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Khawaja bow comes at just the right time for Australia

W hen Usman Khawaja accepts his Australian cap before play in the fifth Test against England at the Sydney Cricket Ground tonight, it will be no ordinary debut. The talented 24-year-old left-handed batsman, drafted in to replace the injured Ricky Ponting, will be the 418th Australian Test player to be capped since 1882 -- and the first Muslim. It will be a significant moment for Khawaja, his faith, and the game itself.

The baggy green, which has survived the most relentless sentimentalism in a run of dominance stretching back to the early '90s, now links Khawaja, the Sydney-raised son of immigrants from Islamabad, to the sainted Don Bradman and all the other greats of Australia's storied past. But the glamour is fading as surely as the battered old cap on Ponting's head, and that of his understudy for the final Test, Michael Clarke.

The timing of Khawaja's selection could not be more poignant. He joins his country's team, so Anglo-white for so long, at a time when cricket is struggling to retain its prominence in a cultural landscape that shifts by the year. Rooted in a colonial past that is foreign to many post-war Australians, cricket desperately wants to embrace those ethnic and religious communities that traditionally have had little or no voice in the game.

There are negative omens everywhere for Australian cricket. Television ratings are down 24 per cent over 10 years; grounds are near empty for all but 20-over games and Ashes Test matches; the only real competitors, rugby league and Aussie rules, are booming, with the AFL taking up nearly a third of all newspaper coverage. It is enough to test any stalwart's faith.

Cricket, once indisputably the national game, has slipped behind AFL, horse racing, rugby league and motor sport, and sits just ahead of rugby union and soccer, according to the government's latest attendance statistics.

Anecdotal evidence is, predictably, mixed. Some cultural critics suggest young Australians have been driven into the arms of other sports, such as basketball, or indoors, prisoners now of their computers. Others see plenty of evidence in parks and streets of kids bashing tennis balls over fences, "six and out", and throwing themselves about on grounds across the country in the ever-serious club competitions.

Whatever the extent of the malaise, players such as Khawaja are seen as crucial in tapping into a fresh audience in a hugely competitive marketplace. There are 695,484 Asian Australians in Sydney alone, and 565,056 in the second biggest city, Melbourne. How many of them will choose cricket over easier, better-paid and, perhaps, "cooler" pastimes?

There is no escaping the attention Khawaja's selection has attracted here. In a summer of woe, his is a rare feelgood story. The former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck, a long-time Australian resident, wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald: "It might seem unfair to mention his faith but it is the fate of minorities to represent more than themselves."

What Khawaja represents is Generation Y of what used to be called New Australians. When that term was coined, it referred to the largely European immigrants, most of them from Britain and Ireland, who arrived in the 1950s.

The ethnic mix, since the Vietnam war and the broadening of business links throughout Asia, has grown considerably more diverse, and it is that pool of potential that cricket and all sports are fighting for. Right now, cricket is struggling.

Last August, 180 stakeholders in Australian cricket gathered for a five-day conference to discuss the game's future. It was "a wake-up call" for the sport, according to Cricket Australia, who are working on broadening the game's appeal to a new audience.

Alex Brown, the sports editor of the Herald, says the dips and rises are cyclical but, although the current Ashes series is commanding vast amounts of words and television coverage, cricket is waging a tough battle for ratings and crowds against rugby league in NSW and Queensland, and Australian rules in the southern states. "The golden era is well and truly over," he says, "and we've known that for a while now."

Brown, like all sports editors, has thrown major resources at this series and has been able to give it good acreage in that lull before the winter sports grab back the attention of the public. Even so, the pages drip with transfer stories and summer-training gossip.

"Rugby league has never been more popular than now," Brown says. "Attendances are at an all-time high in Sydney and people here have fallen back in love with the sport after the Super League period (which disrupted the code as Rupert Murdoch briefly took on the establishment, resulting in a tense truce). And AFL is the monster that rules everywhere else."

Talented kids in Victoria, he says, go to the AFL. "The exception is Alex Keath, who rejected an AFL contract to stay with cricket. But that was a story because it is so rare these days."

Keath is an 18-year-old all-rounder who made his first-class debut for Victoria against England earlier on this tour -- but only after turning down an AFL contract with the Gold Coast club. Two other outstanding young athletes, Karmichael Hunt and Israel Folau, describe another part of the story.

'Special K' Hunt, 24, was born in Auckland, of Samoan and Cook Islands parents, moved to Australia when he was 11, dreamt of emulating his basketball hero Michael Jordan but made it as a rugby league player because it was the dominant sport in Brisbane, where he grew up. But Hunt also played union -- before being lured away from both rugby codes to AFL, a game he tried one off-season. In 2009, he signed with AFL club, Gold Coast, and will start his Rules career next year. Meanwhile, he signed a union contract with Biarritz in France.

Folau has a similarly eclectic sporting CV. He was born in rural NSW, has played league for Melbourne Storm and the Brisbane Broncos, and lately has switched to AFL with Greater Western Sydney Giants. Both are massively talented -- and are courted shamelessly by all codes. Cricket's fear is that there will be more Hunts and Folaus than Keaths. Already, the drain is being felt in grade cricket, once on a par with the County Championship.

Evidence of a decline in standards can be seen in the selections this summer of Steve Smith and Alex Doherty -- way before they had matured enough to handle Test cricket. But the depth is not there. That is the most unequivocal signal of the game's grassroots decline, however minimal so far.

As for the fans, it is clear they have suffered from overload. Their response has been indifference. Even in Melbourne, where people will queue to watch just about anything, the giant television screen in Federation Square showing the England run onslaught live from the MCG last week switched coverage to show the entire 2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special. There was little complaint from lunchtime shoppers.

How far the game has come from the days when cricket truly was the national sport, giving way only in winter to the rugby codes and little else.

There was an echo of that phenomenon, but not in any positive way, during the fourth Test. When Australia's batting disintegrated on the first day, whole swathes of seats were abandoned. It was left to the Barmy Army to hold the line. As often happens in any situation where people have had it too good for too long, the dip that inevitably follows is a painful one for all concerned.

When asked what is wrong with Australian cricket, Australian fans are as cruel as any British tabloid -- and even harder to fathom. When Sydney's Daily Telegraph asked more than 4,000 readers who should captain the team in the absence of Ponting, a third of them chose Simon Katich -- 35 years old, injured and probably unavailable for another month. Only 15% went for Clarke.

It is sobering to reflect that Ponting and Clarke jointly held the Allan Border Medal -- a vote among their peers for the player of the year -- only two years ago. That was the final flickering of greatness left over from the warm glow provided for two decades by the near-unbeatable teams of Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, teams that boasted players of the century in Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, alongside the Waugh brothers, Adam Gilchrist and a bewildering array of talent.

The fall from deity to mortals has been quick, painful and, so far, unstoppable. The supporters' reaction is a fair barometer of the gap between national sentiment and the people who run the national team -- not to mention the hysteria that has invaded cricket like a virus. Disillusion runs so deep that all rational thinking has been abandoned.

Clearly, Ponting was never going to walk away from a job he has done for so long, even though his success rate has fallen dramatically in the past 18 months, reaching its lowest point in Melbourne.

There is a huge disconnect in aspirations and strategy, and it is the concomitant discontent and widespread confusion that is eating away at cricket's soul in a country where it was once the No 1 game in nearly everyone's affections.

Where once there was almost universal support and enthusiasm for a team who could do no wrong, in adversity the cracks look as wide and as arid as the Nullarbor Plain.


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