Maybe it's time cricketers were allowed to be Real People
On Christmas Day, Pat Cummins reiterated that his players weren't simply "guys who hit a cricket ball or bowl a cricket ball". That they were "real people". Real people with real feelings. Real people with real beliefs. Real people with real responses to what affects them in life.
You wonder if it gets more real for a parent than holding their child in their arms after having seen clips of innocent kids probably the same age as theirs dying and being killed, however far away from them it might be. So, when Usman Khawaja nearly broke down earlier this week while mentioning his daughters as part of revealing what prompted him to make public his views on the Gaza conflict 10 days ago, you couldn't help but feel with him. For, it felt real. It sounded real. It was real.
Here was an elite cricketer taking a public stand on a real-world issue with a very real-world message. Now, you might be among those who didn't agree with what that message was. Or even the intention behind it. But what you can't hold against Khawaja is the need he felt to get his message across.
Nor for that matter the way in which he wore the names of his daughters on his shoes while opening the batting for his country on Boxing Day at the MCG. This after his application to wear a more general symbol for peace, a dove with an olive branch, on his bat had been turned down by the ICC.
If Khawaja was just looking for a headline, as some naysayers have suggested, he would have stopped last week after the very initial display of his beliefs had been thwarted by those running the sport. But he didn't. If Khawaja was taking a nakedly political stance on the matter, as many have insisted, then he would have stopped last week after what they assumed was a brazen show of support for a particular country in a horrific war that continues to claim hordes of innocent lives. But he didn't. If anything, he opted instead to bare his soul at the expense of leaving himself open to criticism and suspicion from various quarters.
Especially the "Shut Up and Play Cricket" brigade who will let you believe that he should have simply stayed in his lane to start with. That he had no right to go beyond what they have decided is his remit, donning the Baggy Green and getting on with cricket matters on the field.
They'd have had nothing to complain about after the opening day of the annual Melbourne Test after all. For that's what Khawaja did. He got on with his job, grinding out the Pakistanis and churning out yet another crucial knock for his country, without having to say much. Just like he had in Perth last week. But his silence was loud enough though. He'd in all likelihood spread more awareness around his original message by not sporting the symbol on his bat than probably by doing so, courtesy the ICC's hard stance against any kind of such symbolism by an international player in an international match.
By chucking the law book at him as part of shutting down his request to take a public stand, the powers that be in cricket had only strengthened his stance unintentionally. And he hadn't held back in making his thoughts known on the "hypocrisy" of the ICC in the matter with a pointed social media post the previous evening.
You could argue however that the ball is now in Khawaja's court as to how far he wants to take the fight to be heard or what if anything could be his next approach to express his beliefs. And herein lies the most admirable part of how he's gone about it already. Regardless once more of how you feel about his stance itself in the first place.
Like Cummins said in his press conference on the eve of the Test, Khawaja can hold his head high in terms of how he's handled himself throughout this rather challenging personal ordeal. He has indeed always carried on his silent protest with a great deal of respect for all concerned. But he's done so by sticking to his guns as much as far as he's been allowed to.
What has also stood out through this protest, if you want to call it that, is how subtle the messaging has been from Khawaja. Not to forget how positive it has been in terms of him never saying anything against anyone. But only in support of togetherness during a time of extreme hatred and spite. Even if his detractors have not been able to resist nit-picking at every intricate aspect of his messages. There's also been a lot of understandable whataboutery of course. About why he didn't say anything on October 7, when the Gaza crisis was kicked off again this time around. Or why he hasn't had much to say on other global crises of a similar kind. But like with most whataboutery, these dissenting voices have come across as rather farcical.
And though they have been well within their rights to stop him from carrying it forward into the Test match, what Khawaja has made the ICC do is in many ways shush his kindness. To silence what was built up mainly as a campaign for harmony.
There are bigger questions of course. Much bigger than cricket, Khawaja or the ICC. Like where does politics end and religion start? Or in the current climate, where a sportsperson's public space ends and private space starts? And you can also understand why the ICC would want to be careful with not letting a player making such a statement on the biggest stage with fears of others following suit and there being no end to it.
The next question of course is what Khawaja is ready to sacrifice for the sake of the cause that he stands by so dearly. But then you also wonder if the issue here is really Khawaja at all. Or is it more how so many seem to be thrown off by his rather brazen quest to be heard. If it's less a case of Khawaja having to change or more a case of the ICC having to relook its own rules as to how they want to tackle cricketers wanting to have a say on things that do matter. For, there is definitely a lesson in how Khawaja has gone about it. Like it or not, he has set a rather strong precedent that others at his level might want to follow.
And if they do, like he has by standing up for something rather than against anything, they will after all only be using the foundation stone for humanity itself as a springboard. Real people tackling real issues and speaking real truths. Usman Khawaja might just be the kind of pioneer they needed.