Ajaz is a New Zealand cricketer, who plays for none other than Black Caps, representing New Zealand international, for all your cricket fans out there. We will be discussing questions of culture, faith, belonging, and interestingly food and how all of it plays into the field of sports.
Elina: I thought it would be really lovely for someone who is not at all in the sports world to hear a little bit about what it means to be a cricketer, on your level, in New Zealand.
Ajaz: I mean, being an international cricketer is quite special, playing for New Zealand and representing New Zealand. I take a lot of pride in that. But at the same time, I think the way that the sports culture is in New Zealand, I don't think, anyone sees you any differently. It's not like you're treated like rock stars or anything like that. It's completely different to how other countries view sport and how other countries treat sports people. But yeah, overall, I don't think it's much different to other people who excel in their fields of work. I guess the only difference is I’m fortunate enough to get to represent New Zealand on a world stage.
Elina: We've had quite a different life these past few years, but what does your average month look like?
Ajaz: With COVID and the tours and also different schedules all the time, it's constantly changing. The great example is in the last month I went from being injured, to working on recovery to then almost coming back then getting COVID, then being out for another 10 days, then going back into cricket.
Elina: And Ajaz when you were little, and you can take it as broad as you want, but what did you imagine yourself being, or doing?
Ajaz: Cricket was such a massive passion of mine right through from when I was young.
So for me, it was always a dream to play cricket at a higher level. I guess I never envisaged that I'd be playing for New Zealand. That was always the goal and the dream. But as we all know, we work towards it. And sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn't.
On the other hand, I guess being from an Indian background, I've got a background in education as well. So I've got a marketing and management degree, and it was more just something to fall back on.
Elina: And what was that like? So, if we think back to when you were 10 or 12? Because you were born in Mumbai? How old were you when you moved here?
Ajaz: I was about six to seven when I moved here.
Elina: In terms of pursuing sport, it's actually interesting. I'm just thinking back, when I was still in Kazakhstan as a kid. I did swimming and we had this excellent Russian coach who was really tough. I was doing it more as a hobby, but kids in my class were doing it quite seriously, more on a semi-professional level. And for the most part, it was because of the parental pressure, who would sit around the swimming pool, watch and be quite tough on their kids. And I think I've only seen that side of "professional sports". I feel that at a young age, I didn't have that motivation or consistency to stick strong. How was that for you?
Ajaz: Yeah. So, for me personally, it was very much self driven. I was fortunate that my parents never really pushed me towards anything that I didn't want to do. And so for me everything to do with cricket, meant I'm going to do this. I'm going to work hard. I've got this training, I've got that training. If I needed to get there mum would drive me around. But it was really on me. A lot of it was me running off to my own training, my own gym times, figuring things out for myself. Especially because both my parents didn't really have the knowledge in the field. I mean, my old man was in the automotive industry and mum was a housewife who was previously a teacher, so neither of them really had a background in sport. Yeah my dad's passionate about cricket and follows cricket but he didn't really know what the pathways or the avenues were.
Elina: Where did it come from for you? Why the inspiration to stick with something, because to obviously play on that level, you have to be quite consistent and persistent?
Ajaz: Yeah, I became somewhat obsessed with the idea. And I think it's funny because, obviously, at a certain point, the goal was to play for New Zealand. But now the obsession kind of keeps evolving, even though now I've represented New Zealand and that just keeps evolving into something different. How do I not only become the best in New Zealand, but how do I become the best in the world? And what can I do to get to that point?
Elina: And just yesterday, I was talking to some friends about how, when someone asks you to introduce yourself, or when your bio is written somewhere, or when you speak at an event, we tend to use our job titles as a very much a description of ourselves. And especially, with you playing internationally and representing New Zealand, that kind of media representation must really put you into a "cricketer" box? What do you think of yourself? What are the other aspects to yourself that are maybe big to you, or important?
It's funny, because, yes, I am a cricketer. And quite honestly, it is a big part of my identity, because I've put so much time of my life into it. But at the same time, I'm religious. I'm Indian. I'm a New Zealander. I'm a family man.
For me, my family's number one, I think in terms of their attachment, and being close and living in the same household as my parents. I'm still living with my parents and that's culturally the thing that's done within an Indian household and I’m comfortable with it, but it's also something that I actually enjoy as well, because I'm really close to my parents. I remember one of my best memories is the first time I told them, I became a New Zealand Blackcap. And it was quite an amazing time, they had the whole family over. And they were wondering why all of a sudden we had everyone over for dinner. But they had an idea as well, which is the cool thing. But just the reaction that we got from everyone and how excited everyone was and how happy they were, just shows how invested the family was in my journey as well.
Faith is probably what's kept me grounded and kept me on the path where I never believe I'm better than I am. I’m honest with myself. And I work hard. The other thing is my culture as well. I take a lot of pride in being Indian, of Indian ethnicity. That's something I value quite deeply because of the family values that I've received and the moral values that I've received, a lot of them came from India.
Elina: And I guess that flows kind of nicely into the whole idea of the ethnic representation or what it means. And, because the overarching theme of the podcast was living as an ethnic person in Aotearoa and some people that I've interviewed didn't really like the word ethnic. What does it mean to be ethnic in New Zealand? Do you have feelings or emotions attached to this word?
Well, I think in the past, a lot of people probably felt uncomfortable being from an ethnic background, and we were all made to feel uncomfortable coming from an ethnic background. They probably felt like to fit into society, they had to mould into something different. But I think current society and the way that the modern world is now, ethnicity is celebrated, should be celebrated. That's what makes you you. We're two people. We're from two different backgrounds, vastly different backgrounds, but we're still identifying as New Zealanders. The fact that we're New Zealanders doesn't mean we can't have an ethnic background. And that adds to the bounty of being in New Zealand or as well.
Elina: We have a lot of wonderful things that we all bring from our cultures, but at the same time I have some things that I deeply disagree in Kazakhstan and wish we could improve on (i.e. Corruption, patriarchy). Every society has a whole bunch of problems, of course. But do you find any particular parts with you being attached to your culture and faith that you wish to see be different? Something that challenges you a little bit more, and makes you wonder if you agree with it, or question how you feel about it?
Ajaz: From a cultural aspect, I think India is very much a male and female society. A male has certain roles, females have certain roles. In saying that my religious teachings differ from the cultural side of things. So there's always this clash between the two. But over here in New Zealand, I think we are going into a world where that equality and that balance is probably starting to get to a more balanced stage or same level of empowerment. If we talk about 10 years ago, there was a massive gap in terms of what was happening with males being able to progress and females being able to progress. So that's probably one thing that really sticks out. But other than that, I haven't really given it too much thought. It's an interesting question. I think naturally when you go to a new place, you are going to pick up values within their society, and you are going to leave behind values that you don't think fit into their society. It's more a question of what values do you hold on to and what values do you leave behind?
Elina: Thinking of sport and sport culture, your career culture, we have people that I've interviewed who work in urban design work, or people who work in arts, people who work in education. And there are very different ways that culture incorporates into the world of whatever field you're in. When it comes to sports, what have you seen that had a little bit more of a challenging side? What hasn't been done well? Or maybe what have you seen around the whole idea of acceptance and belonging and inclusion?
One of the big things when I was growing up was food. For me being from an Indian background, the household food that we eat is totally different to what European food is, right. When I first was coming through, no one really understood the fact that I eat differently, but there was an expectation that you should still be eating the same stuff that all the other athletes are eating, because that's what's good for you. I don't think people quite understood that, yes, that's probably good for me, but it's a part of my culture. There's food, but it's not just food, there's a bigger relationship to it than just food.
