Usman Khawaja’s latest Test chapter is turning into something special
Taha Hashim reports from Rawalpindi, where Usman Khawaja fell just short of what would’ve been a stirring century.
It wasn’t to be. After those remarkable twin tons at the SCG in January, a comeback to remember in the city he’d grown up in, Usman Khawaja was on for another homecoming special – this time in the country of his birth. But just three runs away from an 11th Test hundred, the left-hander erred: a reverse-sweep off Nauman Ali’s left-arm spin saw him glove the ball and present short leg with a simple grab.
While the umpire initially failed to raise the finger, a review cleared up any confusion. Khawaja trudged off and Pakistan, on another torrid day for the bowlers at Rawalpindi, had something to celebrate.
Yes, there was no fairy tale celebration, but this was still another fine knock in Khawaja’s latest Test chapter. Recalled for the recent Ashes series at home after more than two years in exile, he didn’t get a go until Travis Head tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the fourth Test, paving the way for a game at No.5. Another chance, at the age of 35, was there. And how he took it. When Head returned, Khawaja had to stay. Marcus Harris was left out at the top of the order, and up Khawaja went to punch gloves with David Warner.
It’s a partnership that makes a whole lot of sense for this Australian side, particularly in conditions they’ve never experienced before. Two experienced heads, tons all over the place, and a relationship that goes back to when they were just two boys knocking it around in Sydney. Fittingly, there was something childlike to the way the pair batted in an enthralling morning session on Sunday: they went for it. The shots came out, against both the quicks and spinners, and Australia’s first-innings score flew. Thirty-two overs brought 133 runs at a run rate above four.
The early battle with the Shahs – Shaheen and Naseem – was electric. The two young guns brought some attitude, beat the bat and went short. But Khawaja and Warner soaked up all that youthful exuberance and offered their own hits. Khawaja showed that his pull shot was in good order when he took his eyes off a Naseem bouncer but still managed to send the ball low and for four. The 19-year-old struck Warner’s arm, following up the delivery with a stand-off, but the batter wasn’t riled. A smile was the response. Even after a body blow, Warner was in control.
Khawaja had some luck. A loose drive in the twenties off Shaheen called Fawad Alam into action at gully, but the catch went down. He wasn’t perturbed: the next ball was clipped through the leg side, and a drive to the left of extra cover made it back-to-back beauts off the left-arm quick. When Sajid Khan’s offies came into the equation, the feet moved quickly down the ground for a thumping four. The most adventurous shot of the day was saved for Naseem, though. Out came the short ball again and instead of a pull, Khawaja backed away and sent an upper cut over third man. So much fun.
There was another drop when Mohammad Rizwan failed to hold on standing up to the stumps, and Khawaja did eventually calm down. Seventy off 104 – where he sat at lunch – was followed by a more relaxed tempo in the middle session as Warner left him for 68. Still, the century seemed as if it was on its way; born in Islamabad, now back in Pakistan as an Australian, this would’ve been special. “I would’ve loved a hundred out here,” came the admission after play, though he still had perspective. “I wasn’t even in the Australian team a few months ago, so I’m very grateful to be here.”
The resurgence continues. Five Test innings since his return have brought 352 runs at an average of 88, and he’s up and running in a series against a side he thrives against. Nine hits against Pakistan have brought six 50+ scores, including his most skilful knock, that masterful 141 at Dubai back in 2018. The average as an opener is sitting pretty as well (74.75). Sure, this pitch is a major caveat – we’ve seen just six wickets across 235 overs – and tougher challenges surely await in Karachi and Lahore. But add in the sense of a man who looks firmly in control of his game, and you can’t escape the feeling: a Pakistani century is on its way.