Dear Joe Root
On day three of a Test match in St Lucia, you said 12 words to West Indian bowler Shannon Gabriel: “Don’t use that as an insult. There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
As I watched the footage, I felt tears at the back of my eyes, and realised that I had been there before.
My parents migrated from Sri Lanka to Australia two months before I was born. The cultural identity of either country makes a passion for cricket likely. For me, their combined influence rendered it inevitable.
When I was eight years old, I started playing Under 10s cricket at Moonee Valley Cricket Club in Melbourne. A few weeks into my first season, a few older boys began to try out some unsavoury comments targeted at me and the other brown kid.
They ranged from boorish slurs to passable wordplay, but they all had one clear message: you don’t belong. Cricket is not for you – which means that this country is not for you.
This wasn’t my first encounter with racism in sport. Two years earlier, during my first lunchtime at a new primary school, I sped to the oval, a six-year-old eager to play Aussie rules football, only to be dismissed with a curt “we don’t play with niggers”.
I had developed a mentality of mouth shut, thick skin, prove them wrong. Once they see you play, they’ll want you on their side. Don’t acknowledge them, don’t respond – just focus on what you have to do.
So I didn’t complain. Neither did the other target of these insults – he blushed furiously but said nothing. It continued for a few weeks.
One day, everything changed. During a training session on an overcast Melbourne afternoon, our coach, a lanky teenager charged with the hapless task of coaching this rabble of youngsters, heard an abusive comment. He stopped our nets session. He called the boys over – the one who spoke, and the ones who laughed.
He spoke with the nervously honourable manner of someone who is not used to telling people off, but who knows that he must. He told them that it was unacceptable. He told them to apologise. I don’t remember the exact wording of everything he said. But I do remember one sentence.
“Cricket is for everyone.”
With four words, our 17-year-old authority figure defeated the greatest bully – not the boys who’d been taunting me, but the fears that they had planted inside my mind. Cricket was for me – which meant that this country was for me.
I have never been the victim of homophobic bullying. I cannot pretend to understand what gay people around the world endure on a daily basis. But I do know what it’s like to be told that I don’t belong in sport – and that I don’t belong in my community.
Fundamentally, sport is about community. The way in which we conduct our sport on a local and national level indicates who we are as people. By including people in cricket and in all other sports, we include them in our shared life as a community.
On 11 February 2019, you chose to send a message of inclusion, not just to your opponent Gabriel, but to cricketers and cricket fans all over the world. It’s the same message that my coach spoke, 16 years ago:
“Cricket is for everyone.”
His words were invaluable to me. They told me that I belonged – and they helped me to push away every voice that had told me the opposite.
Your words have undoubtedly reached young gay sportspeople – people who have been told that they don’t belong, both on the sports field and in their communities. You have told them that they belong.
You could have ignored the statement, or responded flippantly, but instead you chose to firmly oppose a voice that sought to exclude. Athletes are frequently praised for their physical reflexes – but here, you made a split-second decision to stand up for people who don’t have a voice.