Archive for January, 2011

A first Ashes defeat on home soil since 1987 has left national pride badly disfigured. Navel gazing and scapegoat searching have become popular pastimes in the great southern land. From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback – there is little waltzing of Matilda right now.

Former Australian Test players have been queuing up to heap scorn on the captain Ricky Ponting. The sanity and credentials of national selectors and administrators has been repeatedly called into question.

Numerous newspaper columns carry those same armchair experts’ bylines.  No shelter from the storm of protestations. Admirably Richie Benaud is the lone beacon of reason amid a hail of media sniper fire. Though even the doyen himself has landed the odd glancing blow.

Throughout the current contest, the contribution of Australia’s top six has been paltry at best. Their ineptitude against England bowling in swing-conducive conditions reached its nadir on Boxing Day in Melbourne when they mustered just 98 in their first innings. As each Australian batsman made the long, lonely return journey to the Members’ Pavilion, so too did any hope of recapturing the little urn.

Australia’s cause has not been helped by a baffling selection policy. Spinner Xavier Doherty and Michael Beer have been plucked from obscurity at the expense of regular twirler Nathan Hauritz. Mitchell Johnson, or Myth Johnson if you are an acerbic English cricket correspondent, is dropped after one Test only to return and blow the opposition batsmen away in the next.

That performance owed as much to leaden skies and prevailing winds as it did to guile. Frustratingly, Johnson seems destined to be an enigma unfulfilled.

Steve Smith, a leg-spinning all-rounder, we are told, is the best No.6 batsman in the country. Phil Hughes, a belligerent opener of questionable technique continues at the top of the order despite a spate of rash strokes and low scores.

Reports of disaffection in the home dressing room abound. Stand-in captain in Sydney, Michael Clarke, he of the flash cars and flashier girlfriends, is at the heart of that alleged unrest.

By contrast, there is unity among this England team despite the presence of a Zimbabwean head coach (Andy Flower), an Australian fast bowling coach (David Saker), a Pakistani spin bowling coach (Mushtaq Ahmed) and four South Africans (Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Mathew Prior) among their ranks. Shades of Unified Team (circa Olympic Games 1992).

In truth this Australian Test team has been confronted by an opposing XI consistently at the top of their game – a temporary aberration in Perth notwithstanding. They grind out big scores, hold their catches and uproot stumps with relentless intent. Sound familiar?

How telling it was then that into the rubble of the current Ashes debacle stepped a 24-year-old batsman of Muslim faith.

A diminutive left-hander by the name of Usman Khawaja, whose strokeplay has more than a passing resemblance to the former West Indian lefty Alvin Kallicharan, wore the Baggy Green cap of Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Occupying the No.3 spot vacated by the injured skipper, there were fleeting glimpses of a precocious talent before a top edge off a mistimed sweep brought his dismissal for 37.

From a position of 111/2 the hosts subsided as they have done many times this series to be 134/4 at the end of a rain-interrupted first day.

While not quite the apparition some pundits would have us believe, Khawaja did at least provide bright patches on an otherwise dank day for Australia. The kid himself was none too fazed by it all. “Being the first Pakistani-born player to play for Australia is probably a bit more significant than my religious beliefs because they’re quite personal to me,” he said.

“I was probably most emotional when I got my baggy green in the morning. As soon as I got out there it felt like the best thing ever. I was out there playing for Australia, the crowd was right behind me, it was awesome.”

Khawaja’s inclusion may yet serve as a watershed in Australian cricket. Like Australian Rules football, both rugby codes, soccer, athletics and tennis too, it may just trigger interest from the ethnic minorities of a multicultural society watching from afar.

Countless men and women have graced the sporting fields of Australia from diverse backgrounds. What makes Khawaja stand out is that he happens to be from Randwick-Petersham via Islamabad.

Right now Australian cricket can do with an infusion of new blood – whatever the ethnicity or creed.


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