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Usman Khawaja and the ‘almost perfect’ homecoming

Last updated on 06 Mar 2022 | 12:24 PM
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Usman Khawaja and the ‘almost perfect’ homecoming

On Sunday, Khawaja was a whisker away from turning his homecoming to Pakistan into a perfect one

Be honest -  your heart sank today, didn’t it? When Usman Khawaja, agonizingly, fell three runs short of what would have been the perfect homecoming. The most wholesomest of wholesome moments taken away from Uzzie, and every single one of us, just like that. 

Ah, that reverse-sweep. That damned reverse-sweep. Of all moments, it HAD to betray him when he was a whisker away from scoring a dream ton in the country where he was born. How? Why? Sport is cruel. 

No, don’t blame his shot selection. Up until that very moment, Khawaja had deployed the reverse just about perfectly. Three attempts, two of which were divine boundaries. We’d all have raved about his ‘audacity’ had it reached the ropes and helped him bring up his 11th Test century. What happened was just a cruel twist of fate. 

Either way, now that the dust has settled, let us look at what actually unfolded instead of spending the day bemoaning the non-century. 

Let us revisit and celebrate the 97 from the bat of Usman Khawaja that was almost perfection. ‘Almost’ only because of the fortuitous drop early in his innings. But we’ll ignore that. It was, after all, a rare moment of good fortune in a career that’s been cursed by bad luck. 

First, some context.

Khawaja entered the match with his position as an opener (a make-shift one) far from secure. Prior to today he’d only opened 8 times in Tests, and he’d taken Marcus Harris’ place on the back of the twin-hundreds he scored in Sydney batting in the middle-order. His previous assignment as an opener did not go according to plan, with him registering scores of 6 and 11 in the fifth Ashes Test. Despite his experience, the jury was still out.

He also entered the game carrying the baggage of being a ‘home bully’. Numbers justified the nickname too, as prior to this ongoing Rawalpindi Test, he’d averaged 28.69 in 37 innings outside Australia. The marathon, match-saving 141 in Dubai, if anything, was an anomaly. 

On top of all this he had a 476-run deficit staring right at him. Before batting he spent 162 overs on the field watching the Pakistani batters have a glorified two-day net session - departing cheaply would have been deeply embarrassing as much as anything.

Now, the actual knock.

When Khawaja is in the zone, he flows. When he’s on, he just makes batting look so incredibly easy. On his good days, there is an almost-spiritual rhythm about his batting that makes him a viewer’s delight. 

Today was not just one of his good days - it was right up there as one of his best.

Not really in terms of difficulty, for undoubtedly the conditions were unfairly tilted in favor of the batters, but certainly in terms of how comfortable he’s looked at this level, particularly away from home. 

Khawaja began his innings supremely confident. Having to negate a handful of overs in fading light late in the day is an opener’s nightmare, but the four balls the southpaw faced kinda served as a sneak-peak into the crystal clear gameplan and thought process of his. 

While most batters would be content with dead-batting deliveries late in the day to get through to stumps unscathed, Khawaja did not pass at the opportunities to score, collecting 5 runs, 4 of them coming via deft steers through the off-side. 

These 4 balls he faced under lights late on Day 2 foreshadowed the happenings on Day 3. 

Not passing a single opportunity to score, Khawaja metamorphosed into a bundle of intent as he struck a four every 10.6 balls, piercing the Pakistan bowling like a hot knife through butter.  He kept finding the ropes at such an astounding frequency that at one point, shortly before lunch, he’d scored nearly twice as much as Warner. Talk about role reversal. 

To put into context how ridiculous a rhythm Khawaja was in on Sunday, there have been only three other innings in his entire career where he’s struck more fours. In other words, Khawaja’s 97 in Rawalpindi featured more fours than 7 of his 10 Test tons, 4 of which are 140+ scores. 

But the 97 on Sunday was so much more than just boundary hitting. Khawaja manipulated the field masterfully by unleashing his full arsenal. 

The occasional reverse and conventional sweeps kept the spinners in check, but he also used his feet effectively to put them off their lengths. His go-to mantra was to stay back and play off the back foot, and it was a plan that worked effectively as it allowed him to not only block with conviction, but access the off-side. 60% of the runs Khawaja scored against spin (32/53) came on the off-side. 

Hanging on the back foot in the sub-continent, as Warner found out, is indeed risky and might be fatal on more lively wickets, but on the day, Khawaja found the perfect method to excel. 

The only thing missing was a hundred next to his name, something he truly deserved. If only he’d scored three more runs……

As sweet as a century would have been, though, the immediate impact of this 97, on both Khawaja and Australia, cannot be emphasized enough. 

In the context of this game, Khawaja’s knock has set-up the best imaginable platform for the middle-order batters, and has put Australia in a position where they could even potentially push for an unlikely win on the final day. In the bigger picture on the batting front, meanwhile, it has enabled the visitors to begin the tour in the most ideal fashion and has put to bed the debate about what the team’s opening pair should be. 

As someone who has been guilty of never backing up special performances, Usman Khawaja badly needed this, especially after following up his twin hundreds at the SCG with a pair of failures in Hobart.

Five innings in, Khawaja’s second-wind as a Test cricketer has already blown us away. Our hearts might have sank the moment he botched the reverse-sweep on 97, but there is certainly plenty of warmth in knowing that a player that never got his dues is finally starting to take center stage. 

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