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Feature

Khawaja unfazed by 'special' return to Pakistan: 'I'm not out here to prove anything'

"There is a bit of sentiment, definitely, but once the game starts you don't really think about that stuff"

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
28-Feb-2022
Usman Khawaja is aware of the significance of his return to Pakistan as part of the first Australia Test team to visit the country in 24 years, but won't be treating the opening contest in Rawalpindi, close to where he was born in Islamabad, as any different to the multitude of other matches he has played.
Khawaja last visited the country with his family in 2010 and after a sliding doors moment during the recent Ashes, he returns as one of Australia's incumbent openers, so could walk out on the opening morning of the game on Friday.
Had it not been for Travis Head's positive Covid-19 result before the Sydney Test in January, Khawaja may well have been carrying the drinks at the start of the series. Instead he scored twin centuries at the SCG which left him undroppable, so the selectors shifted him to open alongside David Warner at the expense of Marcus Harris.
He spoke with great eloquence on Monday, Australia's first full day in the country, and answered a couple of questions in Urdu during a 30-minute press conference that almost became a life story. But, as he said, once the game starts and there's a bowler running in nothing else matters.
"Any game is just a game of cricket," he said. "I've played it for such a long time now, been out of the team, now back in the team, [so] every game for me for Australia is just a bonus. I'm not out here to prove anything…got lot a lot of things in my life which are great that aren't cricket related so for me it's not the be-all and end-all. Just love playing cricket, love being competitive.
"The fact I'm playing in Pakistan is special, don't me wrong, it's very special, something I've always want to do. I grew up down the road. There is a bit of sentiment, definitely, but once the game starts you don't really think about that stuff. More worried about the ball coming down and everything else going on."
Khawaja's mother and father are unable to travel from Australia for the series and the strict security around the team means he won't be able to meet the many family and friends he has in the country. He expects a warm response from the crowds - although knows they'll want Australia to lose - and is grateful how the stars have aligned for his chance at this experience.
"I'm sure I'll look back on it and think that was pretty cool, the first tour of Pakistan after so many years, being born in Pakistan," he said. "As fate would have it everything has worked out beautifully - touchwood, I don't hurt myself before the Test match - so things have worked out really well, but it's hard to become too reminiscent at the time because you've still got to play a game of cricket."
Although it is a considerable time since Australia have played in Asia (they haven't toured overseas for a Test series anywhere since 2019), Khawaja produced one of his finest Test performances when these sides met in the UAE in 2018. It was part of an upturn in Khawaja's record on the subcontinent - which also included ODI success in India - after a difficult start where he did not pass 26 in his first nine Test innings in Asia.
"I took the onus on myself that I wasn't going to listen to anyone else about how I need to bat on the subcontinent," he said. "I tried that, failed. So I made sure I did learn from it. It wasn't just a one-off in Dubai, have done it time and time again for different teams. It was a lot of work that went into it. If I didn't have those experiences I probably wouldn't be able to develop my game. In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh I probably didn't understand what I need to do in those conditions."
In terms of preparing for the opening Test, Australia's lead-in is short even by the standards of modern touring and the impacts of the pandemic. They will have their first training session on Tuesday, just three days before the series begins, although they did tailor their practice in Melbourne to subcontinent conditions with spin nets and a focus on reverse swing.
"We've been on a lot of subcontinent tours where we've had two weeks preparation and still not done great, so maybe this is the way to go," Khawaja said. "We'll just have to wait and see. There's only so much you can train before a Test anyway, so I'm actually quite looking forward to a short build-up this time and seeing how it goes. Could be a blessing in disguise, who knows, or it might not."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo