Fawad case a snapshot of Aussie cricket's 'grim' struggle

09 September 2013

By Sharda Ugra, A.I.I Emerging Leader Fellow and Senior Editor at ESPNcricinfo

Doug Walters and David Campese are very considerate gentlemen. Over the weekend, their response to the news that Pakistan-born Australian cricketer Fawad Ahmed would rather not wear a VB logo on his new Australian cricket team shirt spelt out exactly where they stood on the issue.

Former Australian cricketer Walters told a newspaper, "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". Campese, the former Australian Rugby Union captain who is of Italian descent, then Tweeted, "Well said, Doug. Tell him to go home."

When I go home to India in less than a month, I will always remember these men’s words which gave an extra, vital sharpness of topicality to my fellowship project at the Australia India Institute. The project looks at the impact of Australia’s changing demographics on its cricket. During the research, I’ve had conversations with officials, former players, coaches, and club organisers, and many others. They have revealed an enormously multi-layered ecosystem, with strains and stresses in play, both top down and grassroots up.

Fawad Ahmed wears the Aussie colours with pride, but not the VB logo

To the rest of the cricket world, Australian cricket represents the utter opposite of “Englishness.” In Australia, cricket is open and relaxed, always about grassy knolls bathed in sunshine (regardless of stadium renovations), with scattering seagulls, and fans drinking beer and waving clever banners.

What we do not see on television is the tightness of tradition, structure, and history in the Australian game. In the darker crevices between tradition, structure, and history is where the Walters/Campese demographic can be found. It represents resistance to the profound changes that are reshaping contemporary Australian society.

While there have been pockets of immigrant involvement in cricket in various parts of the country, Cricket Australia’s own concentrated push towards engaging new players from migrant backgrounds is only very recent. It gained momentum following a Cricket Australia strategy meeting in 2010. A position for a “diversity” manager was created last year.

However, the roots of the Walters-Campese resistance go deep. The case of Fawad Ahmed has provided a Polaroid snapshot of the grim struggle between traditionalists and progressives around issues of multiculturalism and diversity in Australian cricket. On one side is a cricket-playing Pakistani asylum-seeker, and on the other, the monolithic “pale, male, and stale” definition of Australian cricket typified by Doug Walters’ views.

But polarised positions don’t tell the full story. During my research, an official involved in community cricket programs told me she hated the sweeping generalisation that came with the use of “pale, male, and stale.” To her – and she was right – it tosses aside the good work and intentions of the most well meaning people in Australian cricket.

Fawad, we must remember, has found his place in Australia itself – and not merely in its cricket team – due both to his own drive and persistence, and the efforts of everyday Australians. These include friends, club officials, members of state and national cricket boards, and the lawmakers who pushed through an amendment to the country’s citizenship laws and fast-tracked his case.

It is understood that the contract between Cricket Australia and Carlton & United Breweries, owners of VB, contained an opt-out clause about wearing the alcohol sponsor’s logo if doing so contravened a player’s religious beliefs.

Fawad’s Australian team shirt was not an after-thought that led to the logo being ripped off or covered with black tape minutes before he went onto the field. It is part of a larger, constantly evolving picture. For charismatic Aussie sporting figures like Walters and Campese to turn the decision over an alcohol sponsor’s logo into a contest over citizenship itself shows that it will be a long while before the umbrella of inclusion covers all of Australian cricket. The contrast with Australian Rules football – whose Muslim players talk openly about their faith to club staff, teammates and fans, and have their training schedules adjusted and worked around if they are fasting during Ramadan – is too hard to ignore.

Fawad Ahmed wears the Aussie colours with pride, but not the VB logo.

The pot has been stirred; the ground underneath Australian cricket is shifting. Pick your metaphor because no matter what Dougie and Campo believe, the issue is not going anywhere. In Australia, in fact, it has come home to stay.