'Never dreamt I'd play for Australia again' - Khawaja
Usman Khawaja spent the first seven years of his first-class career as a good batsman in search of a breakthrough summer. Then came the nadir of last season, when he feared that a serious knee injury might have ended his career. On Boxing Day 2014, Khawaja had only just started the long road to recovery after a full knee reconstruction, required due to a training mishap when he fell awkwardly attempting a catch and tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Twelve months later, Khawaja is not only back playing cricket, he is back playing for Australia. And he is the team's most in-form batsman. His 144 on Boxing Day against West Indies brings to three the number of consecutive Tests in which Khawaja has now scored centuries, though he missed two games during that period with a hamstring injury. His class has always been apparent, but now Khawaja is playing with a mental freedom that emerged from his dark days.
"It's a funny thing, life, you never know what's going to happen," Khawaja said. "This time last year I probably wasn't in a very good spot. I was just trying to stay positive. I knew I wasn't going to be playing cricket for a while. I wasn't expecting in my wildest dreams that I'd be playing for Australia again and playing a Boxing Day Test match.
"I'm grateful every time I go out and play now. I've been through probably the worst injury you can in sport, in terms of time period out of the game. For me every time I'm out there playing, I love it. I make sure whatever's happening, I'm enjoying it, because you can't play for Australia forever, you can't play cricket forever. You've just got to enjoy it as much as you can."
Throw in the unbeaten 109 that Khawaja made in a BBL match at the MCG last weekend and he has now scored centuries in four consecutive games, and has not been dismissed for less than 100 in any format since late October. Khawaja's return from his hamstring problem in Melbourne could have meant the axe for opener Joe Burns, but instead Shaun Marsh was dropped and Khawaja and Burns enjoyed a 258-run stand that dominated day one.
"I try not to get too far ahead of myself because every time you go out you're on a duck," Khawaja said. "I'll enjoy this moment: a hundred on Boxing Day, my first Boxing Day, a 250-run partnership with Burnsy. I couldn't have asked for a lot more on day one. I think we're both a bit disappointed that we didn't get massive ones but at the end of the day we've done what we needed to do to hopefully set up this first innings for Australia."
Burns fell for 128 and Khawaja for 144 but by stumps Australia were cruising at 3 for 345, an outstanding day's work given that West Indies captain Jason Holder sent them in on a pitch sporting plenty of grass. Khawaja said Holder and debutant Carlos Brathwaite especially had bowled well and nipped the ball around off the seam, although there was little swing, and getting through the first session with only one wicket down was an achievement.
"Early on it was quite tough to bat out there," he said. "We found it really hard to penetrate the infield in the first session. At one point I thought it was my bat - I thought I had a broken bat. But it was just the wicket was slow, they bowled pretty well in the first session. When we came out after lunch even after the first over we realised the wicket had quickened up. That second session we got a lot of runs."
The challenging conditions made it all the more pleasing for Australia's selectors that Burns proved himself as a Test opener, his 180-ball century justifying their faith in choosing him ahead of Marsh. Burns had scored a hundred to start the summer but that came in Australia's second innings against New Zealand at the Gabba, when they had a huge lead and a licence to attack. This was a much more typical Test opener's innings.
"Batting day one of a Test match is obviously a lot different to third innings," Burns said. "I think when they bowled in good areas it was quite tough work as well. That's the satisfying thing. We went through some long periods where we didn't score too many runs. But just to hold them off, and pick and choose our moments when we were looking to attack.
"The hundred I made in Brisbane was a lot different to the hundred I made today... It's two ends of the spectrum. To back up the performance from Brisbane and to go out today and make another hundred, it's really satisfying. My job is to do that week in, week out."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale