February 27, 2013

Australian cricket's simmering melting pot

Adam Cooper
The recent success of Moises Henriques and other cricketers from minority communities bodes well for the game Down Under

From Hobart to India via Alice Springs, Australians might one day recall a remarkable week in mid-February 2013 as the moment the nation's top cricket teams took a major step towards truly representing the many faces who play the game.

Moises Henriques, Fawad Ahmed, Ashton Agar and Gurinder Sandhu are not quite household names in Australian cricket, but they have all made significant strides to becoming so in the past seven days. Together they personify a cultural diversity long absent from the national team.

While Michael Clarke's brilliant strokeplay and Australian allergies to spin bowling remained a constant, milestones notched by Henriques, Ahmed, Agar and Sandhu - complemented by Australia's women, who in the same week won the World Cup, and indigenous teams at the Imparja Cup - made it a heady period for cricket's minority groups in a game that still counts white males as its most ardent participants and followers.

The achievements of Henriques in gaining a Test cap and showing he deserved it; Ahmed, who staked his claim with Victoria; and Agar and Sandhu, who earned places in national sides, were noted with significance by Cricket Australia, which is conscious of the need to have its sides better reflect the composition of the country.

"The single greatest opportunity for us is to have a team that represents multicultural Australia," says Matt Dwyer, Cricket Australia's national game- development manager, "and the quicker we have that team to give kids that aspiration, the snowball effect from that will be significant."

Grouped together, the four players could form a handy bowling attack. Equally rich are the quartet's personal stories, bound to be replayed over coming years.

In Chennai, Henriques became the first Portuguese-born player to represent Australia in Tests. Born on Madeira, the island that Cristiano Ronaldo calls home, and the son of a professional footballer, Henriques could easily have sought sporting glory outside of cricket, had his family not moved to Sydney.

It might have taken him longer to get to Test level than many thought, but Henriques immediately showed he belonged with a fine 68 at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, an innings that helped Clarke turn a day that was headed out of Australia's grasp.

That same day in Hobart, Henriques' fellow New South Wales quick Sandhu also looked assured at international level, admittedly in a match for Australia A against England Lions that carried just a skerrick of the focus on Clarke's side. But at 19, Sandhu, who was born in Sydney but is of Indian heritage, has impressed those who matter: he was also selected for the Prime Minister's XI last month to play West Indies.

Agar, also 19, must shake his head at his remarkable past two months, which have comprised a debut for Western Australia in the Sheffield Shield, a spot in the Perth Scorchers squad in the Big Bash League, and a passage to India, where he was instructed to soak up as much knowledge as he could.

The left-arm spinner did so by playing both warm-up matches, proving his inclusion on tour was no token gesture. Clarke himself is Australia's most effective left-arm orthodox spinner of recent times, so Agar's progress is likely to be monitored very closely. The youngster, who is of Sri Lankan descent, will this year head to England to further his development at Hampshire's international academy. Whether that posting is designed to coincide with the Ashes remains to be seen.

Another spinner surely being considered for England is Fawad, following his most mature of first-class debuts for Victoria. The legspinner had played a handful of first-class matches in his native Pakistan before he fled to Australia in 2010, and continues to add chapters to his already wondrous story.

Selected as a net bowler to help prepare Australia's batsmen to face South Africa's Imran Tahir, Ahmed earned a Big Bash contract with the Melbourne Renegades and turned out for the Bushrangers in domestic limited-overs matches before playing in the top-of-the-table Sheffield Shield match against Queensland at the MCG.

Ahmed's 5 for 83 in the Bulls' second innings, with bounce, spin and variation, steered Victoria to a win and earned him plaudits from opposing captains James Hopes and Cameron White, who both rated him good enough to represent his new country. White himself was one of the eight frontline spinners Australia tried in Test matches between Shane Warne's retirement from Tests and before the selectors settled on Nathan Lyon - until he came up against MS Dhoni.

Ahmed's arrival now has Cricket Australia lobbying authorities in Canberra to grant him citizenship in the sort of pursuit traditionally reserved for Armenian weightlifters the year before an Olympiad. Under ICC rules Ahmed could play for Australia in August, but a passport would expedite the qualification period. Really, the key date is July 10, the first day of the first Test against England, at Trent Bridge.

England, of course, are no strangers to accommodating overseas players. In their last Test, in India in December, four in the line-up were born in South Africa, while Monty Panesar is of Indian heritage. But England teams have long reflected British society, as have South African sides (regardless of the quota system).

"Four in ten Australian households have got a parent who was born overseas. If we don't become more diverse and welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, we'll be arcane in 100 years' time"
Matt Dwyer, Cricket Australia's national game-development manager

But in Australia, the national side has been slow to truly represent its multiculturalism. Six members of the first Australian side to play a Test were born overseas, while in 1885, Sam Morris - born in Tasmania to West Indian parents - became the first black man to play Test cricket.

But from there, the national side remained firmly Anglo-Celtic in origin, save for exceptions such as Len Pascoe (of Yugoslavian descent), Dav Whatmore (born in Sri Lanka), Kepler Wessels (born in South Africa) and Andrew Symonds, who has a Caribbean heritage. This week 20 years ago, for example, Australia fielded a Test team whose first names could be those of Home and Away regulars: Mark, David, Justin, Mark, Steve, Allan, Ian, Paul, Shane, Merv and Craig.

While cultural diversity has been reflected much better in sports such as Australian Rules football, rugby league and soccer, Australian cricket is trying to close the gap. CA figures show that of the 160,000 children who took part in entry-level programmes last year, about one-sixth were from non-traditional cricketing backgrounds. Initiatives such as Mosaic Programs, run in NSW, and Harmony in Cricket, its Victorian equivalent (in which Ahmed is a mentor), are designed to take the sport to newer communities, through schools and clubs.

"If you've got a multicultural background and you walk into a traditional cricket club, it could be the last bastion of the stale, pale and male environment," Dwyer says. "But now clubs are being encouraged to diversify and be more welcoming, to open their doors to the sort of opportunity this brings. The stats are clear: four in ten Australian households have got a parent who was born overseas. If we don't become more diverse and welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, we'll be arcane in 100 years' time."

But Dwyer acknowledges the most effective way of attracting attention is through those who light the fire for others. It's why Usman Khawaja was celebrated when in 2011 he became the first Muslim to play a Test for Australia; why national selector John Inverarity highlighted the selections of Ahmed, Sandhu and Khawaja for the Prime Minister's XI; and why Henriques' Test call-up brought further encouragement.

Sunshine Heights Cricket Club, in Melbourne's western suburbs, is a remarkably progressive club, having welcomed people from South Sudan, Uganda, Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Afghanistan - many of them refugees - into the fold. Since adopting an open policy of encouraging diversity, dating back to the 1960s, the club has been recognised for the measures it has taken in making the club more inclusive.

Club president Chris Hatzoglou says it represents 20 ethnicities across 15 sides (senior and junior), and that breakthroughs at higher levels give players from non-traditional cricketing backgrounds something to aspire to.

"These sort of stories are really important. We've invested a lot of effort into cultural diversity at our club, and when it starts to penetrate at the elite level, when people from diverse backgrounds start to make it at the Australian level, that for us is an inspiration," he says.

Just as Henriques and his ilk encourage new Australians, the Southern Stars do their part for the women's game. Their success in India, which followed winning the Twenty20 world title last year, is expected to increase female participation. CA's records say 150,000 girls and women played in 2011-12, a 27 % jump from the previous season. While the Southern Stars boast a young outlook, they have one of their greatest advocates in Lisa Sthalekar, who retired last week in triumph in the country of her birth.

Participation among indigenous Australians is also on the rise. The Imparja Cup, played in Alice Springs this month, had more than 500 participants, and research is underway to determine exactly how many indigenous Australians play the sport. Aboriginal players also have recent national selections to aspire to: Dan Christian made clear his pride when three years ago he joined Jason Gillespie as only the second acknowledged player of indigenous heritage to earn a national cap.

When Khawaja was selected for his first tour with the Australian side in 2010, Waleed Aly, an academic and commentator on Muslim affairs, noted cricket still had obstacles at grassroots level among migrant communities, given cricket's perception of as an establishment sport, its costs and complexities, and instances of racial vilification. The way the game is broadcast, he said, showed the sport is still directed at the white male.

But, in an interview with the Wisden Cricketer, he hoped young players could eventually see a national team that reflected society. "You need to look at the field and feel 'That could be me', even if it couldn't be," he said. "I don't have the talent but it's nice to know that's the only thing standing in the way."

Over the past week, Henriques, Ahmed, Agar and Sandhu have provided encouraging proof of that.

Adam Cooper is a sports reporter at the Age in Melbourne. He covered the 2005 and 2006-07 Ashes series for the Australian Associated Press