As Australian cricket struggles to recapture former glories, the sport’s chiefs are painfully aware of the need to widen the net to reflect the country’s burgeoning cultural diversity.
While rugby, Australian Rules Football and soccer have embraced the country’s multicultural make-up, the national cricket side has lagged behind, largely stuck in its white Anglo roots.
Australia’s experience contrasts sharply with that of England, their oldest adversary who for decades have successfully incorporated the talents of players from ethnic minority communities, whether Afro-Caribbean or South Asian.
The 2011 national census revealed that 26% of Australia’s population was born abroad while many others had at least one overseas-born parent.
The retirement of modern-day greats such as Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Ricky Ponting has made the search for new talent more pressing as the declining national team bids to revive its domination of the world game.
“By 2015, 40% of Australians will have a parent who was born overseas,” Matt Dwyer, Cricket Australia’s national game development manager, said. “Cricket Australia has programmes in place and we will benefit from having players in the national team which will reflect multicultural Australia and increase the diversity of our game.”
There are examples of cricketers from ethnic minorities donning the famous Baggy Green and others are tipped to follow in their footsteps.
Usman Khawaja, whose family emigrated from Pakistan when he was a child, was celebrated when in 2011 he became the first Muslim to play a Test for Australia, against England. Khawaja, the 26-year-old left-hand batsman, has gone on to play six Tests but has failed to hold down a regular place in the side.
Moises Henriques, also 26, became the first Portuguese-born player to represent Australia in Tests when he made an outstanding debut against India last month, scoring two half-centuries in Chennai.
Fawad Ahmed, born in Pakistan and seeking asylum, could cap a dramatic rise by playing a role in Australia’s Ashes series in England later this year, the first of a double-header against the former colonial masters.
As Australia’s spinners struggle in India, Ahmed, who impressed with his seven-wicket debut for Victoria in the domestic four-day Sheffield Shield competition last month, may be fast-tracked into the national team.
“It is about performance and consistency in performance, but I’m confident he certainly has the skill set to play at the next level,” said Greg Shipperd, his Victoria state coach.
Ahmed left his home in the border region near Afghanistan to come to Australia on a short-stay visa in 2010, saying he was targeted by Muslim extremists. Ahmed, 31, was granted a permanent visa to stay in November and quickly established his credentials at the Melbourne Renegades in the T20 Big Bash League.
He is eligible to play for Australia as soon as he is granted citizenship, although under International Cricket Council guidelines, he can also play for his adopted country from August.
Cricket Australia are said to be lobbying authorities in Canberra to fast-track his citizenship so he is available for July 10 — the opening day of the first Test against England at Trent Bridge.
Ashton Agar, who has Sri Lankan grandparents, is another beneficiary of Australia’s pursuit of a top-line spinner. Agar, a tall 19-year-old, accompanied the Australian team to India to provide net practice.
Gurinder Sandhu, the New South Wales paceman born in Australia but of Indian heritage, is another being groomed for the international game after the 19-year-old was selected for the Prime Minister’s XI to play West Indies.
“This commitment by Cricket Australia is excellent,” Glenn Withers, professor of public policy at the Australian National University, said. “It makes it clear that this is a sport that welcomes all and that is great for our society.
“It also enriches the sport itself. US studies show that teams that integrate perform better. Integration often leads to new skills and new ways being considered that can enhance performance.”