Usman Khawaja in action during the 2018 Sunfoil Test Series match against South Africa at Sahara Kings Park Stadium, Durban. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

CAPE TOWN – Usman Khawaja may have been born in Islamabad and reared in Campbelltown, but the dashing Australian top-order batsman may well have been from Cape Town.

With those boyish good looks, and dress style that always seems to involve those tan-coloured Caterpillar working boots and skinny jeans, Khawaja could easily be seen sitting on the corners of Buitengracht and Wale Streets with a bunch of mates recalling stories about his sports heroes.

The narrative would be parallel too. The majority of the All Black-idolising children of Bo-Kaap had an inherent belief that even after readmission there was no pathway to representing the Springboks due to the apartheid legacy.

Similarly, Khawaja was told that he would never wear the Baggy Green by skeptics from within his immigrant community.

“I’d go to Pakistani family dinners and stuff, and they’d tell me I’d never make Australia,” Khawaja recently told 60 Minutes. “They’d say you’re not the right skin colour. There was no one that looked like me on the Australian cricket team.”

Khawaja’s indoctrination was further embedded while making his way through age-group cricket in the Sydney suburbs. The level of the verbal abuse a young Khawaja endured would make the sledging in the on-going series with the Proteas seem like bed-time stories.

“Some of the stuff could be pretty vulgar,” Khawaja said. “One of the parents in earshot of me just nailed me - called me a black, Paki c***. It could be very hurtful.”

It speaks volumes of the 31-year-old’s character that he was able to rise above this adversity to now be the incumbent of the No 3 position in the Australian Test batting line-up - a position previously reserved for Sir Don Bradman and Ricky Ponting.

He’s been making a good fist of it too. In 31 Tests, Khawaja has stroked 2 160 runs at an average of 44.08, including a best of 174. He has also played 18 one-day internationals and nine T20s, during which time he has unveiled a cover drive so glorious it has spectators purring.

For all the classy left-hander’s contributions on the field - like top-scoring in last week's second Test with a gritty 75 in Port Elizabeth that gave the visitors a semblance of hope - his deeds with the willow will always carry extra significance for a country still coming to grips with a changing modern-day society.

Cricket Australia have certainly outlined their “diversity and inclusion” vision in their bid to make cricket “a sport for all Australians” with Khawaja its poster boy. 

The fact that Khawaja has struck up a noble friendship with Proteas superstar Hashim Amla over the years is significant too, especially with Amla having shouldered a similar responsibility in South Africa throughout his international career.

“I am out there just trying to play cricket. I am enjoying and loving playing cricket. That is the first and foremost thing that I am trying to do. Win games for Australia. The rest of it, it is one of those things where I am not actively trying to be something that I am not. I am just trying to be myself. If that relates to people then that’s cool,” Khawaja recently said.

Khawaja was told that he would never wear the Baggy Green by skeptics from his community. Photo: David Moir/EPA

“I meet a lot of guys in Australia, from sub-continental backgrounds, the mosque I go to, a lot of new refugees and immigrants who I talk to about cricket and football and all sorts of other things. At the end of the day it's just about being a good person and enjoying what I do.”

However, Khawaja has become more outspoken since taking his first tentative steps into the Australian dressing-room during the 2010-11 Ashes, even being critical of the national selectors’ “inconsistency” after being left out the starting XI on tours of the sub-continent.

Equally, he has become more comfortable with discussing his faith. As the first Muslim to play Test cricket for Australia, his recent marriage to Rachel McLellan made headlines Down Under due to McLellan converting from Catholicism to Islam.

The couple have already celebrated their Nikkah - the traditional Muslim marriage ceremony - but will also have a “big white wedding” scheduled for immediately after the series against the Proteas.

“I never was going to put a gun to Rachel’s head and say you have to convert,” he said. “I told her I would prefer her to convert, but she has to do it on her own.

“Unless it comes from you, comes from the heart, then there is no point doing it.

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“I love my cricket. But faith any day of the week. Religion is the most important thing in my life. Everything I do, it’s always in the back of my mind. I’m always thinking, ‘is this the right thing to do, is this how I should be doing things?’”

Only time will tell whether Khawaja will have the same impact on Australian cricket as former Wallaby flyhalf Mark Ella, athlete Cathy Freeman or Aussie Rules football star Michael Long had on their respective sporting codes.

But one thing for sure is that when Khawaja strides out to the middle at Newlands over the course of this weekend, he has already smashed through a glass ceiling that was seemingly impenetrable before.



Cape Times

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