Khawaja applauds CA’s multicultural push, but knows more work needed

Whether it’s Cricket Australia’s newly appointed multicultural ambassador or the official new face of Amazon Prime’s Australian coverage of the 2024 T20 World Cup, Usman Khawaja is a promoter’s dream.

Soft-spoken but firm, unafraid to speak his mind about causes large and small and exuding an air of authority without a hint of arrogance that normally goes hand in hand, the 37-year-old appears as relaxed outside the surface of game like he’s always been into it.

Whether examining bats on a tour of the Brian Lara Cricket Academy facilities in Trinidad (surely none of the Papua New Guinea players using the changing rooms for a warm-up game would object to their team being blessed by the hands of the Australian opener) or practicing his golf. In the hotel lobby before a trip to New York to see how the city will host India and Pakistan in a few weeks, there is an air of calm about Khawaja that does not diminish even when surrounded by cameras and flashing lights. since both Prime Video and the ICC take every opportunity to show it off.

It is this side of his character that was once a source of criticism among the wider Australian cricket-loving community: the “laid-back” description, once an almost permanent addition to any description of Khawaja the batsman, became synonymous with a sense of frustration that a player as talented as him might not even live up to the enormous expectations he set by dominating Sheffield Shield cricket as a promising youngster some 15 years ago.

Perhaps no member of the Australian team has experienced such a reputational change due to the exposure granted by Prime. The proof documentary about his three seasons as Khawaja: his famous confrontation with then-coach Justin Langer over the group of players “walking on eggshells” around the famously tough legend.

Aided by his extraordinary form since returning to the Test XI in January 2022, having averaged 53 and secured an opening spot alongside first David Warner and now Steve Smith, public perception of the player has changed. promising player who never quite took it seriously enough to capitalize on his remarkable talent before being ousted midway through the 2019 Ashes, a martyr abandoned from his rightful place in the team by a vengeful coach upset by his outspokenness and a dominant force in one of the most successful periods in Australian history. .

Usman Khawaja was reprimanded for wearing a black armband to protest violence in Gaza during the Australian summer. (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

For Khawaja, however, the trigger for rebuilding his reputation is not as simple as that: it is “hard to say”, according to him, whether he is viewed differently as a result of the access granted to Prime behind the scenes of the Australian team. male.

“(The series) has given people a clearer idea of ​​what I’m like among my teammates in the locker room,” he said.

“I’m a bit annoying, I like to joke, but when we need to have difficult and serious conversations, I’m always there to have them.

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“People just see me as I am on the field: I try to control my emotions, I try to stay quite calm and concentrate on the game. They probably assume that’s how I am all the time, but that’s not the case.” like that at all. I am the complete opposite.

“A lot of times you see the real Uzzy, especially on Amazon stuff, because I forget the cameras are there.”

With the Australian T20 World Cup team also in Trinidad for a couple of warm-up games before the tournament proper begins, Khawaja has had plenty of opportunity to interact with a group of which many feature alongside him in the Test squad .

While he is far from done with international cricket, the experience of being on tour without being part of the team is “very strange” and is unlikely to feel normal any time soon.

“I’ve only been involved in teams that have played the game and I’ve been with the team in the hotel room,” he said.

“It’s very different walking around, sitting and watching the guys come in in their team kit, and I’m not there to play cricket.

“I don’t think I’m fully prepared for it. I’m still a cricketer first and foremost, so I haven’t given it up yet. In the future, when I hang up my boots, it will take a bit of getting used to.”

Khawaja seems like a natural candidate for a broadcaster if he decides to take that path after his playing days: infinitely knowledgeable about the game, his affable personality and strong convictions are tailor-made for a career behind the microphone, while his near-universal popularity Surely it will only be an advantage for him.

But for the veteran right now, his priorities are twofold: continuing his late-career renaissance with successful home summers against India and England in his immediate future, and his efforts as an officially appointed CA multicultural ambassador, alongside his teammates Current Australian cricketers, Alana King. Scott Boland et al.

Khawaja has been heavily involved on this front for much of the latter stages of his career, and has never been shy about voicing the problems he perceives in Australian cricket – just over 12 months ago, he criticized the country’s lack of diversity . cricket from the grassroots up, with his claim that coaches would prioritize white players who proved divisive.

“If you have two cricketers, one brown, one white, both alike, the white coach will choose the white cricketer just because he has a son who might look like him,” Khawaja told the Sydney Morning Herald in January 2023.

The most encouraging sign he sees is CA’s conviction to attack the problem with a plan, rather than simply pouring money into trying to fix a long-standing and deeply rooted problem in cricket culture across Australia.

“It’s nice to see Cricket Australia really branching out into the community, not just the cricketers but also the people involved in cricket outside the community,” he said.

“We all have to start somewhere, and that’s what I’ve been saying to Cricket Australia: what we’ve been doing in the past hasn’t worked for us.

Usman Khawaja of Australia celebrates his century during Day 2 of the First LV= Insurance Ashes Test match between England and Australia at Edgbaston on June 17, 2023 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Usman Khawaja celebrates his century during the first Ashes Test of 2023 in England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“Cricket Australia has invested a lot of money in multiculturalism, particularly in cricket: we have yet to see the fruits of it. What do they say? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

“I think for once Cricket Australia is changing the goalposts a bit, trying things a bit different and engaging with the community. These are all things that I’ve been trying to push with them for the last five or six years. “It’s really nice to see some actions and things up and running.”

But while the initial steps are solid, Khawaja knows better than anyone that the end result will define this new initiative and a future in which cricketers of all backgrounds and ethnicities can shine, with stories like his rise from his place of birth in Pakistan to the highest levels of football. The sport is no longer as unique as it is now.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said.

“It’s always good to do these things to the letter and show people what you’re doing, but the end result will speak for itself. We need to see greater representation of the Australian community in the Australian cricket team.

“In ten years we will know if everything we are doing now is working. If you still don’t see that, then it’s not working yet.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.”

The reigning Men’s Cricketer of the Year and World Test Champion, Khawaja’s legacy on the field can only be enhanced from here.

However, the impact it leaves behind may only be beginning to grow.

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