Last Anzac Day I sang our national anthem twice. The first occasion was during the Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial. The second time was later that morning among my teammates from the local Indian and Pakistani communities. We had gathered on Australia’s most solemn day, to mourn the death of one young man rather than of thousands. He had died as dawn broke on Anzac Day 2016. It was not Zeeshan Akbar’s destiny to be venerated in death as a hero beyond reproach by mere mortals, growing in stature with the passage of time. His death was brutal. It was cruel. And it was utterly random and unjustified. Those whose lives Zeeshan touched, vowed never to forget him. We forged a Shield to commemorate him. Henceforth, on the anniversary of his death teams of young men born in India and Pakistan will play a cricket fixture to honour a fine young man who had made Australia his home. Zeeshan came here in 2009 to complete his education. He loved Australia and his application for citizenship had been approved before his death. This was a source of great pride for him but he never got to finalise it.
I had come to know Zeeshan through the Indo-Pakistani cricket competition in Canberra, which is the brainchild of my friend Syed Jaffry. In addition to playing First Grade female cricket, I play in this competition with one of the two Pakistani teams, a blonde trans woman in a team of observant Muslim men who carry their prayer mats in their cricket bags. My final game of cricket will be played among these young men, whose passion for the game is infectious and delightful. The nations of their birth have currently suspended Test Matches against each other because of security concerns. The nation of Pakistan was born amid vicious sectarian conflict in the aftermath of Indian independence and the two countries have fought periodically. Their most recent war severed the new nation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. If the elusive spirit of cricket, if the often-invoked ‘grassroots’exists, it exists among these young men in the parklands of Canberra. To play amongst them is a joy because of that passion. And an inspiration, because of their deep faith in God, their homelands, and their adopted land of Australia.
The gathering to christen the Zeeshan Akbar Shield epitomised everything I love about cricket and Australia. Firstly, Zeeshan’s boss Pedro spoke. He had come to Australia from Italy and the service station was his family business. A humble man, he spoke with simple eloquence about his former employee. The Mayor of Queanbeyan, Tim Overall spoke. So did the Deputy High Commissioner of Pakistan who led prayers in gentle, lilting Urdu as the young Pakistani men rocked back and forth, eyes closed, accompanying him. I spoke briefly and offered a prayer, prefaced by the invocation that we are all children of Abraham, the Patriarch of the Arabs and the Jews and Old Testament prophet in the Christian tradition. In the wake of the attack in Melbourne, the usual strident voices have been shrieking denunciations of Islam and immigrants. Had they been at dinner that night perhaps even their flinty hearts would have been touched.
The gifts that the game of cricket has bestowed on me over the past five decades are too numerous to calculate. But I shall cherish the memory of that night as long as I live. Here is a column I wrote for Fairfax about that night– it has aged better than the author!
We will never forget Zeeshan Akbar. Son of Pakistan. Adopted son of Australia. Son of Mother Cricket.
Zeeshan Akbar – Not Out (in perpetuity)