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Ashes 2021/22

Usman Khawaja, a man and batter at ease with himself

by Taha Hashim 5 minute read

Taha Hashim reflects on Usman Khawaja’s incredible Test comeback.

There was a serenity to Usman Khawaja’s second Test hundred of the week. He laced the drives, swivelled balletically on the pull, swept as if he was going big in the middle overs of a T20. In short, he did that thing batters do when they’ve tapped into the universe and cracked the code: he made it look easy.

The reality, we know, is that it never is, even for the ones who turn batting into art. Fittingly, Khawaja was interviewed on BT by another left-handed stylist after play on day four, and he spoke his truth. “You’re making this game look ridiculously easy,” said David Gower. With a smile came a knowing reply. “I think, David, you know this game’s not easy.”

Khawaja knows what he’s talking about; he’s not had the easiest international career. It was 11 years ago that he strode out at the SCG and pulled Chris Tremlett for four to tell us he belonged in the big time, but it wasn’t till 2015 that he celebrated his first Test ton. He went on to thrive in Australia, but troubles against spin meant he was granted little trust elsewhere; even after an impressive home summer, he didn’t get a game during a tour of India in 2017. In the end, he was forced to play one of the great knocks, a sweltering and grand 141 against Pakistan in October 2018, to show the world that he was a high-class operator with range. A year later, however, he was out of the Test side.

It seemed that the emergence of Marnus Labuschagne at No.3 and other younger options would spell the end of Khawaja’s international career, that his tale was to be one of unfulfilled potential and a talent misused. But even after the noise of a potential return grew loud late last year – he kicked off the Sheffield Shield season with big runs – Khawaja spoke with satisfaction of where he stood. He’d played Test cricket, he wanted to do it again, but he also had other things going on. “I have a lovely family, a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter. I’m really enjoying my life at the moment.”

What’s been clear in the last few days is that we’re watching both a batter and man at ease with himself and his surroundings. Having carried the drinks for the last few weeks, he was forced to fight in the early stages of his first innings on a pitch with uneven bounce, and fortune was on his side when Joe Root failed to hold on after Jack Leach found the outside edge. But instinct kicked in and so did the understanding of a surface familiar to him during his developing years at New South Wales. Eventually, we remembered that we were watching someone who averages more than 50 in Tests at home, someone who’d reeled off an Ashes ton at the SCG four years earlier. He went on to reach three figures in front of his wife and daughter.

In his press conference on Thursday, he talked of “living the Australian dream”, of how his parents had moved from Pakistan to give him a better life. Here he was now, born in Islamabad but putting on a show for Australia. It served a reminder of Khawaja’s standing as a figure of cultural significance; he was introduced to us as the first Muslim to play for Australia and in the last few years he has talked more openly about matters of race and wanting to make the game a more diverse one. Add in his years of captaining Queensland and the image grows of a respected statesman.

It’s hard to not see this comeback as one of perfect timing, of a concoction come good: real-world perspective meeting decades of batting know-how to produce roaring twin tons. Khawaja himself doesn’t know what happens next, whether he’ll even get a chance at Hobart in the fifth Test. For now, he should simply relish the achievements and boxes ticked, soak up the applause and take in the moment. The game isn’t easy, but it gives something back in the end.

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