of his religious beliefs. He is an Aussie and he is welcome to play cricket for his country and any suggestion to the contrary we are strongly opposed to. Some people have used this issue to move away from the central debate, which is largely a commercial issue about sponsorship and taken that into a space as to whether he is entitled to play cricket for Australia or live in Australia and that is just rubbish. They are bigoted views."

Fawad is not the first Muslim cricketer to decline wearing an alcohol logo. Hashim Amla does not sport the sponsors of South African cricket on his uniform for the same reason, and by way of finance does not accept the money that trickles down to the rest of the players from that sponsor. When Campese was reminded of this in a subsequent Twitter dialogue his response was as follows. "It is SA. Who knows what the deal is. And I don't care. At least Doug Walter [sic] cares. Which is a start. Great player."

Not for the first time, Australian cricket finds itself out of step with wider society. Usually, the game has found itself at the conservative edge of the zeitgeist, whether it be bowing to political pressure not to entertain a tour by apartheid South Africa in 1971-72 after being the last nation to pay a visit in 1969-70, or not remunerating players fairly until forced by the cataclysmic force of Kerry Packer's revolution later in the same decade. It could be noted that even the famously shaggy haired Australian Ashes tourists to England in 1975 were sporting a look the Beatles fancied as early as 1967.

"Part of our real focus at the moment is to grow and diversify our participation base. There are a number of players from different cultural backgrounds who are playing in domestic cricket and I guess there are opportunities to highlight that."
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland

This time, CA is looking anachronistic once more, though unusually on the liberal side of the spectrum. As Australia contests the 2013 Federal election with draconian measures against refugees a central plank of both major party's platforms, cricket's custodians are pushing an entirely more enlightened view, preaching inclusion and expansion of the kind favoured by earlier Australian governments, rather than stingy immigration rhetoric summed up by the "Stop the Boats" slogan.

Several years ago at the Australian Cricket Conference, CA board members and management were stunned by figures projecting the inexorable decline of the game if they did not engage more fully with an increasingly diverse community. Thus awoken to the urgency of the matter, the game's governors took an approach akin to the immigration minister Arthur Calwell's "populate or perish" mantra in the years after the Second World War.

For all its faults, the Twenty20 evangelism of the Big Bash League has the lofty goal of diversity as central to its objectives. At the same time, the advancement of players like Usman Khawaja, Gurinder Sandhu, Ashton Agar and Fawad towards prominent roles at the top level of the game is an outcome desired by Sutherland, for names like Clarke, Ponting, Hussey and Smith are no longer as representative of Australian people and culture as they once were.

The political manoeuvring undertaken by CA to enable Fawad to be eligible as early as possible in 2013 was criticised in some quarters as either opportunism or tokenism, yet there are other initiatives further down the chain of command that reflect the same goals. On August 28, it was announced that each BBL team would offer two community rookie contracts, described by CA as "part of a wider plan to provide opportunities to players who might not otherwise be identified as one of Australian cricket's pathway programs; players from rural communities, indigenous backgrounds, low socio-economic areas, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds".

One of the players promoting the community rookie program was Sandhu, as part of a CA marketing contract he was granted in June, alongside Fawad. As Sutherland said at the time: "Part of our real focus at the moment is to grow and diversify our participation base. There are a number of players from different cultural backgrounds who are playing in domestic cricket and I guess there are opportunities to really highlight that and for them to be some sort of inspiration to others in our community to be part of the Australian cricket scene."

These words and their sentiment could not be further removed from those offered by Walters and Campese who, whether knowingly or not, expressed the sorts of monocultural views that have been cropping up an awful lot in the wider dialogue leading up to the Federal election. They were not a million miles removed from the observation of the western Sydney parliamentary candidate Fiona Scott, who said this week that asylum seekers "are a hot topic here because the traffic is overcrowded".

Comments like those offered by Scott, Walters and Campese may be decried for ignorance, exclusivity or any other number of reasons. Yet they are likely to come up more frequently over the next few years. Scott's side of politics are expected to win handsomely on Saturday, and their leader Tony Abbott has pushed for a roll-back of racial discrimination laws on the basis of causing offence.

His argument, made to The Australian last month: "If we are going to be a robust democracy, if we are going to be a strong civil society, if we are going to maintain that great spirit of inquiry, which is the spark that has made our civilisation so strong, then we've got to allow people to say things that are unsayable in polite company. We've got to allow people to think things that are unthinkable in polite company and take their chances in open debate."

