Khawaja on a mission to further diversity in Australian cricket

From facing subtle discouragement to downright racism, Khawaja narrates his challenges of trying to belong

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Usman Khawaja hopes for more South Asian representation in Australia's cricket circles  •  Getty Images

Usman Khawaja hopes for more South Asian representation in Australia's cricket circles  •  Getty Images

In an already decorated CV, Usman Khawaja's pioneering advocacy for diversity in Australian cricket might be the richest legacy he leaves yet.
When he made his international debut at the SCG, his home ground, in an Ashes Test 2011, the Australian top-order batter became the first Muslim and the first player of Pakistani descent to represent Australia.
Since then, Khawaja has often spoken about the challenges he has faced, from subtle discouragement to downright racism, in pursuing a cricket career. Those experiences have made him an outspoken advocate of the need to institutionally diversify Australian cricket.
In an interview with ESPNcricinfo, the 34-year old said he didn't like being considered a trailblazer for inclusivity in Australian cricket initially, but has come to only now appreciate the impact he has had over time.
"I think when I was younger, I didn't like it, I sort of shied away from it," Khawaja says from his hotel room in Abu Dhabi, where he will play for Islamabad United in the remainder of the PSL.
"I just wanted to be known for my cricket. But then as I started growing up, and started being more involved in cricket, people with subcontinent heritage in Australia came up to me and said "we're so happy to see you at the top. Seeing someone like you, we feel we've got a part in the Australian team, and we support the Australian team. We didn't do before and we do it now."
"And that kept happening over and over and over again. The more that happened, I realised my background does matter and it does make a difference. And then I realised from my childhood it probably took me a while to support Australia. I didn't really support Australia when I first went [from Pakistan] because I didn't really get it.
"You know, the guys on the screen didn't really look like me, act like me. They're spraying VB alcohol around everywhere, and it didn't really match up for me growing up as a young Pakistani Australian Muslim in the country."
While Khawaja remains one of Australia's most experienced active cricketers, notable wider change in Australian cricket, especially at the top, has proved harder to achieve. Ashton Agar, whose mother is from Sri Lanka, is the only other player from a South Asian background to have since played Test cricket for Australia, while the only other South Asians to play international cricket for the country are spinner Fawad Ahmed and fast bowler Gurinder Sandhu.
However, South Asian involvement in clubs throughout the country has increased year on year, and Khawaja says he spoke to parents who were happier to see their children involved in cricket with people like him present.
"I understand my position in Australia and Australian cricket, which is still a very predominantly white sport in Australia," he says. "There are a lot of good cricketers coming up that have subcontinent heritage. I think parents now see that and they say "oh Khawaja's there, and all these other guys are coming up playing in the BBL. Our kids can do that, too."
"When I was younger in Australia, the amount of time I got told I was never going to play for Australia, I'm not the right skin colour was immense. I'd get told I don't fit the team and they wouldn't pick me. That was the mentality but now it's starting to shift.
"I push that a lot and try to tell any parents in Australia to give their kids a chance. It might not be an easy road, might not be as easy as other people might experience. You're going to get a few people that don't agree with yourself or what you look like or what you say. But if you keep persevering, it only makes you stronger. And then when you reach the top, it just feels that much better."
Last year, Khawaja condemned ongoing systemic racism issues in cricket in Australia, speaking about how his perception as a "lazy runner" held undertones of racism, and the failure of the system to push through more players from diverse backgrounds spoke to changes that needed to be made.
The fact that, a decade on from his debut, Khawaja continues to remain the pin-up player for inclusivity is a telling indicator that this is an issue very much a work in progress for Australian cricket. Khawaja singled out the England cricket team for praise on the subject, and says Australia had plenty to learn from their oldest rivals.
"It is a lot better now," Khawaja says. "I see a lot more cricketers coming up through state levels in Australia in particular that are from subcontinent backgrounds, which we really did not see when I came up, even when I played. I was playing domestic cricket and I was the only subcontinent player there. At the moment there's only probably myself and a few others.
"We're still a long way to go and I look at the England team and see the diversity they've had for a long time. They are an older nation than us, but I can see that diversity and think that's probably where Australia need to reach. We have definitely got better from when I was younger, but it's a generational shift too.
"I was from the old-school Australian way of everyone needing to be tough. The "If you're not tough, you can leave" sort of era in Australian cricket. It has its pros and cons. It does make you a stronger person. But I think at the same time, it can also push you away from the game if you didn't fit at the time. But now I think people are becoming a lot more tolerant and understanding to the differences people have, which is only making society and Australian cricket better.
Khawaja has continued to push the needle on this issue. He's in talks with Cricket Australia about looking to increase South Asian representation not just on the field, but also in coaching and administration to help players from those backgrounds feel more comfortable.
At the same time, South Asian parents have undergone their own ideological journeys, with Khawaja saying when he was young, his parents didn't accept sport was a viable career path. Khawaja's own academic credentials are rather more advanced than the average cricketer's, with the player completing a bachelor's degree in aviation before immersing himself fully into cricket.
"I think a lot of it stems from parents, too, because being from a desi family, mums and dads set a lot of store by studying. Especially when I was younger, my mum wanted me to study a lot. They didn't understand that you could have a career playing cricket. You know, you have to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever it might be.
"So a lot of times parents take kids away from sport because they feel there's no future in sport. But I think that's also changing, too. Now we see where sport in Australia has gone, especially with cricket. There are T20 leagues around the world. You can make a very nice living being a sportsman. You don't have to be just a doctor or a lawyer. I think subcontinent parents are slowly seeing that more and parents from multicultural backgrounds are seeing that more. That's helped."
Khawaja's involvement with the Australian cricket team has turned his family into Australia fans, but that wasn't always the case. He admitted around the time Pakistan played Australia in the 1999 Cricket World Cup final, there were a fair few Pakistan supporters in the Khawaja household. Fittingly, it was a stroke-making left-handed Australian opener who turned Khawaja over to the other side.
"When I was young, I didn't quite feel like I could relate to the older Australian generation. They felt brash for me, a bit blunt. But Adam Gilchrist, I could relate to him and he dragged me to the Australian side. I loved him, left handed player, entertaining. And he's such a nice guy now I know him, one of the best blokes you'll ever meet."
Khawaja had always wanted to play at the PSL, but with the tournament's natural window clashing with the Australian season, the opportunity had never presented itself. But his involvement with the tournament now isn't just for the competition's sake. Khawaja hasn't played any international cricket for Australia since 2019, but he revealed it remained very much his ambition to play international cricket for Australia in as many formats as possible.
"I was really disappointed about being dropped from the white ball side just because I felt like I was scoring a lot of runs. The team was winning and performing really well when I got dropped so it was pretty disappointing. And then the opportunity just goes away.
"It's hard to break into the World T20 squad this year because there's only the West Indies series, and then they've got the World Cup coming up straight after that. You never know if you play well enough, but it'll be hard at the moment. I still haven't given up playing all three formats for Australia. You never know what can happen around the corner. Sport can change very quickly."

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000