An overcast Sydney morning had delayed the start of the Test and by the time the first wicket fell, it was time for lunch. Sitting beside Tariq Khawaja and Fozia Khawaja, Usman’s mentor and confidante Bill Anderson realised the wait to see his protégé bat would be stretched. But he had just one question in mind: What would the nervous debutant eat? Later he would ask Usman, “Did you feel like eating something at lunch after that wait?” and laughed at the reply, “I actually lay down on the bench and went to sleep!”
“That pretty much sums up Usman’s character,” says Anderson, who knows Usman for a decade and a half now. Unflustered, lips ready to curl into a smile at most times, self-deprecating humour, strong in his faith — and fiercely competitive.
Sitting next to him on that January day in 2011 was a nervous Fozia, who had her own problems with watching her son on the field. “She is funny. When he is fielding, she always goes, ‘which one is Usman? I can never tell which one is he? Is he the one standing there?’”
Next to her was a quiet Tariq, who is Usman’s “hero”. “No questions about it, Usman adores and looks up to him.” Before he moved his family from Pakistan to Australia, Tariq had fiddled with the idea of shifting to the United States but was stuck with one imagery that he saw Down Under: of kids playing cricket in the sunlit parks, and made up his mind to move the family to possibly unearth at least one international cricketer from his three sons. That day watching his son in whites playing for Australia must have been as close to the consummation of an immigrant father’s dream as it can be.
Inside the dressing room was another Usman faithful. Bobby Barter, a popular dressing room attendant at the Sydney Cricket Ground and the manager of a grade team at Randwick Petersham, the club where Usman played in his formative years, was watching Usman sleep as he scampered about doing his stuff.
“I have never seen young Usman ever fazed,” Barter says. “One day, as a kid in our club he was interviewed after scoring a hundred. He had failed in the last three games or so and when he was asked about what happened in those gigs, he said, ‘It was meant to be’. I will never forget it.”
Seen in that light, lot of events have just meant to be in Usman’s life. Yanked out of his life in Pakistan when he was five, he stumbled out to a playschool in Australia where the teacher asked him his name and a puzzled Usman turned to his mother to ask in Urdu what the teacher meant. As he grew up in the initial years, he was called a “curry muncher”, aimed as a racist taunt, but his innate sense of humour meant he reacted in his own mind with, “Ugh, I don’t even eat curry!”.
One of the things he struggled with was learning to use knives and forks, according to Anderson. His parents’ Pakistani friends would discourage him from playing cricket and would tell him that he won’t make it to the top as he “doesn’t have the same skin colour”. Quickly, as he found friends and found himself loved in the cricketing community, Usman started to shift his loyalty to the Australian cricket team and immersed himself in the new country.
“He is conscious of his background and where he came from — at the same time he is very Australian,” says Anderson. “Everything about him: the time he spends on video games, the social things he indulges in even though he doesn’t drink, he is always out with his team-mates. The fun things he does with them, we are all part of the environment where we grow up and it’s in Australia that he grew up.”
And that Sydney day, the epitome of Australianism was reached as in many ways, as it’s cricket that helped shape the very idea of Australia in the 1880s when they were searching for a sense of nationhood. The colonies which never did anything together assembled under the umbrella of cricket and showed Australians they could accomplish as a single entity what the squabbling colonies were unable to attain politically. They united first for cricket before doing so politically.
Australia didn’t have many social and cultural narratives; it’s a modern nation. Or as Gideon Haigh put it once, “it’s a geographical construct. We didn’t have any political identity until 1901. Like what CLR James wrote of cricket in the Caribbean, here cricket provided us access to a ready-made culture and helped us assert our superiority in certain controlled and limited respects.” Playing cricket for Australia, thus, became something very significant and to see Usman Khawaja walk in to bat for Australia must have warmed the liberal hearts in the country.
Barter remembers a sunny day in Sydney in 2008 when the New South Wales team walked into the ground. Some players on phones, cap turned backwards, some ears plugged into music — and then came Usman. “He had his pilot short-sleeved shirt, stripes on shoulders, the pilot cap on, beautifully-ironed-out black trousers — and I was wondering what is this bloke doing here!”
A year before that, in August, Usman had walked in with his cricket gear and told Barter, “I don’t know how I am going to fit cricket in at all — I haven’t got any time up to December. I have to study for my exams.” Usman was pursuing an aviation degree. “But he found time — continued with his cricket, represented the NSW Blues in second XI, studied and fulfilled the flying degree commitment and passed with flying colours.”
