Analysis

Usman Khawaja raises the roof amid groundswell of support

Who knows when his next Test will come, but he will always have today

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
06-Jan-2022
There have been times in the last few days when a roof at the SCG would have been handy. It would have been lifted by the ovation given when Usman Khawaja ran through to bring up his ninth Test century. For obvious reasons there hasn't been a full house, but for a few moments it sounded like one.
It didn't quite match the Steve Waugh century in the 2002-03 Ashes with the last ball of the day, but it wasn't too far away, and there was something similar to that occasion when Pat Cummins was cheered for taking a single as Adam Gilchrist had been after previously stealing the strike. There has been a groundswell of goodwill towards Khawaja heading into this match, a return to the side only achieved because of Travis Head's positive Covid-19 result.
On his former home ground, the venue of his Test debut in 2010-11 and his one previous Ashes hundred (brought up on the same day in 2018), Khawaja tucked Jack Leach backward of square in the final over before tea followed by a celebration inspired by LeBron James. There can have been few more popular hundreds made for Australia in recent times.
"It was probably the most touching, humbling, amazing feeling out there getting that hundred," Khawaja said. "The roar that went up, the chanting of Uzzie, stuff you sort of dream of but never expect it to happen. I was excited, so pumped. Hundreds don't come very often, a lot of hard work goes into them. Got taken away by the moment, I've had so much support, the crowd has been excellent. It's been unbelievable.
"I joke around with the boys about my past and where I've come from…but I'm quite serious. I am living the Australian dream. My parents came over here from Pakistan to give my family a better life. I'm representing Australia in our national sport and it's something that I absolutely love doing. I've gone through a lot of hard times, broken down a lot of barriers to get to where I am, and think at some level people can relate to that and I love them for it. The love I got out here today is something special, something I'll never forget."
In the stands, Khawaja's wife Rachael celebrated with their baby daughter. "It means so much. I just wanted him to play one more Test at home so she could be there," she told Fox Cricket. "I just wanted to tick that off the list."
It was his first Test innings since he was dropped midway through the 2019 Ashes when the selectors had to find room for Marnus Labuschagne following his super sub performance for Steven Smith at Lord's. Australia haven't played much Test cricket since, but at times it's been difficult to reconcile him not being in the top order particularly with a home average of over 50. In fact, it was his second hundred in consecutive Test innings in Australia having made a century against Sri Lanka in early 2019.
"I've put a lot of hard work in behind the scenes that people don't see," he said. "I've had a lot of support from my family, my parents, in particular my wife Rachael. A lot has gone on in that time; Covid, I've had a daughter, Rachael is pregnant with another child so a lot has gone on since I've been dropped. Never take anything for granted. I wasn't really sure if I was going to represent Australia again, let alone score a hundred, so it's amazing how life can work out both ways."
And yet, this might be a one-off return. Head has been assured of getting his place back in Hobart so Khawaja may need an opening to come elsewhere. His versatility has made him an ideal player to have in the squad in the current climate. With Covid a major issue, that may well happen over the coming months but beyond that it's tricky to see how the selectors fit him in unless they dispense with Marcus Harris and ask him open. Still, those issues can be for another day.
This was a brilliant innings in far from easy conditions. A number of deliveries from England's quicks popped at him on a surface which looks like it will be very challenging come day four. Speaking during a drinks break, Khawaja said he was happy not to be batting last on it.
He had a dose of luck on 28 when he edged Leach and Joe Root spilled the chance at slip as it glanced off Jos Buttler's gloves. But it was his only misstep and the innings became increasingly fluent, driving Leach through the off side and pulling Mark Wood.
It had been slow going during the morning session punctuated by infuriating stoppages for drizzle and he did not add to his overnight boundary count until reverse sweeping Leach in the 59th over. His half-century took 134 balls, but the next fifty came off 67 deliveries.
Though it was Leach who created the chance, Khawaja largely toyed with him. It wasn't brutal in the same way as Labuschagne and David Warner at the Gabba, but deep-set fields allowed the milking of easy singles and he latched onto boundary offerings when available. In total he took 55 runs off the 80 balls he faced from Leach.
Khawaja has struck a noticeably relaxed figure in the last couple of seasons. The summer after his Test axing was a poor one, averaging just 19.92, but last year he averaged 59.12 and this season it was 52.88 heading into his comeback. His popular refrain whenever asked about a Test return is that he wasn't thinking about it, he'd been around the game too long to worry about such things. His leadership has shone through both at state level and with advocacy of important issues. And with bat in hand he has not dimmed.
Being dismissed by Stuart Broad for 137 also provided the opportunity for another ovation and the crowd did not let him down as he saluted the stadium. It's hard to say when Khawaja's next Test will come but it would be a wonderful story if he played a part in Pakistan in a couple of months' time. Whatever happens from now, however, he'll always have today.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo