It’s difficult to pinpoint when a city develops its defining characteristics. These things usually evolve over time as populations grow, interact, and create unique cultures. Yet on Sunday, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Melbourne symbolically moved into the spotlight as one of the great South Asian cities outside of South Asia.
In front of 90,293 people, India and Pakistan played their opening game of the T20 Cricket World Cup. India forged an improbable comeback to win the game on its last ball. It was an astonishing game of cricket – watching the game from Sweden, the atmosphere seemed like it was going to overheat my laptop.
The game combined Melbourne’s self-declared – although probably true – claim to be “the sporting capital of the world” with recent migration trends that have dramatically increased its South Asian population. The game’s attendance fell only 2,700 people short of the largest attendance ever for a cricket game in Australia – and that was a game that actually included Australia. That extraordinary statistic is a clear public demonstration of a major cultural shift.
Indian migration was the main story of the 2021 Census data released in June this year. Since the previous census in 2016, around 1 million people had migrated to Australia, and one in five of these people were from India. In this short five-year timespan India has overtaken both New Zealand and China to become the third largest country of birth for people in Australia, after Australia itself and the United Kingdom.
Melbourne has been the recipient of the majority of this migration. Despite a small hiccup due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Melbourne is projected to overtake Sydney as Australia’s largest city in the next few years, and this growth will be driven by migration from India. Soon people born in India will surpass people born in the United Kingdom as the city’s largest migrant group. This will be an extraordinary transformation, given that at the turn of the century Indians were only Melbourne’s eighth largest migrant group.
Whereas those born in the United Kingdom are mostly an older cohort of people, Indian Australians are below the country’s median age. There is a great symbolism here, a stark changing of the guard as a new young and dynamic community replaces one that is less likely to add to the city’s vibrancy. As India rises toward great power status and the U.K. seems to be in a terminal – and self-inflicted – state of decline, Melbourne is clearly orienting itself in a far more advantageous direction.
Of course, focusing solely on Indian migration misses that Melbourne is also a pan-South Asian city. There was no shortage of Pakistani supporters at the MCG on Sunday evening as well. Pakistani migration to Australia has tripled over the past decade, with the distribution being relatively even between Melbourne and Sydney. Melbourne is also home to half Australia’s Sri Lankan community – a well-established group who were the pioneers of South Asia migration to the country.
One of the other major stories of the 2021 Census was the explosion of the Nepali community. In terms of percentage of growth, Nepalis are the fastest growing community in Australia, and in terms of absolute numbers they have become second only to Indians. Nepali Australians have risen from a small community of just 4,567 people in 2008 to 122,515 by the 2021 Census. Around a quarter of those Nepalis have settled in Melbourne.
While most people may initially notice a culinary transformation in the city through migration, the broader civic participation is potentially even more important (if there can be things more important than South Asian food). A decade ago, current Labor Party MP Andrew Leigh wrote a book called “Disconnected,” an Australian version of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” – his examination of the decline of civil society groups in the United States and its negative implications. Australia looked to be on a similar path. Yet South Asian migrants have been instrumental in reviving many of Melbourne’s ailing cricket clubs and the communal culture that goes with them.
Just as bowling in the U.S. is not solely about the sport itself, cricket in Australia is the same. It is about the social life of a city, and the opportunities people have to include themselves and feel included. South Asians are not just content to watch games like Sunday’s match; they want to play and be involved in the administration of community organizations as well. Helping clubs thrive creates opportunities for everyone, not just South Asians. This has profound and positive knock-on effects for the overall health of the city.
As I followed the response to Sunday’s game in the Australian media and on social media, there was both an awe at the crowd’s enthusiasm, and a celebration of the buzz that Melbourne is capable of creating. The city clearly has no interest in succumbing to the dour defensiveness of the “Cricket Test” — the theory of former U.K. Conservative Party politician Norman Tebbit, who believed that which team migrants supported in cricket reflected their integration into British society. Instead Melbourne saw a kaleidoscope view of how the city will continue to shape itself, and it was as exciting as the game itself.