During training sessions, whenever a plane flew overhead, a cry would go out from one of the boys, “There goes Uzzy”. And then he walked in one day as a pilot. “That is commitment. By 21, he was a pilot and a Sheffield Shield cricketer. He put his flying ambitions on hold — he then said until he turned 30 — to focus on cricket. He has flown real planes of course.”
Even recently, he had gone to a Qantas airlines simulation centre to fly one of the Boeing simulators.
Anderson, his mentor, remembers a shy 15-year old who would at first “not look into your eye”. “He always had the talent, that flowing technique, the cover drive and the pull shot and so on. I quickly learnt that behind that ice demeanour, a terrific smile was always breaking out. He can come across as a bit guarded in television interviews these days but he is a man with a great sense of humour — he often makes jokes on himself and is very popular with team-mates.”
Anderson began to spend a lot of time with young Uzzy once he moved to first-grade cricket for Randwick Petersham. Anderson also got to know the parents and discussions would revolve around how to fit in cricket with his academics.
One day, at Coogee Oval, Anderson called Khawaja for a chat. “I told him that if you work hard enough, you will get there, you have the talent but everyone was conscious of the fact that he was focusing on education and to an extent I think that has slowed down your progress. Don’t worry, keep at it. When you are ready, when everyone knows you are ready, you will get picked.”
Not long after he scored a double hundred for the NSW second eleven and Anderson asked him, “Are you ready now?” “Yes I am.” Things moved on from there and he was eventually picked for Australia.
But, it seemed every time he took a step forward, he was forced two steps back by the system. Anderson explains what the young Khawaja was going through in those phases. “Australia had a history. We didn’t blood too many young players. Almost very loyal to those who have already broken through. It took a long time for Uzzy to crack the Australian code. He had got a chance to play when Ricky Ponting broke a thumb and made a promising start, but Ponting came back and Uzzy had to wait for a while.
“But the issue I have always had even later is that whenever the team wasn’t successful, Uzzy would be the first person to be dropped. He was the easiest one to drop, for some reason, and that slowed his progress. That can dent your confidence as a young player who need chances to prove themselves but he never got a consistent run. It was a bit of a troublesome period — constantly in and out — but he eventually learnt to handle it with his composure and almost philosophical calmness. He never allowed himself to get down too much. All I ever said then was that life is full of moments — some good and some not so good — and he has to keep believing in himself. There are things in life out of control and selection was one of them. His response was ‘yes, I understand and I will continue with the cricket dream’.”
“Religion is the most important thing in my life. Whatever I do, it’s in my back of mind whether it’s right or not,” Khawaja has said. Through his teammate Ben Cutting, Khawaja met Rachel, who he would go on to marry. A Catholic girl, she converted to Islam just before their wedding. “He never asked me to do it but it’s something that I thought long and hard,” Rachel has said. Her mother reveals a bit more in a television show ‘Sixty Minutes’. “Most people were surprised and said, ‘that’s why Muslims are taking over the world because they make their girlfriends convert before marriage, but for those close to us, it wasn’t an issue.” Khawaja was the first Muslim that Rachel ever met and she admitted that “All I read about Muslims was that they were wild, terrorists and all that awful things.” Even as she says that, a smiling Khawaja pulls her leg with this: “She first thought that I would tie my wife up in chains and keep her in dungeons!” and even as Rachel protests, he adds in jest, “Only if she deserves it”, and they both laugh.
It’s that sense of humour that Paddy Upton, who coached Khawaja’s T20 team in the Big Bash, remembers. “He is a really solid grounded personality. Although he is very quiet, he is one of the funniest people I have ever been within a dressing room. The one-liners and self-deprecation — he is always the butt of his own jokes.”
It’s not all fun and frolic, though. He started a Usman Khawaja Foundation to give back to the people. “To help young new immigrants, refugees, and people who are disadvantaged,” Anderson says. “We run eight-week cricket programmes for 8 to 13-year-olds, run cricket hubs and try to assist them in education and connect them to sports clubs.” Last year, 360 kids had come, and it’s set to expand to 1,000 this year.
During a television show, as the camera pans to a newspaper headline, ‘The first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia,” Khawaja stares at it and says quietly, “I have never liked that headline. I just wanted to play cricket.”