Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja says the feeling of playing against Pakistan during the summer’s three-match Test series is particularly special given his South Asian background.
“I feel the same playing against Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka,” the 37-year-old said during an appearance at the Kayo Sports Summer of Cricket launch in Sydney.
Growing up in Westmead in Sydney’s west, Khawaja is the first Muslim and first Pakistani-born Australian player to play Test cricket for Australia. His connection to the subcontinent not only stems from being brown, but his upbringing that was filled with rich memories and experiences of being immersed in South Asian culture.
"My family is very Desi. Like I grew up eating chicken kadai and parathas and kheemas and biryani. My mum [was] old school and I brought my first girlfriend home and she didn’t talk to me for three months," he laughed.
"I grew up in a very subcontinental family. So for me, playing against anyone from the subcontinent… I just feel like we have that connection. Also because I can speak the language, but also because that’s how I grew up."
When speaking at the Kayo Sports event that took place in early December, Khawaja anticipated an exciting series against Pakistan spread across three Tests in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.
"I think Pakistan’s going to be a really cool series. I think they’ve got some very good players," he said at the time. "I’m looking forward to it."
@drawyourbox Just when you thought Usman Khawaja couldn’t be more of a legend! The Australian cricketer talks about growing up in a South Asian family 👏🏾 #usmankhawaja #cricket #cricketworldcup #australia #parramatta #southasian #desi #ausvspak #kayosports ♬ Hass Hass - Diljit Dosanjh & Sia & Greg Kurstin
Khawaja also spoke at the launch of Cricket Australia’s Multicultural Action plan just before Christmas, where the governing body announced 10 key actions including funding and support to increase multicultural representation in the sport, including South Asian representation.
"I'm very Australian, but I grew up very subcontinental," Khawaja said during the press conference. "The things I had to deal with growing up were very different than things that other teammates in my era had to grow up with. I've always found it very hard to relate to my teammates in some respects, but also with my coaches."
Speaking of some of the particular challenges during his career as a South Asian Australian cricketer, Khawaja explained: "All my coaches were white Australian, all the selectors were white Australian and they didn't really understand me or my culture.
"For a long time Cricket Australia has been a very white-dominated sport," he added. "Hopefully this will be a legacy that lasts long into the future where we can see greater representation, both male and female, in Australian cricket."
South Asian communities have been deemed critical in the growth of the sport in Australia, with Cricket Australia outlining its hopes to double the number of South Asian people attending matches to 200,000 each annual season, and increase South Asian registered players by 30,000 by 2027.
"Almost 20 per cent of participants are of South Asian cultural background and in last year's youth national championship carnivals 18 per cent of competing players were of South Asian cultural background," said Cricket Australia’s Head of Community Cricket and Capability James Allsopp.
There’s no question that South Asian spectators show up in droves to watch cricket matches in Australia, but recent years haven’t been without some controversy. In 2021, the Indian cricket team lodged an official complaint after bowlers Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj complained of hearing racist slurs while fielding near the boundary rope at Sydney Cricket Ground. As Editor at HuffPost Australia at the time, Draw Your Box founder Alicia Vrajlal interviewed some Indian Australians, who said racism at the cricket was “all too familiar” and a deterrent from attending matches in-person.
“As much as I absolutely love cricket, I’ve made the conscious choice to avoid going to Australia vs India cricket matches for the last few years now primarily because I can’t remember a time where I attended such a match without hearing some kind of racist comment in the crowd (whether it was aimed at players or other spectators),” Khushaal Vyas told HuffPost Australia at the time.
The Australian-born cricket fan, whose parents migrated to Australia from India in the 1980s, said “there’s no worse feeling than baring the uncomfortable silence and disappointed sighs from your parents, extended family and ethnic friends while you’re trying to enjoy a day out together, only to overhear the same ‘Go back to where you came from you smelly curry’ that you heard last time India was playing”.
Comedian Nazeem Hussain also spoke out about facing racial microgressions while attending cricket matches involving South Asian teams.
“Can’t remember attending a single Aus V Sri Lanka/India/Pakistan/Bangladesh cricket match where the chant ‘SHOW US YOUR VISA’ has not been chanted. No exaggeration. Uncles respond by waving credit cards,” he tweeted at the time.
Fast forward a couple of years, and former cricketer and head coach of the India national cricket team Ravi Shashtri says the tide is changing.
“The reason why it’s [India and Australia cricket] so intense is because crowds in both countries are extremely passionate about the game,” he told Draw Your Box at the Kayo Sports Summer of Cricket launch in Sydney.
“I think there are rules being put into place now, and announcements being made on the ground,” he added in regard to curbing racism and sledging. “So in the last few times we have come here, it’s been fine.”
As for now, Cricket Australia expects to see many South Asians in the stands as Australia plays against Pakistan in the third and final Test of the series kicking off on Wednesday, January 3 at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).