Among other planned legislative changes in an Abbott government is the removal of the rights of asylum seekers to ever seek permanent residency or citizenship in Australia. Had CA not intervened in Fawad's case, he would be facing the same uncertain future. To Sutherland, such legislation may mean countless potential Australian cricketers lost. To Walters, Campese, beer companies and politicians, it will more likely mean one less minority to worry about.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vaidyanathan on September 13, 2013, 7:59 GMT

    @Gavin. 1 in all in. Yes. In matters related to cricket. If he refuses to attend training sessions which everyone else does, that's something to make a note of. For sponsorship, if he has an issue with a sponsor and refuses to wear their logo and doesn't get paid those fees it's his choice and not a big deal. I doubt players feel that passionate about VB for him to feel left out. Am sure the same is the case with Nike.

  • Dummy4 on September 13, 2013, 2:51 GMT

    If it was offered to him and he didnt make the demand he can hardly be made accountable. At the same time I am a Tooheys drinker and hate VB. Could i ask to made exempt because the sponsors product tastes awful and is from a state i hate with a passion? One in all in. I wish him the best in any team he is picked for Australia. That said, putting yourself on the outside doesnt build team harmony let alone spirit. Could an Australian turn down a nike logo cos they employ children in 3rd world countries? I think not. He should fall in line with the team, again: 1 in all in.

  • ESPN on September 12, 2013, 11:14 GMT

    As long as he gets wickets and dries up runs, in short does his job, CA shouldn't care what he wears on his shirt. There is more than one type of Aussie, just as there is more than one type of Kiwi

  • Chris on September 10, 2013, 11:51 GMT

    I understand his reasons for not wearing the logo but I do wonder where you draw the line on acceding to player preferences with respect to sponsors. How does the EPL get on with gambling enterprises and brewers sponsoring so many teams? VB are not going to ask for a discount or their money back - they get kudos for being reasonable and flexible with granting his wish for an exemption from the team uniform. They are not going to shoot themselves in the foot PR-wise by coming across cheap and petty. I just wish for all this effort, Fawad bowled a bit better.

  • Francois on September 10, 2013, 9:29 GMT

    Funny David Campese tells Fawad to go home, doesn't he live in South Africa now. I heard he was suspended by the tv station in South Africa, but this is a very tricky issue. It is causing a president, last year in a one day with Castle lager sponsoring SA team I noticed Amla, Tahir, Parnell and Farhaan Behardien all didn't wear the logo. I think this will chase big money away cose you count be the sponsor when half of the team doesn't wanna wear it.

  • Waqas on September 10, 2013, 7:36 GMT

    Dosent Hashim Amla does the same thing? He SAC has allowed him to play without the beer logo and i havent heard a peep about that.

  • Harry on September 9, 2013, 21:58 GMT

    Kudos to CA for fast tracking Fawad since Aus does need quality spinners to be competitive. If VB wants a discount CA can pay them, after all they went to lengths to have him in the team.While it is good argument whether it makes sense to make exceptions for certain players but on the other hand, players should have a choice. Fawad did not market a rival company but chose not to market at all. So what?

    Here is a suggestion - put a big Aus flag on Fawad's uniform in place of the VB logo.

  • H on September 9, 2013, 16:55 GMT

    @dwblurb on (September 7, 2013, 3:44 GMT) Trott came here at 21 to play County Cricket because he felt it would make him a better cricketer. He was already well on his way to playing Test cricket for South Africa. His Under-19 teammates Graeme Smith and Jaques Rudolph both received Test call-ups later that year.

    The fact is, he fell in love with the country and decided to settle here. Regardless of the reasons why Fawad fled to Australia, his decision to represent them at international level comes from the exact same place as Trott's; an affection for the country.

    You need to separate the issue of citizenship with representing the country; they're not the same. Neither Fawad nor Trott came to their adoptive countries with the intention to play international cricket. Both, as citizens, have the right to do so, but equally have the right to decline. Both chose to do so out of an affinity for their adoptive country.

    Mercenaries may not get much love, but neither do hypocrites.

  • Sam on September 9, 2013, 14:51 GMT

    In an interview on this website this week, Peter Pollock says "we give far too much credence to sportsmen and what they think." Amen!

  • Dummy4 on September 9, 2013, 14:07 GMT

    Lots of people saying "what if this happened, would Ahmed be happy?". But the fact is it was Cricket Australia who came to him first and raised the question of the VB logo and offered to have it removed. I think Fawad Ahmed would have played with the VB logo if Cricket Australia had not brought the issue up. Ahmed has not demanded anything from CA - it is CA who is bending over backwards for him.