It's what my parents have been eating. That's what my ancestors have been eating. It’s what I've grown up on, I don't know anything different. And then to suddenly be able to change that and go, actually, I'm just going to stop eating this and all of a sudden go to a completely European diet, it's difficult. And then you'd get plans and be on a completely different diet. And you're just like, okay, cool, I'll do that. But then you do it for three days, four days, a week, two weeks, three weeks, and then afterwards actually it's not really working. And you just want the food that everyone else is having in the house. So that was initially a little bit difficult. But at the same time, it's funny, because now that I'm a professional sportsman, and an international sportsman. I go around the world and I go to Asian countries, and I see the food that they're serving to us as New Zealanders and they are still serving traditional food. But then the guys are sometimes like, oh, why are we getting this kind of stuff? We should be getting a roast chicken or steak and veggies. It's one of those things where it's happening not just in New Zealand, but it happens everywhere. And it's seen differently everywhere. Our culture is probably a minority within the country, then we go with what the majority food is and that's okay. But what I'm saying is that there should still be an understanding that yes, indeed, he probably is going to be slightly different. We need to treat them slightly differently as well.
To a certain degree, there's so many different people in terms of what they eat: you've got halal, you've got kosher, you've got vegan, you've got vegetarian, you've got all sorts. And so how do we make sure that our food options actually cater to all of these people? How do we make sure that we're actually including all of these people within our food menu?
It happened to me a lot of times, I'd go to a club, or I'd go to a function, or I'd go to a dinner and well, the only option I had was the salad and the eggs. And well, you're forgotten about and I was never really disrespectful around it. When I was younger, I thought, okay, well, I'm one person, why should they really go out of the way for me, but now I think why shouldn't we? If we know that person is there in that environment, then why shouldn't we make sure we can do a little bit to make them feel welcome and comfortable. And you'll find that if you do that you'll make that person really enjoy that environment, really flourish in that environment and they'll probably give you a lot back as well. It's not just a faith thing anymore, as well. Food is also very much a political thing now, to a certain degree. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean, in the sense that, people have their own views and how they view food. And some things they don't agree with and other things they do. Whereas in the past, that was probably more just religious things that you had to worry about, where now people don't accept dairy or red meats, or other things. And you have to respect that. And you have to provide different options. I'm not saying that you have to cater to each individual. But what I'm saying is provide options so that everyone's cared for or looked after.
Elina: That's very interesting. I haven't thought about it like that because obviously, for athletes, the diet is such a big part of life. And the cultural aspect of it. What about faith Ajaz? How does that sit in sports?
Ajaz: Initially, especially when I was younger, I struggled a little bit to express my faith, my values and my beliefs. Because when you're young, you just want to fit in, you want to be the same as everyone else, you just want to be seen as everyone else. And when I was young, there wasn't any education around. A way for people to say, okay, what he's doing there, that's normal.
Our parents and other parents didn't teach our children or their children at that age that these people believe in this, and this is what they do from a faith perspective.
When I say for example, as a Muslim, I pray. So if I go and pray in front of someone, someone comes and asks me: what are you doing there bro, what was going on? I say, I was just praying.
Then the amazing thing I found was that the more I did that, the more people actually questioned you on why you were doing it. And everyone questioned you in a respectful way, no one was disrespectful, everyone wanted to know more, and wanted to learn more as well. And I found that expressing myself is probably a good thing. Because more people around me are getting educated to not only my values, or my religion, or my culture, but everyone that's like me,
so that next time they see someone else praying, they'll probably give them the respect that they deserve or need. And it's a constant battle, because even now, sometimes you do shy away from and being open and honest about it. But a lot of the times if I want to pray, I'll go and pray, regardless of the situation or the people around me.
Elina: When you become a more visible person, whether it's being an athlete or an actor or any other public figure, there is this opportunity, which sometimes is really challenging, to be more outspoken. Now with having more of a platform, is there any pressure to speak on some things or when big events happen, whether good or bad events in the world, do you feel there's pressure to speak or maybe internal pressure?
