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A Khawaja sense of security against Pakistan's trial by pace

Last updated on 21 Mar 2022 | 12:57 PM
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A Khawaja sense of security against Pakistan's trial by pace

While Khawaja was dismissed in nervous nineties, he showed composure on multiple levels

For Australia, the tour to Pakistan was crucial on multiple levels, it was their first overseas tour since 2019, it was their first tour in Asian conditions since 2018. It had been so many days, years in fact, since Australia last played in conditions that were alien to them. 

The making of Australia’s Pakistan tour might have begun early but the real catalyst was in Sydney. It wasn’t about the result but about finally finding the right partner for David Warner. Naturally, Warner is built aggressively in the longer formats. 

While the management tried pairing him with multiple talents, they either lacked consistency or skills. But with Usman Khawaja, Australia found both. For the longest time in Australian cricket, Khawaja was a man of multiple talents: he was utilized as a middle-order batter, at No.3, at the top and extensively used in the white-ball formats. 

Prior to 2022, however, the southpaw had opened in only seven Test innings for Australia. But his experience at the top of the order, in conditions that were similar to the ones they faced in 2018 (Middle East) tilted his selection in Pakistan. And the Kangaroos, since then, have not looked back. 

Khawaja – the key for Australia’s Asian lock

With Khawaja at the top of the order, Australia finally procure a sense of security that they have always searched elusively for. In just four innings, including his knock in the third Test on Monday, the 35-year-old batter has already soaked in pressure for over 1000 minutes at the crease. 

Tough pitch, quick wickets at the other end, Khawaja was unperturbed. In conditions that are tough for any overseas batter, the 35-year-old has stood tall. And on Monday, he added a new feather to the existing tale, when the visitors were reduced to 8/2. 

He wasn’t required to just bat big but also was this state of security for Australia’s chase of a Test series win in Pakistan. Khawaja answered those calls with elegance, style and most importantly, technique. When required, he attacked, and in most other circumstances, dead-batted to tire the hosts’ in their pursuit. 

During his long and patient stay at the crease, the Islamabad-born cricketer was rarely threatened and he accessed a wide section of the ground in Lahore. Even when there was the threat of variable bounce, Khawaja remained calm, composed and kept the motor running for the visitors, having a control of 95%. 

While he might have missed a century here in Lahore, his 91 goes a long way in boosting the confidence of the Australian management, especially in a phase where they are in line to tour India – one of the toughest touring places for any country. 

In just seven innings, Khawaja has shown where several of his predecessors have failed – racking up runs while being a sense of security for the rest of the batting unit, all through sheer dedication. Just in Asian conditions, the southpaw has batted 1307 balls, the most for an Australian opener since 2015 and the fifth-most in Australian history.

And Khawaja is just getting started. 

Pakistan pacers and the Lahore pitch

When Pakistan dropped Faheem Ashraf for a specialist seamer in Naseem Shah, there were eyebrows definitely raised. Was pace really going to matter, were the conditions in Lahore really going to back the pacers? 

While there was no definite answer to this, Pakistan clearly felt that strengthening the pace unit was the way to go in Lahore, even if it meant being one batter short. It might still come to haunt them in this Test but they took a well-tested method of success in international cricket – the approach to pick 20 wickets. 

It was evident that the hosts were going all guns blazing with their pace-attack. When Shaheen Afridi got the ball to dip below off the crack against David Warner, the decision to strengthen their pace unit was quickly highlighted. And then, two deliveries later, Shaheen saw the back of Marnus Labuschagne, the Australian No.3’s third duck in Test cricket, all of which have come against Pakistan.

In between the pace troika of Shaheen, Hasan Ali and Naseem Shah – the hosts bowled 38 overs of pace, in which they picked up four wickets, conceding runs at around 2.1 RPO, showing excellent control. Lahore wasn’t all that pace-friendly a wicket, it had something on offer but nothing too extravagant.

The success on day one, the four wickets for the pacers, only showed that the hosts were tireless, stuck brilliantly to their strengths of being deadly accurate. On a pitch that wasn’t definitely easy for batting, it was the Pakistan pacer, Naseem in specific, during the crucial stages that showed great signs of control. 

When Naseem dismissed Steve Smith, it was purely due to his skills, he got the ball swinging back sharply, leaving the best of batters, Smith well trapped in front. And the youngster wasn’t done. Coming around the wicket, he bowled a gem of a delivery, that straightened away from Travis Head, to push Australia on the back foot.

On a day where both runs and wickets were hand to find, the Pakistan pacers made a stunning case that if execution is on point, there might well be something for the pacers. 

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