How can Australia promote inclusivity at the grass roots?
Though progress has been made in getting more migrants to play cricket, certain barriers - largely to do with cultural differences - persist
On a cultural level, Australia has been forced to confront the harsh reality of a federal politician called Pauline Hanson, who has touched a raw nerve by questioning what it means for migrants to embrace "Australian values". No one is quite sure what these values are meant to be, who drew up the list of these values, and how far back in time you have to go to determine the source of these values, but Hanson has done what she set out to do - embroil the nation in a testy debate around notions of inclusivity and diversity as it applies to her monocultural frame of reference.
Much of the focus of her wrath is seemingly directed at ethnic and religious migrants from Asia and the Middle East. For many of those who may feel the sting of her words, cricket is their sport, their passion, their sense of cultural identity. Having had the privilege of being on both sides of the fence - first as a migrant in 1984 and now as a long-time resident, with children born in this land (weaned on cricket), and working as an educator in the field of diversity and inclusion, I believe firmly that cricket represents a bridge that can span the chasm between Hanson's rhetoric and the history of a nation built on migration.
That Cricket Australia promotes a culture that is wholly inclusive
is not in doubt. I have personally witnessed their commitment to making the sport accessible to all. It is not lip service but a genuine recognition of cricket as a truly global sport that is richer for the broad church it draws from. It may yet be another generation before the proliferation of South Asian names seen in junior cricket scorecards is reflected in senior Australian teams but most of that is beyond CA's influence at this early point in time.
For instance, at the national championships that my 12-year-old son participated in recently, most of the state teams had significant representation from boys with subcontinental heritage. Yet in the Under-17, U-19 and rookie squads I work with, the numbers have thinned out noticeably. This has very little to do with discrimination and everything to do with the traditional focus on higher education that many South Asian families still demand of their children. It may yet be some time before cricket is viewed as an equally attractive and viable career option for a subset of the population for whom higher education is still the holy grail.
I felt that pressure in the late 1980s when I pursued a modest cricket career, and it was only the luck of a cricket scholarship to Oxford that appeased my parents sufficiently to allow me to chase that futile dream for a few more years.
Many cricket clubs wonder why some cricketers or their families are reluctant to volunteer for simple things like running the canteen. It might not have occurred to them that they never actually invited that person to step behind the counter
But inclusivity at grass-roots level runs a lot deeper than merely playing the game. It is about finding ways to encourage people from all backgrounds to be an active part of club culture. Until that happens seamlessly, there will always be the perception that gives rise to Hansonism - this ridiculous notion that if you don't share her version of "Australian values", you don't belong. It's plain to see why the smallest oversights can lead to the perception that some cultures/religions do not want to assimilate, and the barriers to entry can easily be removed with nothing more than enhanced cross-cultural understanding on both sides of the fence.
For example, many cricket clubs wonder why some cricketers or their families are reluctant to volunteer for simple things like running the canteen. It might not have occurred to them that they never actually invited that person to step behind the counter. If you're a second-generation club member, like my sons are, they see no impediment to volunteering for any role, but when I posed the same question to my father, he confessed that while he felt like he should have offered to help, no one actually asked him, so he did not want to force himself on people whom he did not know.
It could be as simple as the Aussie staple of ham and salad rolls or hot dogs being on the menu. For some, handling certain types of meat is not an option. Serving alcohol might present a similar obstacle to volunteering in such roles. How many clubs (and I've seen this occur in England too a thousand times) serve food that has pork or beef products and then look suspiciously at that one person who distances himself from the group and looks like he is not "mixing in" with his team-mates? In similar vein, I've played cricket in India and Sri Lanka where similar situations occur in reverse - the volunteer caterer may just have forgotten to include a type of food that is non-spicy. Nothing sinister - just an oversight that leads to false perceptions that fuel the sort of myths that Hanson then makes sweeping generalisations about.
Then there's dressing-room etiquette. In all my time playing cricket in Australia and England, it was standard practice for males to get changed and shower alongside each other without being self-conscious about nudity. It never occurred to those cricketers that there may be others who feel uncomfortable with that. It has nothing to do with being gay or being unhygienic ("Have you noticed he never showers after a game?"). And yet, those minor misunderstandings can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies that stand in the way of true inclusivity.
I am now in South Africa, a proud cricketing nation that is dealing with the equally thorny issues around quotas, inclusion and opportunity. We have Pauline Hanson. South Africa had Nelson Mandela: "Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination."
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane