Wednesday, September 11, 2013

SPORT: Cricket furore over logo a brew of bigotry

Everyone knows Aussies love their beer. Those few Aussies like myself who prefer to stay dry can't help but be entertained by beer adverts. And where would Australian cricket be without brewery sponsorship? The two make an awesome team.

But recently there have been some divisive (if not downright bigoted) attempts to drive a wedge between the two.

Fans of less gentlemanly sports such as the AFL and NRL have come to expect slurs from fans, commentators and officials. We all remember Sydney Swans star Adam Goodes being vilified by a young fan and then by the president of another AFL club. But for the federal election, cricket could have been plunged into a racial scandal. Maybe Australian sport does need some extra time in purgatory after the silly bigoted remarks and attitudes that have the ability to ruin the reputation of Australian cricket.

Fawad Ahmed is Australia's next great leg-spinning hope. He arrived in Australia on a short-term visa in 2010 from Pakistan, and then applied for asylum. His original home was the rural district of Swabi near the border with Afghanistan. He'd played cricket at district and first class level in Pakistan. One of his close friends, a local cricketer, was murdered by the Taliban. Ahmed was also threatened, both for his cricket (seen as an irreligious pursuit) as well as for his support of a local NGO pursuing women's rights.

Ahmed's appeal to the immigration minister for refugee status was supported by Cricket Australia. He is seen as possibly the next Shane Warne.

While other sports people are famous for consuming drink, snorting powder and/or a not-too-respectful attitude to women, Ahmed's life is an alcohol-free zone. He isn't opposed to playing in a team of mainly beer drinkers. He doesn't mind playing on grounds with CUB placards. He's a teetotaller, not a teetotalitarian.

Cricket Australia did its cultural homework. Chief executive James Sutherland said he approached Ahmed on the recent Australia A series in England. They suggested he may not want the VB logo on his uniform. Ahmed agreed.

The arrangement was initially the subject of rational objection. Former Australian fast bowler Geoff Lawson argued that if VB is paying you to play cricket and you don't like it, find another job. Lawson is hardly a religious bigot, having coached the Pakistan national squad and lived in the country.

Former Australian test batsman Doug Walters argued that if Ahmed didn't like the uniform, he shouldn't be allowed to play for Australia. He told The Daily Telegraph: ''I think if he doesn't want to wear the team gear, he should not be part of the team. Maybe he doesn't want to be paid, that's OK.''

There is a legitimate argument that a professional sportsman whose wages are paid by a sponsor should be part of legitimate efforts to ensure that sponsor gets maximum bang for sponsorship buck.

Cricket is no longer a sport dominated by England and Australia. Innovations such as Twenty20 have shifted the power and money of the game to the Indian subcontinent, which boasts national teams from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Australia already has a reputation overseas for treating refugees awfully, locking them up for years in virtual prisons and using them as political footballs in election campaigns.

A columnist for The National, a newspaper in Abu Dhabi, recently wrote that ''Australia has just voted in Tony Abbott as their new prime minister, whose not-so-nuanced approach to handling refugees is to 'stop the boats' and hence that Ahmed cannot look forward to much nuance from Australians if he doesn't score wickets quickly''.

Our reputation will hardly improve in international cricketing circles after comments made by former Australian international rugby union player David Campese in a tweet that read: ''Doug Walters tells Pakistan-born Fawad Ahmed: if you don't like the VB uniform, don't play for Australia Well said doug. Tell him to go home.''

Campese's tweet made headlines in sports pages across the cricketing world. South Africa's Weekend Argus reported Campese was suspended as a panellist on TV program SuperSport. South Africans don't seem to mind star batsman Hashim Amla not wearing a Castle Lager logo on his shirt.

Sydney's Anglican Dean, Dr Phillip Jensen, saw a deeper meaning in all this. After comparing Fawad Ahmed to the brave Christian athlete Eric Liddell who refused to run in the Olympics on a Sunday, Jensen remarked:

''How sad that it is the Muslim minority that are showing up our culture's commitment to jingoism and materialism. I wonder if Christians don't because our conscience was purchased a long time ago.''

The irony is that Carlton & United Brewery is quite happy with Ahmed's decision. A beer company is showing more sensitivity to clean living ways than some of Australia's top sports people. This and any further controversy can only be good for sales.

Irfan Yusuf is an award-winning author and champion armchair cricketer.