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