January 3, 2011

Sweet Fifteen

He awoke a Test cricketer, and for the rest of the day being awake felt dreamier than the deepest sleep

He awoke a Test cricketer, and for the rest of the day being awake felt dreamier than the deepest sleep. His first ball brought his first runs, a tidy tuck off his thigh pad. His second ball was wider and announced his first boundary: a perfectly middled pull stroke from outside off stump, which takes some doing, audacious yet safe, which takes some explaining.

Usman Khawaja’s third ball was his first dot ball, gloves flung high and away from strife. Seventh ball, a roll of the wrists and a clip through square leg, heralded his first all-along-the-ground boundary. On his eighth ball he unfurled his first cut shot, chopping it down straight, the ball rebounding high off the wicket and zigzagging away. That took him to 15 and prompted the day’s first so-crazy-it’s-worth-asking question: when did an Australian cricketer last begin his Test lifetime with 15 runs timed so sweetly or gathered so blissfully?

On his ninth ball he blocked one, another first. Successful negotiation of his 16th ball marked his first maiden over. Richie Benaud, meanwhile, was savouring his first eyeful of Khawaja in the batting flesh. Khawaja was 20 not out when Benaud began invoking the giant-booted maestros of yesteryear, wondering aloud “if Australia’s just found another one”.

Alas, by that stage Khawaja was already slightly muzzled by England’s back-of-a-length bowling. He got out dumb, outfoxed, for 37, accepting an opposition dare to sweep over a too-close fieldsman’s head and dollying the ball into said fieldsman’s hands.

But those first 15 … Khawaja choked the bat handle, hands down low, hands that went limp and loose whenever a ball caught the bat’s edge, as if he knew the edge was coming, as if by clairvoyance, and as the ball thudded safely to ground and through the slips cordon for runs you couldn’t be certain whether the edge was accidental or not. A bunch of scoreless deliveries all in a row held no fear. A false stroke or two induced no heart flutter. He played and missed at one ball from Tim Bresnan and pursed his lips, then maintained his pursed-lip pose for a full 10 seconds. An anxious debutant might try to hide that. Not Khawaja.

Only 15, I hear you say. But these 15, as sure as anything is sure in cricket, were the first 15 of many.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country