Usman Khawaja: Ready to push the boundaries for Palestine?

Pakistan-born Australia opener says he is standing up for humanity, not politics

Usman Khawaja wears a black armband showing solidarity with Palestine (photo: @fahmidahyousfi/ X)
Usman Khawaja wears a black armband showing solidarity with Palestine (photo: @fahmidahyousfi/ X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Usman Khawaja, the Pakistan-born Test opener for Australia, surely has the courage of his convictions. After he was barred by the International Cricket Council (ICC) from wearing shoes emblazoned with hand-written slogans which aimed to bring into focus the plight of Gazans, he walked out to bat with a black armband as a mark of protest on day one of the Test match against Pakistan in Perth on Thursday.   

‘’Do people not care about innocent humans being killed?’’ a visibly disturbed Khawaja said in a video released on Instagram. ICC rules forbid players to showcase messages that relate to politics, religion or race, but Khawaja decided to double down on his stance with the armband and covering the slogans on his shoes with semi-transparent tape, visible only in close-up. 

It’s a personal stand from the mild-mannered Khawaja, a Muslim. But the sensitive issue has put Cricket Australia in an awkward position as they said they expected their players to uphold ICC rules. Captain Pat Cummins said he was "really proud" of his teammate and of other squad members who had spoken up for what they believe in. 

The incident will resonate with Moeen Ali of England, who was asked to remove wristbands with pro-Palestine slogans back in 2014 at the insistence of ICC match referee David Boon during a series against India. During the recent ICC World Cup, Pakistan vice-captain Mohammed Rizwan dedicated a match-winning century against Sri Lanka to "brothers and sisters" of Gaza, but his was a statement at the post-match presentation. 

For Khawaja, the death of thousands of Gazans in the 10-week-old war, sparked by Hamas raids into Israel on 7 October, is more a 'humanitarian’ problem than a ‘political’ one. Speaking to the official broadcasters ahead of the start of the match, he called out the ICC for what he felt was double standards in their sport.

‘’I just think that so much has happened in the past that sets a precedent. I mean full support of Black Lives Matter. There’s plenty of guys have written on their shoes before,’’ the 36-year-old said. ‘’Other guys that have religious things on their equipment, under the ICC guidelines that’s not technically allowed, but the ICC never says anything on that.’’

An unequivocal stance like this will not really endear him to cricket's world governing body, but then Khawaja seems ready for any eventuality: ‘’It is what it is. I will always stand up for what I believe in, even if people don’t agree with me or they don’t like me saying it. I want to look back on my career and say I stood up for my values, I respect what I did on the field, but I also respect myself for what I did off the field.’’ 

What does the ICC rulebook say on this? In Section F of relevant clause, it says: ‘’Players and team officials shall not be permitted to wear, display or otherwise convey messages through arm bands or other items affixed to clothing or equipment unless approved in advance by the player or team’s official Board. Approval shall not be granted for messages which relate to political, religious or racial activities or causes.’’

While the world governing bodies of sport, the mighty FIFA included, cannot afford to change their stance in principle — it has increasingly become untenable for top professional sportspersons to stay insulated from politics in today’s world. It was easier for cricketers to agree to ‘take the knee’ in the wake of the dastardly murder of George Floyd, but it was then seen as an act of solidarity against racial abuse with endorsement from the establishment.  

However, it was political too, as someone like Quinton de Kock didn’t approve of their board imposing the decision on players as he pulled out of a South Africa match in the T20 World Cup in Dubai two years back. 

The last few months has seen cricket having a few brushes with crusaders for the Palestine cause. During the World Cup final between India and Australia, an Australian youth named Johnson Wayne evaded a strong security cordon wearing a white T-shirt with ‘Free Palestine’ written on it and managed to touch Virat Kohli who was batting. A few weeks before that, police in Kolkata detained four youth for waving Palestine flags in the Eden Gardens stands during a league game. 

History tells you that politics and sport have always mixed, contrary to the age old cliché. Say what?

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