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The Gifts of Mother Cricket

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)

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Indian Summer

As a former Australian soldier I feel some, slight, illicit sense of misgiving about the commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in 1918. Let me make clear- I am not a pacifist. Rather, I am a foreign-policy realist, who in my seventh decade has bleakly concluded that ‘only the dead have seen the end of war.’ In his panoramic survey of warfare as an anthropological phenomenon the Israeli historian Azar Gat concludes that humans have been using orchestrated lethal force against one another since the hunter gatherer period.

Both my grandfather, for whom I was named, and my father served in the First and Second Australian Imperial Force. My grandfather Malcolm was an officer in the 21st and 24th Battalions of the Second Division. He was wounded and repatriated to Cobham Hall in Kent, before returning the Western Front. Dad likewise suffered a wound during the Buna Campaign. He also recovered to return to New Guinea for the Lae and Wewak Campaigns in 1945.

My grandfather died when I was three, my father when I was eight. The weight of expectations and my gnawing doubts about my masculinity led me to Royal Military College on 14 January 1974 aged 17. But that is a story for another day. After that I went where I was sent and was regarded as an exemplary officer. But I never encountered the sustained violence that my forebears did. I still feel residual shame and guilt about that, especially in light of other decisions I have made. Only about half a dozen of my Duntroon Class of 115 ever deployed on operational service of any type. I was one of the few.

So, I am hardly a fiery radical who loathes our military and despairs that they have been blindly sacrificed in ‘other people’s wars’. All of our military commitments, right back to the Sudan and even the Boer War have been directed to maintain the supremacy of the preeminent liberal democratic power of the day. We have benefited immeasurably from that global order even when the scale of our sacrifice is measured.

Yet, the manner and tone of our Remembrance disquiets me. My first ANZAC commemoration at the Australian War Memorial was on a brisk Canberra Thursday morning in April 1974. The junior class from Duntroon were dispatched by bus to attend the Dawn Service. Very few senior classmen roused themselves to attend. The whole College conducted a parade later in the morning and marched to the grave of our founder Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges who had been interred on Mount Pleasant. Not even aspiring officers in the Australian Regular Army voluntarily went to the Dawn Service. The teeming crowds and all-night light shows are recent developments.

Disillusionment with war and ANZAC mythology was pervasive. Other than my classmates in our British pattern World War Two battle dress and overcoats, only a group of nuns attired in full habits and small contingent of veterans comprised the crowd. We all comfortably fitted inside the forecourt gathered around the Pool of Reflection. Our fondness for war commemoration has only reached today’s epidemic proportions as fewer Australians actually know a family member who has been engaged in one. Since 1974 the nation has transformed. So has our cricket. Now there is a more brash, assertive assertion of identity characterizing both. Rather than a sign of maturity it smacks of adolescent insecurity to me.

Last week’s mawkish, abortive flirtation with Americana by Virgin Airlines is but a symptom of a social phenomenon that I know makes many veterans uncomfortable. The commemoration of war has become garish and sentimental. Both the left and right attempt to hijack our Veterans in the culture wars. Crude jingoism is used to hijack ANZACs to support the Australian Republic, while conservatives invoke Bean’s romantic descriptions of the ANZACs to lampoon our current men and women as ‘soft’ and too politically correct.

In fading memory’s eye, the ANZACs and First AIF have grown to fanciful stature beyond mere mortals. They won the Great War on their own. Monash was a superb General, while all the British Commanders were effete Public-School dolts etc. The truth is vastly less romantic. If the dead could hear the hyperbole about them ‘dying with faces to the foe’ I suspect they would exchange such drivel for the experience of just one more sunrise or sunset in the land of their birth. So too the millions of civilians, including children, who have died in the genocides of the century since the ‘War To End all Wars’.

Yet, despite all of that, tomorrow I shall return to the Memorial, wearing my medals, somewhat embarrassed that I have twice as many as Pop and the same number as the old man. I rather suspect that this, more than my gender transition, would arouse their contempt. They may even suspect that I had joined the ‘Yanks’ who allegedly gave away medals “in their Corn Flakes.”

So, what of cricket? Well, as CLR James observed ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’. The depth of that pithy, oft invoked, aphorism was brought home to me at the Australian War Memorial on an unseasonably cool summer evening just before Christmas in 2011. I was fortunate to attend the Bradman Oration in the Aircraft Hall of the War Memorial. War, memory, national and personal identity and cricket merged for me that evening. That year, for the first time, the Oration was delivered by a foreign cricket player, Rahul Dravid, the former Captain of India. It was the finest and most moving speech that I have heard delivered on Australian soil.

That summer I was covering the Indian tour for the Spectator Magazine and writing a book titled Indian Summer. Dravid’s speech enthralled me and I dedicated a chapter of that book to him. We have subsequently become friends and have broadcast Test Matches together. He was a talismanic figure to me through the trials of the ensuing three years, though he refuses to take any credit for this. He and a handful of others convinced me that my life had value and that I should not end it. While many sporting champions flatter to deceive, not so Dravid. He is an exceptional man. He is humble, authentic and gentle and blessed with baroque technique and steely concentration. Those attributes inspired his nickname ‘The Wall.’ Implacable. Impregnable.

Dravid movingly traced the history of Australia’s links to India back to that first morning at Gallipoli when Indian soldiers came ashore with the Anzacs. He explained how, later, Bradman became an iconic, mystical figure among Indians during their turbulent struggle for independence:

For one generation of fans in my country, those who grew up in the 1930s, when India was under British rule, Bradman represented a cricketing excellence that belonged to somewhere outside England. To a country taking its first steps in Test Cricket that meant something.

He went on to note that on 28 June 1930, the same day that Bradman scored 254 at Lord’s, Jawaharal Nehru was arrested by the colonial police. Given that coincidence, it was fitting that the first Test series played by newly Independent Indian nation was against Australia led by the Don. Indians, Dravid reminded us were ‘Comrades before we were competitors.’ But Dravid’s abiding message was more profound. Deep inside the home of Australia’s Whitefella Dreaming, a young Indian man cautioned against the appropriation of the language and metaphors of war to describe sport. Just as 2018 has seen Australia achieve ‘peak veteran’ so too, we have already attained peak cricket.

The national uproar over the ball tampering incident at Newlands in March was quite hysterical. In the absence of war, we seemingly demand that our cricketers embody our cozy self-image. Like the Digger an Australian cricketer is expected to be a taciturn, invincible hard man. The tears and remorse of Steve Smith reminded all of us that these players are young. That they are also too often unworldly and immature. They are not the essence of the nation. Nor should we expect them to be. But in this era of shrill, ostentatious patriotism we can expect an extended seminar on national decline over the summer. Fortunately, we have a Prime Minister who desists from exclaiming ‘Cooee’ and ‘Fair dinkum’ just long enough to swallow a pie. So Western Civilization may limp into 2019 despite the form of our cricketers.

The Indian team arrive next week. They are yet to win a series on Australian soil. Australian cricket is peculiarly vulnerable this Indian Summer. Our batting looks dangerously brittle and we are reaping the harvest of the devaluation of technique and red ball proficiency deemed necessary to accommodate more short form cricket. But Fortress Australia has defied better Indian teams than this before. When one uses a military metaphor for cricket, it is time to pause. Lest We Forget. Until next time.