A barefoot circle. At knee. A Muslim-Christian partnership. On Wednesday, the baggy green truly represented the whole nation, writes DANIEL CHERNY.
It would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
A Muslim and a Christian piling on runs together for Australia on the opening day of the Test summer hours after the Australian and West Indian teams gestured in support of racial equality and participated in a ceremony honoring First Nations people.
Yet, as Cricket Australia looks to heal after a series of unseemly sagas, there could barely have been a better example of the capacity of the baggy green to serve as a uniting force than the partnership between Usman Khawaja and Marnus Labuschagne, coming just hours after the Australian and West Indians took a knee, at Optus Stadium on Wednesday.
Despite batting together in Test cricket for the first time more than four years ago, the pair had never had a stand for Australia of more than 77. That partnership in Karachi earlier this year now lies a distant second on their list as the pair made the Windies toil for little reward in the Perth sun, stacking on 142 before Khawaja finally nicked one on 65.
It sent Khawaja’s Test average for the year plummeting to 95.3.
But the significance of this partnership and what it represents in multicultural Australia extends well beyond an analysis of cover drives and pulls to deep backward square.
For years, Australian fans would take the mickey out of the fact England had packed its side full of players born in other countries, particularly southern Africa.
Yet hours before a Socceroos team that has long put the cricket side to shame in terms of being genuinely representative of the Australian population played its crunch World Cup match against Denmnark, a Muslim man born in Islamabad, and a devout Christian from Klerksdorp, made a century stand in a Test for the Aussies.
When Labuschagne – who has spoken publicly about the importance of his faith – reached his half-century and century, he looked to the skies. Khawaja, too, embraces religion and has railed against racial prejudice, of which he has been a victim.
Brought together early after David Warner chopped on to a Jayden Seales delivery, Khawaja and Labuschagne dug in against a disciplined West Indian attack. While Labuschagne lived dangerously at times, genuine chances were hard to come by for the tourists. Khawaja and Labuschagne played steady Test cricket, providing the occasional flourishes but largely content to accumulate.
After three months of wall-to-wall white-ball cricket for Australia, this was a refreshing change of pace and a sensual reset. Indeed, the experience in the stands at Optus was that of a conventional day’s Test cricket. Despite fears of a crowd revolt in response to the messy departure of hometown hero Justin Langer earlier this year, there was no discernible booing towards the Australian side. And a distinct absence of artificial sounds allowed the all-too often lost hum of cricket’s traditional format to linger for hours.
It all had a familiar feeling, and a very settled Australian XI meant that there was little particularly new about the experience. Still in his 20s, Labuschagne is in the minority in this side, but he is hardly an upstart; this is his fifth summer for him as a Test cricketer. Khawaja, meanwhile, will be 36 inside a few weeks.
Their partnership wasn’t the only landmark for the coat of arms on Wednesday.
Just before play, Khawaja and Warner knelt alongside the Windies fielders. The Australian team had previously taken a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in white-ball cricket, but never before in a Test.
Before the match, Pat Cummins stood firm when asked about criticism of the gesture.
“I kind of know what I signed up for,” Cummins said. “I also think we’re cricket players but you can’t leave your values at the door.
“People stand for different things, and something like taking a knee this week we’re doing it out of respect for the West Indies, in support of equality.”
Both teams had also participated in a barefoot circle before play to recognize the traditional land owners. Such matters are close to home. One of their own, reserve fast bowler and last year’s Boxing Day hero Scott Boland, is a Gulidjan man.
As witnessed at matches featuring South Asian teams during the Twenty20 World Cup, there are swathes of people in Australia who feel moved to attend cricket matches but not those featuring the Aussies.
Cricket, with all its traditions, battles with contemporising. But in the space of a few hours on Wednesday – the baggy green, an artifact given such mystique by the golden generation a couple of decades ago – had been symbolically catapulted into the 21st century.
Never mind Australians turning off the team.
This was a day that showed the Australian side can represent the whole nation.