Muslims, Australian cricket and high politics: the case of Fawad Ahmed

From the outset Fawaz Ahmed insisted that as a Muslim he (unlike Usman Khawaja) would not wear the team shirt with the sponsor’s logo, that of Victoria Bitter.

Rumy Hasan
30 October 2013

Australia’s cricket team is not renowned for displaying the country’s increasingly multi-ethnic character. Part of the reason is that until about thirty years ago, it had a ‘whites only’ immigration policy so there were not many non-whites living – hence playing cricket – in the country. The one exception, the indigenous aboriginal population, was systematically discriminated against in all walks of life and, notwithstanding the small numbers, not one aborigine has ever been picked for the national cricket team. Should there have been a player of the calibre of the South African Basil D’Olivera, it would not be too uncharitable to think that he – should he have so chosen – would have had a better chance of playing for England than Australia.

But Australia is changing and its cricket authorities are also feeling the pressure to change, that is to say, have a greater ethnic mix of players in the international team. Part of the ‘problem’, if it can be described as such, has been that until about 5 years ago, Australia’s team had been dominant for the previous decade, one of the most successful in the history of the game and, hardly surprisingly, it was comprised entirely of white players. An exception to this was the selection of the black Birmingham-born all-rounder Andrew Symonds who excelled in one day internationals but never fully cemented his place in the test team.

Following Symond’s departure, Usman Khawaja has been selected but appears, like Symonds, not quite good enough to hold his place in the test squad. Khawaja came to Australia as a small child from Pakistan, hence is from a Muslim background. Sounding like a typical Aussie, he seems to have adapted and integrated pretty well to the Australian way of life and, a sign of the changing times, Aussies seem to accept him as one of their own.

And then, this summer, along came Fawad Ahmed whose case goes completely against the grain of current Australian politics. The selectors felt that they needed an outstanding spinner to bolster the team which has been floundering of late; but found none in the current crop of players. It transpired that an asylum seeker from Pakistan – Ahmed – was an exceptionally good leg-spinner. Uniquely, Cricket Australia not only lobbied for Fawad Ahmed to be granted permanent residency, but requested the by-passing of Federal legislation so as to allow his citizenship to be expedited, thus enabling him to qualify to play for Australia during the tour of England. Miraculously, this is precisely what happened (with support from both sides of the Australian political divide), allowing Ahmed to be duly selected for some of the ODIs towards the end of the tour.

This was an astonishing turn of events given the wider political context. Whilst the legislative goalposts were being moved to accommodate Ahmed, the election campaign was raging and one of the decisive battle grounds between the incumbent Labor Party and the opposition Liberal Party was how best to keep asylum seekers out. The opposition leader Tony Abbot won convincingly against Prime Minister Kevin Rudd because of his party’s harder stance on managing the border: he promised to utilise the navy to ensure that boatloads of migrants did not land on Australian territory, and if they somehow managed to get in, would not be granted residency.

Given this monumental backdrop – a large majority of Australians desiring very strict controls on immigration and asylum seekers – one would imagine that sound counsel was proffered to Mr Ahmed to the effect that he should modify his beliefs and lifestyle so as to fit in well with the Australian team and the wider society: after all, he was no longer in Pakistan and, moreover, an enormous privilege had been accorded to him. Alas, this did not appear to be the case or if such advice was indeed proffered, Ahmed rejected it.

The reason for this is that from the outset Ahmed insisted that as a Muslim he (unlike Khawaja) would not wear the team shirt with the sponsor’s logo, that of Victoria Bitter (drinking the beer was not part of the sponsorship deal). Cricket Australia acceded to this demand and so provided Ahmed with a team kit without the VB logo. In their defence, they could point to the cases of Muslim players in the South African cricket team (Hashim Amla and Imran Tahrir – who had also emigrated from Pakistan) being exempted from wearing shirts and jumpers with the logo of the sponsors Castle Lager. But South Africa is a very different country to Australia where, because of its apartheid history, racial and religious sensitivities are most acute.

Unsurprisingly, some Australians began to protest – leading the way was Doug Walters, an Aussie great from the 1970s, who asserted: ‘if he doesn't want to wear the team gear, he should not be part of the team’. Former rugby international David Campese quickly offered support: ‘Doug Walters tells Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmed: if you don't like the VB uniform, don't play for Australia, Well said Doug. Tell him to go home’. The need for wise counsel became crystal clear.

Given the religiosity of his home country, Ahmed’s attitude is not at all surprising. Tim Wigmore, in his new review of the book Cricket Cauldron (on the CricInfo website) by former chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Shaharyar Khan, gives a flavour of cricket in Pakistan: ‘Inzamam is criticised for his "excessive religiosity" as captain. During his reign, no answer from a player would be complete without an "inshallah"; several players grew traditionally Islamic beards; and prayers seemed the main facet of team bonding ... we hear of [coach Bob] Woolmer at one point complaining about "the constant and lengthy prayer sessions that the team held, which gave him no time to strategise or advise the players".’

So when players from Pakistan leave the county, it is not surprising that they invariably take some of this religious zeal with them. Throughout the west (with the partial exception of America) religion is on the wane and of little relevance to most people’s lives: so such open religious fervour among sportsmen and women is bewildering to most western followers of any sport. One of the reasons people put forward for widespread antipathy towards multiculturalism and multifaithism in Europe is that ethnic minority migrants who strongly identify with their culture and religion make demands for special provisions and exemptions to the laws and regulations, precisely what Ahmed has done amid the full glare of publicity.

Unwittingly, Fawad Ahmed has created a setback for Muslim migrants in Australia: evidence suggests that white Australians, whilst becoming more accepting of non-whites as fellow citizens, most fervently do not want the separation and segregation along religious and ethnic lines that is so common across many British towns and cities. The refrain ‘if you are not prepared to accept the Australian way life, this is not the place for you’ is highly prevalent and will have to be heeded by those fortunate enough to be granted the right of abode and citizenship in the ‘lucky country’.

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