Ajaz: No, not really. I've always been pretty vocal on the things that don't sit well with me. For me, it's about humanity. And what I really find, and still really affects me is the fact that people from certain areas are seen differently to other people from certain areas. The other problem is society sees things that way. Because the media portrays things that way. If you keep showing the same person, the same thing over and over again, regardless of whether they believe it at the start, they will eventually start believing it. When I have something that politically doesn't agree with me, I'll post it and it's more so around humanity, for me things that really affect me are children. When children aren't doing well, are affected, then that's something that really affects me. From a religious standpoint, yes, it affects me as well. Because I think to a certain degree, the word terrorists gets thrown around a lot. And a lot of the times or majority of the time, it's only thrown around when it's a Muslim at fault. But the one time that I was really, really impressed was when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, labelled the individual that carried out the March 15 attacks a terrorist. Because it was a first time a world leader, and actually labelled someone outside of the Muslim faith as terrorists. But other than that,
I don't really have any political agenda or such. I'm not out here to change the world. I'm at heart still a cricketer. And if I can lead by example, by being who I am, then that's, that's more than enough.
Elina: I mean that's exactly the whole pressure of contribution and impact. I find personally, it's living in the society that values output and productivity and whether it's in money output, or it could be contribution output. It's really good to acknowledge all of us, whatever way we exist in the world, contribute back to the society just by being themselves in their communities... Let’s round up and go into our quickfire questions. The first one has been my favourite because I've been introduced to so many wonderful dishes. What is your favourite meal?
Ajaz: My favourite dish is a Chicken Lollipop, which is deep fried, little chicken pocket that comes with like a little stick on the end of it. And it's just absolutely unbelievable. Not something I can indulge in too often or too much, but I love it. And the other one I'd say is a biryani, any sort of biryani. Paradise in Auckland does both things very, very well. It's probably one of the best. Hands down probably one of the best Indian restaurants going around. So yeah, that's probably my go to.
Elina: Awesome, okay, if you were the main character in the movie, or a TV show that currently exists, or you can make it up? What would it be? Or what would it be about?
Ajaz: Probably something to do with cricket. I think it would probably be some kind of comedy, a comedy based on errors, or a lot of bloopers. Yeah.
Elina: I love that. If you had to introduce a policy, either to the New Zealand government or to a sport organisation or organisations in general, what would it be?
Ajaz: Have a multi-faith prayer room, every venue, that would be probably the number one. Cricket can be a five hour day, or it can be four or five days in a row. And if I want to pray, even now, a lot of the places don't actually have a dedicated room. A lot of clubs, even our airports, don't have a dedicated room. Our international airports do, but our domestics don't.
It's not just about Muslim faith, it's about all faiths, why don't we have a multifaith room in say social clubs and in cricket clubs and rugby clubs, and our airports or even in our malls, and it's pretty simple. It's not that difficult to make space in a room and leave a couple of things there.
And what you'll find is, as soon as you create a room, people from the faith will come and bring in resources anyway. So you don't necessarily need to supply the resources. You just need to supply the room. The resource will find a way there.
Elina: Love that. And the last one, what makes you feel like a badass?
Ajaz: Being able to be myself. I think when I was younger, I was trying to fit in. And I tried to do that by not being myself. Now what makes me feel good about myself is the fact that I can be myself and be accepted for who I am and what I am. I guess the badass best part about it is whether you like it or not, this is me.
Thank you so much for listening, folks. We've recorded this conversations from the comfort of our homes, you know, the global pandemic at all. So we really hope you felt that cosy listening to your friends over the phone kind of vibe. If you haven't already, check out our remaining series with 14 other incredible conversations. Share, Subscribe, send to someone who might benefit from either feeling seen or you know or learning more about ethnic voices in Aotearoa. This wonderful podcast has been brought to you by collaboration of Belong Aotearoa, Storyo, Planet FM and Sport Waitakere. With thanks to our funder, the Auckland Council Regional Development Fund. Follow us on Instagram @passthemic.aotearoa and @story.co And until next time.