Lehmann's backing gave me confidence - Khawaja
If Usman Khawaja has looked calm since returning to Australia's Test team this summer, there is a reason for it. And not just because he keeps piling up centuries though, of course, that helps. After completing his 140 against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve, his fourth consecutive first-innings hundred in Tests, Khawaja said that a reassuring chat with coach Darren Lehmann at the start of the season contributed to his success.
Khawaja's recall came more than two years after he had last played Test cricket, on the 2013 Ashes tour when Lehmann had just been installed as the new coach. When he was cut following the Chester-le-Street Test it was the third time he had been axed from Australia's Test team, on each occasion after a run of three Tests. It was not until the first Test at the Gabba this summer that a Test ton finally arrived.
"It's hard to put a finger on one thing - I'm not sure if there is one thing," Khawaja said after play on the second day in Wellington. "But I always felt when I first played for Australia that I was sort of playing for my spot a little bit. I never really felt like I was in the team, felt like I was sort of looking over my shoulder.
"This time it came around, I scored a hundred first game and that sort of relieved the pressure a little bit. But even before I played that first game, Boof [Darren Lehmann] sort of had a chat to me and just told me to relax. He said I'd get a fair crack at it. So that kind of helped too.
"It's just been a really relaxed atmosphere. It's what you want when you're playing at the highest level. Because there's enough pressure and whatever stuff goes on around it, you just want to get into the best position and best head-space possible. It helps that we've played some pretty decent cricket since I've come back, we've won a lot of games which always helps."
During his first few goes at Test cricket Khawaja was sometimes viewed, perhaps unfairly, as too laid-back; there was a perception that he didn't work hard enough. But underneath there was always a certain amount of tension that affected his game: too often he found himself bogged down at the crease.
Not so in his latest incarnation as a Test batsman. Not only has Khawaja now made successive first-innings scores of 174, 121, 144 and 140, he has done his scoring at a much quicker tempo. The real Khawaja is finally shining through, and at the Basin Reserve his class was on display as he picked gaps seemingly at will, scoring all around the ground and striking 25 fours out of his 140 runs.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this century, compared to those he scored in Australia this summer, was that this one came in challenging conditions against a ball that, at least initially, was moving around off the pitch. Rarely did Khawaja play and miss outside off stump, instead leaving the ball effectively, and waited for the scoring opportunities to come in his areas.
"I wouldn't say it swung massively yesterday but it did a bit off the deck which made it tough," Khawaja said. "It probably swung more today with the new ball. I was only out there for four overs with the new ball but it felt like it was swinging more today than yesterday.
"The wicket felt decent yesterday afternoon when I was there and it felt decent today. If you put it in the right spot enough times there's still chances. And you saw chances throughout the whole day. Some of our players chanced their arm and got away with it and that happens. I still think there's enough in this deck to create chances. You need a little bit of luck on your side today as well."
One major piece of good fortune for the Australians came late on the first afternoon, when Adam Voges was bowled off a wrongly called no-ball delivered by Doug Bracewell. Voges made the most of his chance and batted right through day two to finish on 176 not out, meaning he had still not been dismissed in Tests since Adelaide in November. His 168-run stand with Khawaja was key to Australia taking control of the Test.
"Almost faultless, the way he went about it," Khawaja said of Voges. "He batted very sensibly, patiently at the start, a lot of good shots straight to fielders, didn't get frustrated with it, batted the whole day. The way he's been batting lately it honestly feels like he's not going to get out sometimes. He's making hundreds and big hundreds, which is important for the team."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale