Australia v England, 5th Test, Sydney, 1st day January 3, 2011

Composed Khawaja conquers debut nerves

Usman Khawaja's start in Test cricket was stylish and breathtaking, a 24-year-old with enough faith in his game to express himself so beautifully, so quickly

On a day of nerves at the SCG hardly any were felt by Usman Khawaja, the debutant who strode like a veteran. The ground's regulars were collectively so nervous that the stands could have shuddered as well when he walked out straight after lunch. If Khawaja sensed that he didn't belong at Test level the feeling lasted a delivery.

A push for two to midwicket from his first ball, a composed start in itself, was followed by the most convincing statement that he was a young man made for a spot in Australia's top six. Khawaja has come in for Ricky Ponting and like his predecessor, who in his long-lasting prime delivered regular early punches, the newcomer leaned back and pulled his second delivery for four.

It was stylish and breathtaking, a 24-year-old with enough faith in his game to express himself so beautifully, so quickly. Chris Tremeltt is not express but he briefly seemed like a medium pacer as Khawaja forced himself back to pull and swivel, his bat appearing to move quickest when he dropped it after contact and it fell by his side. He didn't bother to run and tried not to admire the shot too much. Sensibly, and equally as importantly, he left his next ball outside off stump.

The pattern was repeated during his assured 37 as he surged forward and then slowed down, exhibiting the type of thoughtful top-order batting which modern players raised on Twenty20 struggle to understand. Khawaja hasn't turned out in a lot of short-form cricket and it shows. While Phillip Hughes and Steven Smith carry ungainly techniques and unstable temperaments, Khawaja has already worked on mastering his with a baggy green as the ultimate reward. A pull so early from Hughes and Smith would have looked irresponsible, but from Khawaja it was perfectly in tune.

So while his mother Fauzia clenched her hands together and struggled to watch, and his father Tariq was too tense to move, their son was free of tension. "I was most emotional when I got my baggy green in the morning [from Mark Taylor]," he said. "After I got that I calmed down a little." He even lay in the dressing room and tried to sleep for 20 minutes during lunch.

With a flick off his toes to square leg for four and a cut for two off Tremlett, he raced to 15 off eight balls. On the radio Kerry O'Keeffe tried to remember the name of Australia's old No.3. "Was it Rod Ponting," he wondered.

There was a danger the fireball would burn out quickly but Khawaja, who is Australia's first Muslim Test representative, is not one to get carried away. He played out a maiden from Tremlett to regain a five-day tempo in an act of patience that was as instructive as his early rush. Here was a debutant ready for the elevation, not one promoted ahead of time.

Of course Khawaja, who moved from Islamabad when he was three, is more than a cricketer. He thinks being born in Pakistan and playing for Australia is more significant than his religion, "which is quite personal to me". "You can make something out of anything," he said of his history-making heritage. "You can say Michael Beer is the first person to stick his tongue out 24/7 to play for Australia."

It may be that Khawaja holds this key spot in the order even if Ponting holds off retirement and returns from his finger surgery in Australia's next series against Sri Lanka in August. If he does, the early signs were extremely encouraging.

When England readjusted, taking out the short leg and aiming for outside off stump, the task became tougher for Khawaja. There were a couple of edges, but he used soft hands to take pace off the ball and they dropped short of the slips. Mostly he stood tall, offering a wide bat to defuse the sideways movement. There was strength in his defence and attack.

There was plenty to concern Khawaja, with the side lapsing after a solid start, and the cloudy, often rainy, conditions adding extra danger. He didn't fluster and waited for balls to steer through gully, get off strike with a single, or leave. Tim Bresnan delivered one short and Khawaja stepped back and pulled it before he aimed a loose drive behind point in the air. Both times after finding the boundary he left the next delivery.

Showers were about to arrive when Khawaja was faced with the challenge of Graeme Swann's offspin. Having deflected so many hazards, he decided on a sweep and the top edge lobbed to fine leg. As he reached the dressing room the players headed off for a rain break that brought an early end to play, increasing the costliness of his first real mistake.

Australia finished at 4 for 134 and Khawaja was sad to finish so soon. "You never want to get out, especially the last ball of the day," he said. "It's unfortunate, I would have loved to have been 37 not out."

He received a text on the eve of the game from Michael Clarke telling him to enjoy the most special day of his life. "As soon as I was out there it felt like the best thing ever," Khawaja said. "I was out there playing for Australia and the crowd was right behind me."

Often a batsman posts a score in the 30s and it means nothing. On a miserable day Khawaja showed enough in 122 minutes for Australian fans to be excited about the future. There is much for him to learn, but already there is so much to like.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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