Calling Usman Khawaja an ‘Asian’ Batsman

I discussed this problem on Twitter already, but I wanted to flesh out my thoughts a bit more. Yesterday, during the first day of the Test between Aus. and N.Z., Mark Nicholas said a shot by Usman Khawaja was almost “Asian looking.” Cricinfo immediately ridiculed the comment as insensitive, as did some of my Twitter friends — but the issue is a little more delicate.

Here’s why it makes us cringe: 1) Any mention of racial essentialism is not cool. Saying a practice is inherent to a race/culture takes you to tricky areas (“You are Indian, therefore you must like X.”). 2) Khawaja is Asian (of Pakistani descent, specifically), but he plays for Australia. To say he is an ‘Asian’ batsman implies he’s not fully Australian; he’s a foreigner in our midst. (I’ve addressed Khawaja’s heritage in another post.)

A related example: A few years ago, I went with my family on vacation to South Africa. At one stop, my father met a South African shopkeeper of Indian descent; naturally (because all Indians rejoice inside when they see a member of the diaspora), my father asked him where he was from. My brother later berated him for doing so; it’s probable that this particular South African had lived in the country for generations; to ask where he was from implies he wasn’t from South Africa. (Similarly, I have friends of Indian descent here in America who absolutely hate answering the “where are you really from” question because white people never have to answer it, and it sort of emphasizes their difference and exclusion. “Oh, you’re not really American; you’re a foreigner.”)

OK. But here’s why it’s a difficult issue: 1) To call a batsman ‘Asian’ in cricket means they have deft wrists. It’s as style of play that apparently was once associated with Asian players (Ranji, I’m told, in particular). It’s sort of why we call left-handed leg-spinners Chinamen. In other words, it’s nothing about a person’s culture or heritage; it’s simply cricketing shorthand. (Dissent: But when was the last time you heard a white batsman called ‘Asian’? Surely there are wristy players outside the subcontinent, right? And isn’t ‘cricket shorthand’ derivative of colonial/racist discourse? I mean, come on — Chinaman?)

2) Then again, we know that the diversity of cricket (and how it is played) is its chief attraction. Pitches are different around the world, as are sporting cultures; this leads to different types of players and techniques. How can we talk about this diversity without referring to different cultures? (Dissent: But is it true that Asians are now more “wristy” than other batsmen? And what exactly is the “West Indian style” of cricket? If you find yourself using words like exuberant and Calypso — well, that’s taking us back to colonialist discourse, right?)

Perhaps Nicholas should have just named famous players who did in fact play with their wrists. “Khawaja almost looked like X there.”  I don’t know — am I just indulging the worst kind of political correctness here?


11 thoughts on “Calling Usman Khawaja an ‘Asian’ Batsman

  1. oponcrz says:

    very well put.

    perhaps there is no correct or sensitive way to describe someone so entirely different in Australian cricket as Khwaja.

    He is different. There is no escaping that. If we accept that then it opens up many ways to say it. There is no point not acknowledging that he is different. Asian, Muslim, immmigrant, wristy, dark skinned….not very typically Australian is it?

    By the way, I have no qualms in asking white people in Amercia, where they are “really” from. Its just that they are not as sensitive / uncomfortable about it asians tend to be.

    Notice the reaction to the depiction of the “Slums” in the movie Slumdog millionaire. Many Indians were embarassed. Around the same time there was a movie Oliver Twist, which portrayed London of that time in less than glowing terms. Don’t remember any Englishmen cringing about it.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Thanks for the comment. But Oliver Twist was about Victorian English poverty, not present-day conditions. (And you’d be surprised what people said about Dickens back in the day.) As for Slumdog, I’m not sure why people were embarrassed by it; I thought it was a vast improvement on the themes in City of Joy.

      On your other points: when you ask white people in America where they are from, what exactly do they say? Because I’m guessing most would say, “Here.”

      I suppose the difficult thing with Khawaja is that he is obviously Australian. But that raises a more thorny question about whether or not we associate whiteness with Australian — something that was a requirement, I imagine, back in the day, but after waves of immigration and policy shifts, not so anymore.

  2. golandaaz says:

    why wouldn’t you associate whiteness to being “Australian” in the context of cricket? How many non-whites have played cricket for Australia. Not many surely.

    I think the issue is thorny, sensitive only if the affected audience (in this case asians) make it to be.

    Is there something racist in saying that Australian cricketers are typically white?

    • duckingbeamers says:

      I meant whiteness and Australian society, not its cricket team. It’s more diverse now than it was 50 years ago.

      And no, there’s nothing racist in saying Australian cricketers are typically white.

  3. duckingbeamers says:

    Golandaaz, I’m a bit confused, so forgive me here.

    In a comment to another comment, I raised the question of whether ‘whiteness’ was associated with the ‘Australian.’ By that, I mean the average Australian person. Now, a few decades ago, I would have said, yes, I associate the two. But now, since Australia has dropped its formerly racist immigration policies, there are some major pockets of multiculturalism. Which would lead me to say, No, Australia and whiteness are shifting.

    You then say, Why wouldn’t you associate whiteness with its cricket team? Aren’t all Australian cricketers white? Well, not all, but yes, the vast majority. But a sample of 11 people isn’t nearly big enough to make any claims about national identity, right? (See, for example, South Africa’s cricket team.) So how does it make Mark’s comments appropriate? By calling the only non-white player “Asian,” (or “almost Asian”) what is he saying? That an Asian cricketer can’t play like an Australian, even though he’s lived there and played there for years? And what exactly is an “Asian” and “Australian” style? Do those categories make sense anymore?

    That’s what my post is about. It’s thorny and weird and full of landmines, but that’s what I’m trying to explore. Make sense?

    • Golandaaz says:

      I did not watch the play / hear the comment. So I presume he played a shot most likely associated with Asian-ness. Perhaps a wristy flick? I don’t know.

      I have heard commentators use that term..”like a sub-continental / asian” player even when white cricketers have played it.

      So when Mark says “asian” it is not to be interpretted as “not Australian” but simply for what it means at face value, like an asian…Whatever that may commonly mean.

      The problem / point I am trying to highlight is that an issue becomes sensitive only if people referred chose to make it one….

  4. Nash says:

    You are…

  5. Lolly says:

    I think it’s Mark Nicholas being unimaginative, no surprises there. I haven’t seen Khawaja play any shots any more or less wristy than I’ve seen Shaun Marsh or Punter play for that matter.

  6. Tony Mo says:

    its Khwaja’s fault to even consider playing for Australia, knowing well its considered one of the most Racist nations on planet.
    Not sure why he didnt opt for England or South Africa.
    Shaun Marsh can score 20 ducks in a row but khwaja will not get chance.
    we may have seen his last performance on the international stage.

    • I cannot agree with you more. He is foolish because he will run out of time and opportunity, and we all grow old. Therefore you are spot on with your views. Well done my find to come out openly and state your views. Congratulations.

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