Home » Usman Khawaja used to shrug off racism. Then he stopped trying to please everyone

Usman Khawaja used to shrug off racism. Then he stopped trying to please everyone

Usman Khawaja’s eyes are partly masked behind thick black frames, but his glasses cannot hide the redness and welling emotion. It’s November 2023 and we’re sitting at a cafe in South Melbourne, ostensibly to speak about his outstanding performance in the mid-year Ashes series. But there’s another topic that Australia’s first Muslim Test cricketer cannot move past.

Seven weeks after the Hamas attacks of October 7, and Israel’s retaliation, repeated social media images and videos of death, destruction and misery from Gaza are flooding his mind, seeping into his dreams, affecting his mood and dominating his conversations, including with his wife, Rachel, at their Brisbane home.

The 37-year-old has faced plenty of obstacles in his life, from racial taunts as a junior cricketer and cultural clashes over much of his senior career to the “highly inappropriate” remarks of Marylebone Cricket Club members at Lord’s during last year’s infamous second Test.

The Middle East, though, is different. “I see this happening on the other side of the world and I think about how small and insignificant you are,” he says. “Little, innocent kids are dying in front of your eyes. You see the social media posts all the time, you see those kids’ faces, and it’s hard to fathom going out and trying to hit a cricket ball and trying to give it your all.”

He’s spoken to Cricket Australia’s psychologist, Brett Membery, about how his vocation suddenly seems pointless, how he’s struggling to focus on the job of batting for long periods – the very thing that’s taken him back to the top of Test cricket over two cathartic, rewarding years. Clad in an Air Jordan hoodie and hightop sneakers, this is not the Khawaja I’ve got to know over more than a decade of overseas touring: sometimes the merry prankster, sometimes the insightful intellect, always the willing debater of every topic under the sun. Today he’s quieter, almost defeated.

As we part ways, he’s unsure how he’ll regather. By December, though, Khawaja will have figured out what he wants to do. He’s not always been quite so sure of who he is, or what he wants to say, as he is in a singular moment a few weeks hence – one that crystallises exactly what he’s batting for.


It’s 1989 in Islamabad, and Tariq Khawaja drives past a billboard for a migration scheme to Australia. Tariq and his wife Fozia are living comfortably enough in Pakistan from his electrical engineer’s salary, but he also eyes something more for their three children, Arsalan, Nauman and the youngest, Usman, just two years old.

Most of Tariq’s thoughts have centred on the United States, where the family already has relatives. The billboard, though, causes him to reconsider, as do memories of a 1971 work trip with IBM to Australia, when he saw people playing cricket, the most popular game in Pakistan and his own great sporting love. After initial reluctance, Fozia agrees to go through the application process and try Australia out for six months.

By the time they get on the plane to Sydney, it’s 1991. Seated alongside the family is an Australian citizen, flying home. “Do they still play cricket in Australia?” Tariq asks. An affirmative answer is all the reassurance he needs. Years later, he’ll tell his youngest son that cricket decided which country the family migrated to. Had the decision gone the other way, the world’s foremost opening batter might have made his way into professional sport via baseball.

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The family moves into an apartment near Centennial Park in Sydney’s east. Five-year-old Khawaja takes to most sports naturally, with cricket emerging as an early favourite. In the long dusks of daylight saving, a sharp contrast to the early nightfalls of his homeland, he’ll catch balls while waiting impatiently for the chance to bat against his brothers in the nearby park, eventually getting a turn just as the light fades.

Tariq soon moves the family to Westmead, where the three brothers share a bedroom throughout childhood. The youngest proves talented not just at cricket but at tennis. His competitiveness shows via a succession of broken racquets, snapped whenever he loses to Arsalan, and he represents NSW at under-age level with nifty control of topspin and a useful, kicking serve.

He develops a love for motorsport, basketball (Michael Jordan and the Bulls) and rugby league. The Canberra Raiders’ speedy fullback Brett Mullins is a favourite, and given the chance to grab the ball, Khawaja will shout “Mullins!” and sprint towards the try line. But it’s in wielding a Brian Lara 501 bat that he’s most at home.

Khawaja celebrating the first of two
centuries on his return to the Test side at the SCG in 2022 against England.
Credit: Getty Images

He plays for Sydney club Randwick Petersham, during which time he hears plenty of barbs. “Effing curry-muncher” is a near-constant sobriquet, and one parent from a competing team startles him by muttering, loud enough to hear, about the “black, Paki c—” scoring runs for the opposition. When asked today how he shrugged off such jibes, he has a simple answer: “My stubbornness.”

It’s at Randwick Petersham that Khawaja first crosses paths with Simon Katich. “We’ve got an affinity,” the former Test player tells me. “In my mind he was always a natural opener, and for so much of his Test career I’ve been in his ear going, ‘You’ve got to open,’ and then finally, by chance it happened. He’s deserved this last chapter, because I don’t think he got treated very well previously.”

While prolific at club level, Khawaja misses the NSW under-16s selection, which fires his ambition to be dominant at under-19s level. Matters of faith are at issue at times. When Ramadan falls in the Australian spring of 2007, Khawaja trails state teammates in time trials, a surprise to then-NSW coach Matthew Mott, who thinks he should be in better condition after a winter at the Cricket Australia academy. “I was fasting. Not a drink of water all day,” Khawaja recalls. “So he thought I was taking shortcuts … it wasn’t good. [Mott] was embarrassed when he found out, but I just didn’t want to make an excuse about it.”

A NSW baggy blue cap, presented by Katich, arrives early in 2008, soon after Khawaja finishes a degree in aviation at the University of NSW – a nod to Fozia’s desire that he not put all his eggs in cricket’s fickle basket.

Eighty-five runs flow smoothly on his debut against a powerful Victorian side. But over his next 15 innings, Khawaja’s scores read 5, 7, 9, 45, 66, 40, 5, 24, 6, 28, 1, 0, 41, 17 and 1 for a tally of 295 runs at 19.7. It isn’t so much that opposition bowlers have worked him out; more that he’s working himself out – he has his first girlfriend, often a tetchy subject in Muslim households. Juggling a relationship in his early 20s while having few peers with whom to share his troubles, Khawaja thinks about giving up cricket before sculpting his first 100, against Queensland at the Gabba, in early 2009.

Over the next two years, Khawaja pushes himself to the front rank of young players in Australia. At the same time, he shows himself to be an inveterate, cheeky prankster. Much of his humour is directed towards the NSW fast bowler Mark Cameron, in a series of blogs penned for the Cricket NSW website and in a Wikipedia edit by “Cricketboy2009” that stayed up for quite some time: “When Mark was younger, doctors gave him little hope of living a normal life due to his abnormally small head, leading to him being diagnosed with a rare form of vertigo …”

Picked in a preliminary Ashes squad in November 2010, Khawaja watches as England rattles Ricky Ponting’s men, sealing the win with one Test to go in Sydney. Ponting has a broken thumb so Michael Clarke, as interim captain, asks Mark Taylor to give Khawaja his baggy green – an honour Katich still wishes he’d had. Batting after lunch on day one, as cameras pan to his parents in the stands, Khawaja pings his second ball to the boundary with a pull shot.

Khawaja with former Australian opening batsman David Warner as kids in the Coastal United team.

Khawaja with former Australian opening batsman David Warner as kids in the Coastal United team.Credit: @usman_khawajy/Instagram

Just as striking as that first impression is how he deflects any reference to his religion or racial barriers. Earlier in the season, he tells the English journalist Jonathan Liew that he’s never experienced any kind of discrimination: “Never. It’s [western Sydney] very multicultural.” At the press conference after day one, he brings the house down when asked about his status as a Muslim forerunner: “You can make something up of anything. You can say [fellow debutant] Michael Beer’s the first person who sticks his tongue out 24/7 to play for Australia.”

Pondering his early avoidance of matters he now owns wholeheartedly, Khawaja pauses, then explains. “I was being told not to go there when I was young, but I don’t think I would have anyway. I was a young Pakistani-born cricketer, a brown kid, trying to play in the whitest sport in Australia. It’s a tough place to be. I don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb – I already did every time I walked on the field and was around my teammates,” he says now. “I was trying to make everyone happy and the last thing I needed to do was ruffle feathers and say, ‘Yeah, as I was growing up this happened and that happened.’ There was a racist culture inherently within Australian cricket and around Australia, but it was hard enough for me to make the state team and the Australian team. I hadn’t earned the right to speak up, anyway. I was a young cricketer, I hadn’t achieved anything in the game.”

In August 2015, a video from an Australian A tour of India shows a very different Usman Khawaja. Dressed in black with a baseball cap and shades, he guides teammate Gurinder Sandhu around his room with all the brash affections of a black American athlete, a nod perhaps to the influence of his favourite NBA players, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, and to hip-hop culture. “I’m at the top of the tree,” he jokes to Sandhu about being captain for the tour. “I can’t help it.”

It’s around this time that he begins to find his voice. “I just stopped giving a crap, basically,” he says now. The process begins with a move north in 2012 to play for Queensland; worrying he won’t improve as a cricketer in NSW, he accepts a pay cut to join the Queensland state team, the Bulls, and to play for the Valley District club in Brisbane.

Josh Dascombe, a teammate at Valleys, witnesses the change. “He started out very much as a New South Welshman in enemy territory, to the point where he’d say, ‘I’ll never be a Queenslander, I don’t want to be like you hicks.’ But over time he just found things he liked to do,” he says. “He used to take his own basketball net to the local park and hang it up, because he liked the noise it made when he would shoot it. Nothing but net!”

In early 2015, still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament at the start of the season, he organises a night of gaming with teammate Jack Wildermuth, which Dascombe joins. There’s a problem, though. Dascombe is double-booked with Rachel McClellan, a childhood friend. “I didn’t actually want to do anything other than play FIFA that night, but when Rach walked in I just thought, ‘Yeah, she can stay,’ ” Khawaja remembers with a grin.

With daughters Ayla (left), Aisha and wife Rachel.

With daughters Ayla (left), Aisha and wife Rachel.Credit: @usman_khawajy/Instagram

Instagram handles are exchanged that night. Their first date includes mini golf, and the relationship grows in tandem with a flurry of retirements – Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Brad Haddin – that bring a more self-assured Khawaja back to Test cricket. As he says in his wedding speech three years later: “For the next six weeks, I spent time getting to know you. And when I came back to play, I was truly in love, not with the game, but with you.”


Australia’s move towards a more abrasive manner of playing the game, after five consecutive Test defeats in 2016, makes Khawaja and some of his teammates uncomfortable. In at least one way – by continuing to share meals with friends among opposition nations during series – Khawaja makes his feelings clear to the team’s leaders. But he can also see that the likes of David Warner, a childhood friend, are being co-opted for duties not necessarily in their best interests under the supposed umbrella of “team first”.

‘It’s very hard to perform on the field if you’re struggling off the field, and I was.’

Usman Khawaja

The 2018 ball-tampering scandal is one topic about which he still won’t talk publicly, largely due to its complexity. He is aware of reports that he argued in the dressing room for the team to admit collective culpability, but declines to confirm them. Either way, over the ensuing days and months, after the resignation of Steve Smith as captain, Khawaja is left out of leadership considerations, with Tim Paine quickly appointed.

“It was an amazing thing. I was Queensland captain for four years, I was in the team consistently, and my name wasn’t even mentioned at the time,” he says now. “It makes you wonder why. I just don’t think Australian cricket was ready to have me in a leadership role, if I’m being honest.”

How much have things changed? Khawaja recounts a story from his most recent Test match, in Christchurch, when a security guard hesitated to move a cone to allow him – in full team kit – to park a hire car in a space reserved for the players. “It still happens,” he says. “I’m not what an Australian cricketer is supposed to look like.”

