Lighter and fitter, Khawaja ready to burst Asia hoodoo
CANBERRA (92 News) – Usman Khawaja made his first impact in the quadrangular series by hitting 101* in a thrilling last-ball win for Australia A in a bid to establish himself as an all-conditions, all-formats batsman.
Among those who played the most recent Test for Australia, only Steve Smith made his debut before Usman Khawaja. And yet, while Smith has played 64 Test matches since his debut in 2010, Khawaja only has a little more than half of those: 33 games out of the 83 that Australia have played since he burst onto the scene in January 2011. Inducted into the Test arena as a flashy 24-year-old, Khawaja lost his place after the 2013 away Ashes as he failed to manage a half-century in his first 10 innings. He earned a recall in November 2015 for the first Test of the summer and made an immediate impact by blasting 174 runs against New Zealand in Brisbane. He followed that knock with three more centuries on the bounce, against New Zealand and the Windies.While Wildermuth's knock provided the finishing touch to the innings, it was Khawaja who played the anchor's role from the opener's spot and stayed on till the end even with wickets falling around him. He conceded that it was "nice to be part of a winning team". "There’s nothing worse than scoring a hundred and losing. You always feel like you could have done more," Khawaja said, adding, "[There is] no greater feeling than winning cricket games on the last ball. That’s probably what stood out for me the most."
However, even after scoring six centuries and four half-centuries in his last 24 Tests, Khawaja still has to prove his credentials to be considered for selection for the upcoming Test series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates owing to his indifferent record in Asia, where he averages 14.62 from nine innings. And so, the 31-year-old, who has 2226 Test runs and 469 one-day international runs, finds himself in India, playing a quadrangular series with Australia A, which also involves two Indian teams and South Africa A. After managing 13 and 10 in the first two matches against India A and South Africa A respectively, the left-handed batsman from Queensland found form with an unbeaten 101 in his team's last league game, against India B, and starred alongside Jack Wildermuth in a thrilling final-ball victory. Chasing a revised total of 247 from 40 overs after rain interrupted proceedings with Australia 132/4 in 24.2 overs in reply to India B's 276/6, Khawaja and Wildermuth (62 off 42) shared an unbroken 93-run stand in just 11.2 overs to race to the target. Things got tricky towards the end, with the visitors requiring 19 runs from the final over and five off the last ball, but Wildermuth kept his nerve and hit the last ball for six over long-on to seal a berth in the final for the Australians, where they meet the same opponent on Wednesday, 29 August. "It’s a great win, we had a lot of fun," Khawaja said after the match. "Not many times you get in the last ball, you’re out there, and you hit a six. Jack hit a six to win the game, it’s an unreal feeling."
While it would have been expected of Khawaja, a seasoned pro batting on 101, to take his side home in the final over, that a young fast bowler, who only just made his international debut against Zimbabwe in July, did it with some fearsome lower-order hitting came as an icing on the cake. "Jack’s a really good striker," Khawaja remarked. "With five overs to go, the spinner came on, and I said to him, ‘You probably need to go here, it’s your side’, so I took a single and to his credit, he hit the spinner for a couple of sixes and just took it on and batted beautifully."
There might be that perception out there about me in India, when I came last series, in the Aussie A series in Chennai, I think I was the highest run-scorer for Australia
While the century helped Australia win, personally for Khawaja, it came as further proof of his ability to score runs in the sub-continent. "There might be that perception out there about me in India, but even when I came last series, in the Aussie A series in Chennai, I think I was the highest run-scorer for Australia in the one-dayers," he said. (He was the second-highest run-scorer; Joe Burns scored two more runs than Khawaja's 267 at 66.75 with a century and two half-centuries. "I’ve always liked coming over to India and playing cricket here. I enjoy the white-ball stuff too, because there’s a lot of reward for your shots here. It’s a little bit different because there’s a fair bit more spin involved than back home. But that’s always a nice challenge, a bit different," he added.
Now fitter than ever – he lost seven kilograms in the five months since the South Africa tour in March – Khawaja, who had expressed disappointment at his exclusion from the ODIs against England in June, is countering claims of him not doing much behind the scenes. Conceding that his weight had earlier led to injury-related problems, Khawaja said his body is now feeling 'really good'. "It’s very rare for an opening batsman to be there, right at the end," he said. "The majority of the running and sprinting a lot is done in the last 10 overs, so … it makes it tougher, but I felt really good. It’s always been a thing for me, my hamstring and stuff after I did my ACL. It’s taken me a good three years to start to feel good again."