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‘I wanted white skin’: Why Khawaja went from changing himself to game changer

When he was younger, Usman Khawaja wanted to change himself to fit in. Now, he wants to change cricket.

“The fact of the matter was that I debuted for NSW on the back of being the highest grade run scorer. I scored five hundreds in a grade season, back-to-back double centuries in second XI cricket. Not trying to sound arrogant, but I knocked the house down and if I didn’t do that, I’m not sure I’d have got as much of an opportunity as someone else who was in better books or had better relationships with people.

“I’ve said numerous times that people told me ‘you’re not going to make it, you’re not going to play for Australia, it’s a white man’s game, they won’t select you’. There could have been plenty of times where I thought ‘nah this is too hard, it’s not going to happen, I’m not getting opportunities,’ but fortunately I’m very stubborn and I have quite thick skin and I just kept pushing, pushing because I love the game and I want to do well.”

Principally, in an echo of what has been seen at club level, Khawaja found it hard to fit into the drinking culture of Australian cricket, particularly in his early days with the national team. It is in pubs, bars and hotels that so much relationship-building has traditionally gone on in the men’s game, and as a teetotal Muslim, Khawaja is happy to admit it was at times a struggle to connect outside of playing and training.

“There were times when I was tempted, guys would be like ‘come on, have a drink, have a drink,’” he says. “To be honest that’s the one thing I stayed strong on, as for the rest I wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be Aussie growing up, I didn’t like the fact I had brown skin. I kind of wanted to have white skin and be like everyone else and have that surfie look and put blond in my hair because I thought that was cool and everyone else was doing it.

“For a while there I tried to dress like everyone else too. Alcohol was the one thing that stood out, but for a lot of other things, I was trying to assimilate and fit in because I felt like I was left out in that department.

“I didn’t go out and drink with the boys and for a long time I felt like I was missing out on some really good conversations when they were out drinking and partying and at pubs. I’d miss out on all these stories and thought ‘oh, am I missing out on opportunities because I’m not one of the lads’ and these are the sorts of things that could have put me aside. Those are the things we’re fighting now to make sure those aren’t factors in trying to get the best players up to go and play for the national side.”

After he moved to Queensland in 2012, away from family and his Sydney friendship network, Khawaja found more freedom to figure out who he was and how he wanted to be as a cricketer and a person. Australian teammates noticed this when he was recalled in 2015, in terms of his dress sense, his attitudes.

Usman Khawaja celebrates winning the 2021 Sheffield Shield with his wife Rachel and daughter Aisha.

Usman Khawaja celebrates winning the 2021 Sheffield Shield with his wife Rachel and daughter Aisha. Credit:Getty Images

“Look I just stopped giving a crap, that’s the honest truth,” he says. “I came back into the Aussie team and everyone was like ‘what are you doing, what are you wearing’ and I went ‘what, this is me’. I used to cop it from all the guys because people, especially in cricket, don’t like change.

“I was wearing high socks and doing all this other stuff like what basketballers do and people were wondering why, whereas now it’s just the norm. I was being myself and I’m really proud when I see other cricketers come into the game and be themselves, doing their own thing, showing their personalities.”

Then there was his willingness to do things such as “dabbing” to celebrate a 50 during the SCG Test in January 2017. “I dabbed in a Test match and got absolutely berated by people,” he says, “and I just asked the simple question ‘why can I not dab when I score a 50 in a Test match, why is that not allowed?’ And it was ‘oh, because you just can’t do it’ and I said ‘so you can raise the bat, you can raise your thumb, you can take off your helmet, but I’m not allowed to dab’.

“So it was ... being myself and having a bit of fun, and breaking down some old traditions. I love the game and respect it very much, but I’m always questioning the game in terms of ‘why do we do this, why do we do that, that doesn’t make sense, can you give me an actual reason?’ I’m not doing it in a way where I’m disrespectful, I’m just trying to be myself.”

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That example was taken out of the Australian side when Khawaja was dropped during the 2019 Ashes. Since then, he’s become a father, and led Queensland to the Sheffield Shield – showing particular knack for captaining wrist spinner Mitch Swepson. At the same time, he is building the Usman Khawaja Foundation, geared at aiding young cricketers from non-white backgrounds to find a footing in the game. Ultimately, he wants to see many more faces like his own at all levels.

“I don’t do it on purpose, but all my sporting heroes have been coloured or black,” he says. “I just gravitate towards them, one because they’re really good at what they do, and two because I feel like they have similar traits, they listen to similar music, they dress similar, they’re closer to what I look like. It’s just an inherent thing.

“That’s why I’m big on trying to get more representation, so people start seeing it and saying ‘ah, yeah, these guys are doing well in what their prospective jobs are, and I can do that too’. But if you don’t see it and it doesn’t happen, then it’s very hard to try to achieve it.”

Happily, Khawaja believes that he is getting a better hearing about such things than at any time previously. “Nick Hockley has actually been great – I’ve had some really good conversations recently that I’ve never, ever had before with anyone high up in CA,” Khawaja says. “We’ve always had a vision, but when the time comes it’s always been in the too-hard basket because it is actually very hard.

“The fact is it’s not going to take one or two years, it’s going to take a very long time. It might take 10 to 15 years to see the fruits, once you actually start putting things into place.”

Khawaja, then, would like a word. He hopes, one conversation at a time, to make a difference.

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