Khawaja’s mind was taken elsewhere when, later in 2018, his brother Arsalan was charged with perverting the course of justice and dishonestly influencing a public official [he pleaded guilty in 2020 and spent two years in jail]. Khawaja’s Test run-making trailed off during this period, and he found himself slipping back to the fringes of the team, losing his spot in England in 2019.

“I just felt like I was let down,” he says now. “I struggled that summer mentally. I worked on a lot of things with [then-team psychologist] Michael Lloyd, because my head was nowhere. I really struggled to be present because I was worried about my family, worried about not scoring runs, worried about so many different things.” He agrees he wasn’t performing at his optimum, but he says he “would’ve loved a bit more consideration and understanding of where my life was at [over] the last eight months. It’s very hard to perform on the field if you’re struggling off the field, and I was.”

This sensation was compounded when, in December 2019, Khawaja also lost his spot in the nation’s one-day team, despite dominant performances at the top of the order for Australia earlier that same year, including at the World Cup in England. “That’s the one that really hurt. That was a ridiculous call. I’m happy to call that out,” Khawaja says. “A guy averaging 50 as an opener in one-day cricket. When they needed me, when Australian cricket needed an opener because Davey [David Warner, out on suspension] wasn’t there, I stepped up and we won 10 games in a row. But once I got dropped from that team, that felt like the nail in the coffin for me and that’s where I really lost hope.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Khawaja realised he’d allowed Test bowlers, in particular, to get ahead of him in tactical terms. He and Rachel made peace with the idea that, at age 33, 44 Test matches may well be it for him. There was much more to life beyond – starting with the birth of daughter Aisha in 2020, then Ayla two years later.


In some ways, Khawaja’s comeback started via Amazon Prime. Previously distrustful, even hateful, of the media and giving little away publicly, he emerged as one of the stars of season one of The Test, the streamer’s 2020 documentary on the Australian team’s fortunes over the previous two years. The TV series gave glimpses of not just his skill as a player, but also his sense of humour and his willingness to speak out.

His friend Nick Cummins, the Cricket Victoria CEO, recalls what Khawaja was like with the media before the documentary. “You’d see him in the change rooms full of energy, life, banter, jokes. Then he’d do an interview and his persona would completely change,” Cummins says. “He’d be serious and withdrawn and didn’t show any of the personality we now see from him, the self-proclaimed ‘people’s champion’. I think it had almost been beaten out of him.”

Given how quickly he came to the fore as one of the standouts of the show, it’s notable to hear he was not initially included in the small group of players and staff given the right to veto footage. Then again, maybe there was no need. As he told me once, “I’m rogue, I’d be happy to have everything in there.”

With dad Tariq, mum Fozia and Aisha. Australia’s cricket culture tipped the family’s decision to migrate here.

With dad Tariq, mum Fozia and Aisha. Australia’s cricket culture tipped the family’s decision to migrate here.Credit: @usman_khawajy/Instagram

His popularity in season one meant that Khawaja’s return to the team, starting with twin hundreds against England at the SCG in January 2022, was documented in season two, which aired last year. Season three, which premieres on May 24, follows him further, featuring arguably his crowning Test match achievement as the leading scorer during the storied 2023 Ashes series.

Amazon was not the only way that Khawaja started showing more of himself to a wider audience. His emotional speeches at the 2023 Australian Cricket Awards, when he was voted the Shane Warne Men’s Test Player of the Year, melted plenty of hearts. One of those belonged to Rana Hussain, who worked with Cricket Australia on diversity and inclusion between 2020 and 2022, providing a valuable link between Khawaja and CEO Nick Hockley.

“I remember people at work at the time going, ‘Oh, he’s a bit full of himself,’ ” she says. “And I was saying, ‘You don’t understand what that means for young kids who look up to him from his background or similar, who see themselves in him.’ He’s humble and grateful as well, but why can’t he be confident?”

