Five years ago, Usman Khawaja made his debut at a grim moment for Australian cricket.
His first Test innings was at the SCG against England in the New Year's Test of 2011. The Barmy Army dominated the atmosphere, England's cricketers dominated the scoreboard, and in the stands James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, was making his first gestures towards constituting the Argus Review in the wake of what would be the third innings defeat of that Ashes series.
In that prevailing mood of gloom, Khawaja's handy first-up innings of 37 was praised in the manner a desert wanderer might welcome an oasis. Yes, Khawaja played well, most notably firing off a ripping pull shot from his very first ball, but over time he was bogged down and ultimately fell sweeping Graeme Swann just before rain arrived. Even so, Khawaja was called upon to speak to the press afterwards, and remarked "I had so much fun out there".
Three coaches, three captains and 20 Khawaja Tests later, Australian cricket was again at a difficult juncture, this time in Adelaide. Khawaja was no longer the starry-eyed youth, but an established player needing to do better. Before play on day two, Sutherland told ABC Radio that he and the board had encouraged the selectors to push for youth even before former chairman Rod Marsh chose to resign.
That made Khawaja one of three experienced members in the top six, alongside David Warner and Steven Smith. He was thus commissioned with the task of minding three young debutants - Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Nic Maddinson. The passage of time turns debutants into older salts, pupils into teachers and foot soldiers into officers. While most eyes were on Renshaw, Handscomb and Maddinson, it was Khawaja who grew noticeably in their presence.
For too many of the intervening years, Khawaja has been given to moments that betrayed his obvious talent with lapses in concentration or work ethic - a slight as much perceived as real. He appeared to have made a quantum leap last summer with a quartet of Test hundreds, but a dire tour of Sri Lanka followed by a costly dropping of the guard in Hobart raised those old questions once more.
When the final morning began at Bellerive, a former teammate could tell from the boundary that Khawaja seemed in an absent-minded mood, his feet not moving in concert with his bat. Duly, a flat-footed swish and edge behind ushered a violent end to the match. Afterwards, coach Darren Lehmann pointedly omitted Khawaja from his list of players guaranteed their places.
What followed was a sequence of impressive maturity. First, Khawaja led Queensland to victory over South Australia in a Sheffield Shield match while making a crisp first-innings hundred. Second, he accepted a move into the slips cordon by snaffling a sharp chance from Dean Elgar.
But third, and most memorably, he adapted to the impromptu commission of opener - via David Warner's tardiness and Faf du Plessis' opportunism - to survive till stumps when the ball hooped around in the evening on day one. He shepherded Renshaw expertly, even as the 20-year-old showed his own excellent judgment around the off stump. Renshaw did a decent job to blunt the new ball before edging a good one from Kyle Abbott on the second afternoon, but he had a willing ally in Khawaja.
A notion discussed by numerous former Australian players over the past few weeks - of batting disasters - has been that of earning the right to play the way you want to play. A batsman's natural game is only useful when allied to methods less so, geared at surviving tough periods to prosper later. Khawaja did not divert from what his instincts told him to do in Hobart, to the team's cost. But in Adelaide he showed mighty forbearance, playing an innings for others to build around.
Consecutive stands of 137 with Steven Smith and 99 with Handscomb brought a level of solidity to Australia that had not been witnessed since the Sri Lanka Tests began. If he played some part in the run out that wrecked Smith's innings, he then atoned by making sure that Handscomb was able to get going in Tests. Like Khawaja, Handscomb has a method far from textbook, but the self-knowledge to make it work.
While they motored along together, it was possible to glimpse a brighter future for Australian batting. For the first time since David Warner's partnership with Shaun Marsh early in the first Test, it was also possible to see furrowed South African brows. It was during this time that Khawaja went to three figures, raising his bat and head skywards to mark the moment. Five Test hundreds have now flowed form his bat, none better than this.
One more episode remained for Khawaja to negotiate when Abbott burst the second new ball through Handscomb. Neither Maddinson nor Matthew Wade could make much of the movement on offer under floodlights, the former showing a defensive porousness that will need significant tightening if he is to prosper at this level. At Wade's dismissal, edging a seamer, Khawaja reeled away in frustration, for he could see another collapse in the offing.
But he was able to find support from Mitchell Starc, the man who had hobbled through for the winning runs against New Zealand in the corresponding match last year, and who like Khawaja has graduated near enough to senior player status due to the recent raft of team changes. Together they forged through to stumps, putting Australia ahead of the game with the chance to prosper further.
Like his debut, Khawaja has found himself batting for a team in tribulation. Unlike his debut, he has responded with something of genuine substance. He has earned the right to respect.