At times this summer, Usman Khawaja has reminded me of England’s David Gower at the peak of his majestic power. Both these gifted left-handers often attracted the adjective “languid” to describe the ridiculous ease, and abundant time, with which they played their shots. Like Gower, Khawaja looks improbably boyish, even vulnerable, stripped of the gladiatorial batting paraphernalia of the modern Test cricketer. He looks even younger and more boyish when his face breaks into a self-deprecating grin. This is not an infrequent occurrence despite the sensitive and serious topic we are discussing at the Australian team’s hotel on the morning after the Melbourne Test match. Khawaja’s faith has been a source of comfort during difficult times in both his cricket career and life –Pic from Aaron Francis
For the first time, Khawaja has acceded to a media request to answer questions about his faith. The paradox of his religious identity is not lost on Khawaja. He smiles as he recalls, “When I got that century at the Gabba, it was Slats (Michael Slater), I think, who said, ‘That is the first century for Australia by a Muslim’. Who was the first Christian to get a century for Australia?” I suspect it was probably Charles Bannerman, our very first centurion, though he inhabited an era when religious observance was almost universal.
This century, despite frequent skyward glances and the occasional sign of the cross, few Australian players have been overtly religious, Matthew Hayden being a notable exception. In the 1960s, Brian Booth, a former Australia captain, whom Khawaja knows, was a pastor.
Khawaja’s faith is an integral part of his identity. “It is just part of who I am. I have never hidden it and I have not made a big fuss about it,” he says. “For a while, when I was under management, I was advised to tread a bit cautiously, but these days I am much more comfortable in my own skin. I’m happy to talk about it.”
Khawaja’s comfort in his own skin is palpable. He exudes a quiet assurance that belies his relative youth. “I pray because it keeps me sane and grounded,” he says. Grounded was an interesting choice of word for a qualified pilot. Like religious observance and batting, flying is a solitary activity that demands application and sustained commitment.
Khawaja attempts to meet the requirement to pray five times a day but sometimes has to forgo this to accommodate his schedule. Unlike England’s Moeen Ali, he does not pray in the team dressing room. During matches he finds the privacy of his hotel room more conducive to the mindfulness and piety that his practice demands.
He is pragmatic and, one senses, deeply spiritual rather than zealously pious. “I am not out there pretending to be the perfect Muslim,” he says. “I do my best and I try to be grateful for the good things that come and take bad things in my stride.”
Nor has he felt obliged to make political statements about the plight of his co-religionists in global trouble spots, as Ali did during the Southampton Test against India in 2014. The England allrounder sparked a controversy by wearing wristbands emblazoned with “Free Gaza” and endured booing and abuse at various English grounds later in the season.
Khawaja was unaware of that controversy. “If it was in the sport pages I must have missed it. I try not to read the sports section. But I do read the front of the paper.”
Although he does not wear a beard like Ali or Fawad Ahmed, he abstains from alcohol. Like Ahmed, he has been excused from wearing alcohol sponsorship logos on his Australian shirt. His devotions are essentially private.
According to Khawaja, his life in Australia has been untainted by prejudice. Both cricket, especially his state and Test teammates, and the wider society have embraced him and his family. “I have not had any incidents of racial stuff. Nor has my mum, who wears the hijab,” he says. “But Mum shields me from stuff, even today. I don’t think she has had issues, but I wouldn’t know if she did.”
He considers Australia “a great place to live”. “Most people just get on with things,” he says. Indeed, he finds prejudice from believers and atheists alike irritating. “What frustrates me about the way religion is discussed is that people think they have a right to judge. What gives people the right to judge anyone?” he says. “Only God gets to judge us.”
Khawaja’s faith has been a source of comfort during difficult times in both his cricket career and life. After a sparkling cameo on debut in the final Ashes Test in January 2011, he appeared destined to be one of those who never realised lavish natural gifts. He has played only 12 Tests since 2011.
Fans and administrators alike expected more from him. He had been identified along with Phil Hughes and David Warner as the likely mainstays of the Australian batting order over recent years. Yet both form and injury conspired to curtail his appearances. He chose to take a risk and a significant pay cut and move to Queensland where he was starting to regain form in 2014 before his comeback was interrupted by a torn knee ligament. It required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. A return to Test cricket was neither inevitable nor preordained. Or was it?
“Just because I believe in God it doesn’t mean that bad stuff doesn’t happen to me. Just because I am getting centuries now it could all just end tomorrow and that would be God’s will as well. I do think that everything happens for a reason and certain things are just meant to happen.”
Such faith sustained Khawaja in the wilderness. But it also gives him a maturity and perspective that there is much more to life than cricket. He is the captain of his adopted state of Queensland, which is source of genuine pride.
Could he go all the way and lead Australia? “I don’t think so, really. Smithy and Davey (Warner) are both younger than I am and will be around for the whole time I am likely to be in the team,” he says.
That is true, but as Khawaja’s faith informs him, our lives unfold according to a larger plan, of which we become aware only as we painfully and prayerfully grope towards discerning it. At a time when Islam is a source of anxiety to many Australians, a popular Muslim leader of one of our great unifying national institutions would send a powerful message to Australians of all faiths and none at all.
Usman Khawaja has the talent and the character to be the first Muslim to fill that role. Who was the first Christian?
SEE http://www.theaustralian.com.au/sport/opinion/usman-khawaja-opens-up-about-his-muslim-faith-and-cricket/news-story/dcfd5f86b990900caa0e86023f2cf14a … where there are 209 comments at the moment. Bloggers do not provide a faithful sample of the thoughts permeating a nation, but do serve up motifs. Note some SAMPLES