England v Australia, 3rd Investec Test, Old Trafford July 31, 2013

Khawaja rebuilds from the wreckage

Being axed in Mohali might have consigned him permanently to the fringes but Usman Khawaja has worked hard to get another opportunity with Australia

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 here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cameron on August 1, 2013, 7:26 GMT

    I don't understand the obsession with averages? Many good players have been picked and prospered with ordinary first class averages and many average more in test cricket than at first class level. What's the big deal with his 30 average? @2mikegattings I think the point you make about his in and out of the side/series is precisely why he might have had some troubles finding his feet. His technique looks good, they should give him a run. On spin - Swann makes a lot of very very good batsman struggle because he is the best spinner playing at the moment. It's no shame nor technical flaw to find Swann difficult and he played him really well in the 2nd innings at Lords. There's many factors that indicate a players ability and averages mask innings that really count.

  • James on August 1, 2013, 7:03 GMT

    First things first, I wish Khawaja well and hope he has a fruitful career. Secondly, for the life of me i can't believe just how many English supporters follow Australian cricket, i don't mind it. But if all you are going to do is bag,bag and bag Australian cricket, well, can you just please go away?? Especially Salazar and 2mikegattings, follow english cricket.

  • David on August 1, 2013, 5:44 GMT

    Actually salazar555 I think you are wrong about someone with an average of 30, after 6 or 7 tests not getting a look-in in the old days. In fact in Australia's glory days each of Martyn, Langer, Hayden and Steve Waugh had that sort of average in the first stage of their careers (now that I think about it, so did Boon). in fact, after 6 Tests Ricky Ponting averaged 33. Mind you, I have my doubts about Khawaja too, but his first few tests are no worse than plenty of others.

  • mekaal on August 1, 2013, 5:44 GMT


    Heading into the 1989 Ashes series, Steve Waugh's batting average was 30.52 from 26 Tests.

  • Dummy4 on August 1, 2013, 5:40 GMT

    He gets an opportunity with people like Lehmann his own state coach its best thing for him. Lehmann knows him best and how to get possible results out of him.27, 73, 14, 54, 40 and 1, he can get hundred in old trafford. But he has to play according to the pitch and fielding gaps.

  • Dummy4 on August 1, 2013, 5:21 GMT

    Technically Khawaja is the best Australian Batsman. Mentally, he is perhaps the weakest. Too much is asked of him, too many times he was thrown out, and replaced with players like Shwan Marsh and Philip Hughes. If Australia gets a decent opening Partnership, Khawaja will score a century may be a double century.

  • Geeva on August 1, 2013, 4:53 GMT

    I always see that ppl lobby for Khawaja to be in the team..look at his 1st class record in Aus it looks average..Cowan and warner look much better.could only manage 50 at lords on a rather flat surface...test career should be over by the oval...SA are aus next away series...look for other combos

  • John on August 1, 2013, 4:37 GMT

    He looks well-organized in his technique, but the question is his mindset. A man who is about to be recalled to the side fails to complete a team assignment? Someone whose side is in trouble and needs a long innings gets out to the shot he played in the first innings at Lord's? Those are failures of temperament and it's really hard to teach that.

    It's how many you get, not how you make them. Maybe he should spend some time watching film of Graeme Smith batting. Perhaps the ugliest-looking technique I've ever seen, but 8753 test runs, average 48.62, 26 centuries tell their own story. A bit more Smith in his batting wouldn't do Khawaja any harm at all.

  • Tom on August 1, 2013, 3:50 GMT

    Expectations have been sky high ever since he substituted at number 3 when Ponting broke his finger in the last Ashes series. He has pretty much never failed to disappoint and already has a reputation as a nearly man, all promise and no guts. The selectors clearly don't have faith in him: he has played 7 games in 5 different series. Good technique against pace but seems to lack any kind of composure against spin. His connection with Boof at Queensland may be what keeps him in the side for now. England know he tends to crack under pressure and will be sure to keep him in a vice like grip.

  • kieran on August 1, 2013, 2:39 GMT

    Not once, since the debacle of "Homework Gate", has Khawaja said he was in the wrong for not completing a team assignment. But he has repeatedly noted how disappointed he was in the punishment handed down. In the second innings at Lords he looked very comfortable against the quicks (as always), but he was a walking wicket against Swann, playing back to nearly every ball it was only a matter of time. He was lucky to get to 50. I remain unconvinced of his suitability to test cricket, as with Hughes.