Khawaja carries hopes of a nation as Australia eye uncertain future

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The Independent Online

Australia awoke yesterday to the news that their Test team will have its first Muslim cricketer. It is a big deal.

Usman Khawaja was born in Islamabad 24 years ago and is widely seen as heralding a new era.

Apart from anything else he will bat in the blue riband number three batting position vacated by Ricky Ponting, who is missing the match because of a broken little finger on his left hand. But it is his religion and his background that appears to have exercised most of the attention.

It is generally accepted that Australia have been slow to assimilate racial and religious minorities in its cricket teams. Aborigines have been few and far between, though the first Australian touring side to England in 1868 consisted entirely of Aborginal cricketers and they surprised all by winning as many matches as they lost.

The products of European immigrants have long been part of the team, taking to a game that was not part of the culture whence they came. In the 1930s Hans Ebeling played against England, Lenny Pascoe, born Durtanovich, was a muscular quick bowler in the late 1970s, and of more recent vintage men with names like Kasprowicz, Hilfenhaus and Hauritz have been regulars.

But this is a sea change and probably not before time. Khawaja may not realise it yet but he is representing Asian immigrants here as much as he is representing Australia. Succeed – and all of the sounder judges say he has the tools to do so – and he may encourage others to follow him into trying to make a career out of cricket.

Khawaja, a mischievous soul who has also passed his pilot's course, has himself said: "Maybe they don't think they can go all the way. Also studies are very important in sub-continental societies."

He is merely one of the boys in Australian changing rooms and Brad Haddin, his New South Wales team-mate and the national side's newly elevated vice-captain, said yesterday: "He is a pretty relaxed guy but I am sure next week there will be a few sweaty palms and it will be a very exciting time for him. He has been on stand-by for a couple of Tests and he richly deserves this opportunity. He is one guy who has really worked hard at his first-class cricket."

Khawaja will almost certainly be one of two debutants in the match, with left-arm spinner Michael Beer, left out on the morning of the third and fourth Tests, now firmly in the reckoning. Australia are trying to regroup after losing the Ashes and clinging to the hope they can draw the series by winning the fifth Test starting on Monday.

Haddin said: "We are disappointed with the way we have performed this series; the results have not been acceptable. England have played good cricket and deserve to retain that urn. We have been under-par when it mattered. It is important this week we step out and play the brand of cricket we know we should be playing. We showed in Perth we can compete and our best cricket is definitely good enough to beat this English team."

The appointment, albeit temporary, of Michael Clarke as captain for the Sydney match has not been greeted with universal approval. Clarke, fairly or not, is not one of the country's most popular players.

"I have played most of my first-class career with Michael and he deserves to be in this position," said Haddin. "He is a very good captain and we have seen that in the Twenty20 form of the game and the one-dayers he has led – from that point of view we are 100 per cent behind him, and being a good mate of mine, I'll support him in any way I can.

"I think the reaction from the public with all our players changes from week to week; you are one good innings away or even one good cover drive away from the support being with you. Personally I don't think too much about it, you just have to make sure you do all the work you can to be the best cricketer you can. Michael is a very strong character so things will be OK."

Among the country at large, however, there is a definite resignation, little hope and no expectation.