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Being axed in Mohali might have consigned him permanently to the fringes but Usman Khawaja has worked hard to get another opportunity with Australia
July 31, 2013
There were plenty of casualties from Australia's so-called homework saga in India this year. Shane Watson was one, James Pattinson another, though both only temporarily. Eventually, nobody lost more than Mickey Arthur. But at the time, it looked like being an especially costly episode for Usman Khawaja, one of the four players suspended for the Mohali Test.
Khawaja had not played in Chennai or Hyderabad, but was set to be included in Mohali as Australia searched for runs. When the suspensions were handed down, Khawaja was gutted. Always on the fringes of the national side, he had played only six of a possible 23 Tests since his debut. It had been more than a year since he had worn the baggy green.
Chances at Test cricket don't come around every day. In his absence, Phillip Hughes found some runs late in the series and Steven Smith established his Test batting credentials. When would Khawaja's next opportunity arrive? He is grateful that the answer to that question was an Ashes series just a few months later.
"It was a pretty tough time. I was pretty confident I was going to be playing the next Test match," Khawaja told ESPNcricinfo ahead of the Old Trafford Test. "At the time I didn't totally agree with the punishment, but you have to just get on with it. There was no point in me just moping around.
"The first thing I did the next day was make sure I went out there and trained my absolute guts out. I didn't want to be that guy who was just moping around. It was unfortunate for me, but you move on. It's in the past now. I'm just glad I'm here at the moment and really enjoying my cricket."
The evidence that Khawaja is enjoying his cricket was plain to see at Hove last week. Bowling in the nets, he dismissed the new coach, Darren Lehmann, from three consecutive deliveries with his offbreaks, celebrating as joyously as if he'd just scored the Ashes-winning runs.
Khawaja feels comfortable with Lehmann, who last summer was his state coach at Queensland. In fact, Lehmann's presence with the Bulls was one of the key factors behind Khawaja's move north from New South Wales after the 2011-12 summer. Khawaja didn't want his cricket to stagnate, and Lehmann was the fresh pair of eyes he needed.
|"It was a pretty tough time. I was pretty confident I was going to be playing the next Test match. At the time I didn't totally agree with the punishment, but you have to just get on with it Usman Khawaja on his punishment in India|
"Darren Lehmann was a big reason I moved up," he said. "I'd worked with him a few times. He had come to the academy a few times. He was always awesome, every time I had talked to him he was really good ... He doesn't play any favourites with anyone [as Australia coach], especially me.
"But he's the kind of guy who everyone gets along with. His biggest asset is how good his cricket brain is. He played so many games over the years; you can't buy that sort of experience. I think a lot of the boys are really enjoying it. He's fitted in really well.
"I think Darren has brought the best out of a lot of guys. That's not to say there weren't good times when Mickey was around too, there were plenty, but it's just the kind of guy that Darren is. He makes everyone feel very welcome. Of course, it would be much nicer if we were winning games."
To that end, Khawaja is well aware that his promising starts must be turned into big centuries. It is nearly nine months since he last made a first-class hundred, and on this tour alone he has made 27, 73, 14, 54, 40 and 1. He has never been dismissed inside his first 30 balls in a Test innings, but nor has he turned any of those starts into triple figures.
"You've got to score hundreds, big hundreds, double-hundreds," Khawaja said. "If you get in you want to cash in. I'd be more worried if I was getting out for 40s and 50s and throwing away my wicket. But if they're good enough to get me out, so be it."
His 54 in the second innings at Lord's was a case of the latter, as Joe Root found some sharp turn out of the rough to catch Khawaja's edge. In the first innings, though, it was the former, as Khawaja tried to force the scoring rate and skied a catch to mid-off.
Finding the middle ground between solid defence and attack is Khawaja's challenge. In the past, there has been a perception that he did not rotate the strike enough, that he could be prone to becoming bogged down. At Queensland, Lehmann insisted that Khawaja take a more aggressive batting approach.
"He realises that everyone is a little bit different," Khawaja said. "The way I go about my aggression is different to how he might have gone about it. I think what he was trying to do was to force me to always be positive: even if there was a period of four overs where I might not score, it was okay as long as I was always looking to score runs.
"That's all he wanted. That's what he meant by aggression. It doesn't mean going over the top or playing reverse sweeps like he did. I think that's the thing he always tries to instil in every player, even back home in Queensland to go about things your own way of being positive. It's a much better way of playing cricket. It's bloody hard to just go out there and try to stay in."
Khawaja could also have said it's bloody hard just to stay in the side. David Warner's return from African exile has put the pressure back on Australia's other batsmen, Phillip Hughes, Steven Smith and Khawaja especially. It's all the more reason for Khawaja to score big.
At least he knows that Lehmann, one of the selectors, is well aware of his credentials. Back in January, when Lehmann was still in charge at Queensland and Khawaja was one of his state players, Lehmann was asked about the prospect of Khawaja replacing the newly retired Michael Hussey in Australia's Test side.
"If he gets a good run at it ... and he doesn't have that fear of getting dropped straight away, he'll do well," Lehmann said.
Of course, that was a state mentor talking about one of his own men. Finding the right team to win an Ashes Test can require more cut-throat decisions. And even if Khawaja is dropped before the series is out, he knows better than anyone that the door is never closed.
"It's been a nice little ride, a few ups and downs along the way but that's all part of it," he said. "I'm still here, I still have an opportunity to play for Australia. It was tough being out of the side for quite a while. But at the back of my mind I knew I'd get another opportunity if I kept my head down. That's what kept me going."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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