Khawaja’s confidence faltered on night one of the 2023 Ashes, when he struggled with timing in the few overs he faced. Bad experiences in 2013 and 2019 played on his mind. He confided to Rachel, who replied, “Whatever happens, we are always proud of you. Just stay positive and trust in God’s plan.” She encouraged him to try to enjoy the ride. “Remember that you’ve achieved so many great things in your career, you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone.”

A pair of outstanding innings followed – including his first Ashes century in England – capped by Pat Cummins’ final partnership with Nathan Lyon to clinch the Edgbaston Test. It remains a cherished moment in Khawaja’s life. For his friend Dascombe, it was the last in a series of corrections to the ways Khawaja had been perceived. “He’s collecting all the negative energy that had been applied to him in all these different settings around the world over the last 10 years, and ticking them off one by one. Proving people wrong.”

The match was just one of many remarkable junctures in the most teasing Ashes contest since 2005. And in the aftermath of England wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow’s stumping by his Australian counterpart Alex Carey, Khawaja was singled out for abuse by a trio of Marylebone Cricket Club members in ugly scenes at Lord’s. The Amazon documentary captures the reaction of Khawaja reporting three members to security (one was permanently expelled) and then spluttering, “We’re at Lord’s!” What stayed with him was the sense of entitlement when he called it out, with one member replying: “I can say whatever I f—ing want.”

“That’s probably going to be my last memory of Lord’s and it’s sad to think that,” Khawaja says now. “I stand up for my rights and what I believe in. I won’t back down no matter who you are, whether you’re an MCC member or not.”


Last October, former AFL player Bachar Houli reposted an Instagram video aired by a fellow Muslim former footballer, Sonny Bill Williams, titled “A genocide is occurring in Palestine”. Within hours, he was fielding calls from his former club Richmond and the AFL to take it down. Eventually he replaced it with a statement calling for peace in the region.

The whole episode escaped Khawaja’s attention, but by the time he flew to Perth on December 9 for the Pakistan Test, he’d spoken to confidantes, including Rana Hussain, about his feelings on the events in Gaza. “It was a matter of, ‘How could he possibly walk onto that field without carrying this with him?’ ” recalls Hussain of their conversations. “Because he was, anyway.”

The message Khawaja wanted to display.

The message Khawaja wanted to display.Credit: Getty

Without telling anyone – not even Rachel – Khawaja wrote “All lives are equal” and “Freedom is a human right” in the colours of the Palestinian flag on his shoes. Then he put them on and went to training. By the following morning, the story was everywhere. Like Houli, he was soon fielding calls to ditch the political comment. Of all his conversations at the time, one with captain Pat Cummins stands out.

“I had a conversation with Pat straight after I wore the shoes the first time, and he was actually quite logical,” Khawaja says. “He said, ‘I totally agree with everything you’ve said, written and done, I’ve got no issue whatsoever, so fine by me, mate. Freedom, equality are the same things I stand for.’ I wasn’t gaining anything out of it, if anything I was just putting myself out there to get smashed up more by the media and whoever else had an opinion. So he respected that, and it was really good to have that support.”

‘The premise of what he was trying to say, and continues to say, is that all lives are equal … I find it hard to disagree.’

Australian Cricketers’ Association chief executive Todd Greenberg

The International Cricket Council (ICC) senior operations manager, Clive Hitchcock, reminded Khawaja of the penalties that may await him if he wore the shoes onto the field, which ranged from fines to a ban. Khawaja responded by covering the shoes with tape and donning a personal-bereavement black armband for the Test instead. He then sat down with Hockley, Australian Cricketers’ Association chief executive Todd Greenberg and Cricket Australia (CA) chair Mike Baird to talk through the issue ahead of the rest of that summer’s matches. Hockley and Greenberg, both Jewish, supported his right to speak out.

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“You can’t just think it’s great for an athlete to say something if it’s something you personally agree with or is popular. It has to work both ways,” Greenberg tells Good Weekend. “The premise of what he was trying to say, and continues to say, is that all lives are equal. If you just put a full-stop there and say nothing else, which he starts and finishes with, I find it hard to disagree with that at all, regardless of race or religion.”

The conversations with Hockley, Baird and Greenberg led to an agreement: Khawaja would be allowed to wear the symbol of a black dove and a reference to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights on his bat and shoes for the upcoming Melbourne and Sydney Tests. That decision, approved by an emergency meeting of the CA board, was however struck down by the ICC. At the Melbourne Boxing Day Test, Khawaja replaced the words on his shoes with his daughters’ names.

Today, he’s adamant he did the right thing, including his choice of colours. “I didn’t feel like Palestinian lives were being given equal weight to any other life,” he says. “I didn’t feel like one Israeli life was equal to one Palestinian life. Nor did I feel like one Palestinian life was equal to one Australian life. A hundred kids have been dying every day, and no one was blinking an eyelid. So, 100 per cent I wrote it in Palestinian colours to let people know that Palestinians deserve freedom, however that’s going to be.

“I wasn’t barracking for a two-state system or anything political like that, just that they deserve freedom, and that can be done in many ways. The same thing with ‘All lives are equal’. I wrote it in Palestinian colours because I wanted people to know those lives are equal to any other lives. Equal to a white kid with blond hair and blue eyes.”

To those who called for Khawaja to “shut up and play cricket”, he’s unapologetic. “At what stage do you qualify to have an opinion? If you get voted into politics suddenly, you can say whatever you want? Then if you don’t, then you don’t have a voice, you can’t speak up?” he says. “I don’t understand where the line’s drawn then. Either we live in this world all together or we don’t.”

The whole debate helped keep the matter in the public mind as the Test matches moved from Melbourne to Sydney, where Khawaja was publicly lauded for his stance by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Other notable names who reached out included Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin. And an association has been formed with James Elder, the UNICEF spokesperson who has spent years traversing the world’s most troubled places. “He’s just opened my eyes to the wider world,” Khawaja says of their many WhatsApp conversations. “I always knew there was a lot of poverty and children doing it tough around the world, but until you’re actually talking to UNICEF and see what they’re doing, you have no idea about how much there is.”

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An ironic coda to the whole thing came at a Big Bash League match in late January, when Khawaja finally wore the dove logo onto the field on his bat and shoes (those matches not being under the control of the ICC). His bat snapped after four balls, and he had to replace it.

For Rana Hussain, the whole experience was instructive. “I was worried for him in terms of the backlash he would get,” she says. “But he somehow, amid this whole awful situation, has been able both to represent communities that see themselves in him but also the broader community and what it was feeling too.”


Over several years, on either side of COVID and his return to the Test team, Khawaja lobbied Cricket Australia to do something about diversity, not just among players but fans, and across administration staff. A multicultural action plan was finally launched in Melbourne late last year – in the same week that Khawaja became a lightning rod for the public conversation about Gaza. Among other things, it calls for CA staff to undergo training in unconscious bias and cultural awareness, and explores ways to progress more players from culturally diverse communities to higher levels, setting firm targets. Khawaja’s charitable foundation, formed in 2017, is working with CA to this end.

There are still only a handful of players of South Asian heritage at the upper echelons of Australian cricket – and Khawaja is the only one on the men’s Test team. CA’s Nick Hockley agrees that this has to change. “[Usman] and I share an impatience on this front,” Hockley says. “The reality is that 20 per cent of junior cricketers around Australia are from a South Asian background, they represent about eight per cent of the broader population, but just four per cent at senior levels of cricket. That kind of lack of representation is not only on the playing side but also on the administration side. Uzzy will hold us to account.”

For Khawaja, the change can’t come soon enough. “Right now if you ask anybody about the Australian cricket team, all they see is Pat Cummins, Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell, Don Bradman. Amazing, great players, but that’s all they’ve been used to, up to this day,” he says. “I want Usman Khawaja to have the same journey as Pat Cummins, in terms of the challenges [each faces]. That’s why I’m doing this, because I want the journeys to be the same. I don’t want people to feel like they need to do things differently or go through more difficulties just because of where they’re from and the colour of their skin and what their name is. Pretty simple.”

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