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Match Analysis

Usman Khawaja's Test renaissance down to being daring and being himself

Having ridden the roller-coaster of Test cricket for 11 years, he is repaying Australia more than they perhaps deserve

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
It was almost written in the stars for Usman Khawaja. Born just a short drive up the road in Islamabad and playing Test cricket in Pakistan for the first time in his 11-year career with Australia, he was one boundary away from a magical, sentimental century.
But alas, the reverse sweep, a shot that had yielded two boundaries in his classy 97 and has been a great weapon for him throughout his career, brought about his downfall.
"It's disappointing," Khawaja said after the third day's play. "Cricket is a funny game. Three runs - you bat so well for 97 and then you get out. You don't get a hundred, you come back in the changeroom and it probably feels worse than getting a 20 in some respects. It's a bizarre feeling. Yeah, I would love to get a hundred out here. Rawalpindi, Islamabad - where I grew up.
"I think it would have brought a lot of joy. But at the same time, I think mum, dad, [and] Rachel, my wife, would have loved me being out there. I was having a lot of fun. I was enjoying playing. To put it in perspective, I wasn't even in an Australian team a few months ago. So I'm very grateful to be here. I'm happy that I contributed to the team."
Therein lies the secret to Khawaja's renaissance as a Test cricketer.
It doesn't matter that he perhaps picked the wrong length to reverse sweep Nauman Ali, as it wasn't quite full enough. It doesn't matter that he was through the shot too soon and it popped up off the glove to short leg. He won't put the shot away. It has brought him 88 Test runs in his career for just two dismissals, 22 of them coming during his twin centuries on return to the Test arena against England in Sydney earlier this year.
It doesn't matter that Khawaja had some luck. He was dropped by Fawad Alam at gully on 22. He gloved another reverse sweep on 66 but wasn't held by Mohammad Rizwan, and he edged another between the wicketkeeper and first slip on 73 to eventually pick up four.
Fortune favours the brave; and Khawaja is daring to be brave and daring to be himself, something which is paying handsome dividends.
Having ridden the roller-coaster of Test cricket for 11 years, having been sent to selection purgatory more times than can be counted, Khawaja is riding a wave of form that is repaying Australia more than they perhaps deserve.
His 97, luck aside, ensured Australia stayed in the Test match. His positive mindset, his intent to score and his calm demeanour was the driver for a rollicking 156-run opening stand with long-time friend David Warner.
They become just the ninth foreign pair to share a 150-run opening stand against Pakistan in either Pakistan or the UAE, and the first Australians since Mark Taylor and Michael Slater in 1994. The pace at which they scored - nearly four runs an over - kept the faint flicker of a result for Australia alive, albeit it might have been snuffed out by bad light cutting off the last session.
It was Khawaja who dragged Warner with him. While Warner was a rabbit in the headlights for a period against a barrage of short stuff from Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi, Khawaja handled them with aplomb, pulling, driving and upper cutting with trademark elegance. He scored 40 of Australia's first 56 runs, and 62 of the first 100.
Khawaja forced Pakistan to turn to their three spinners, as Warner thrived attacking the trio off both the front and the back foot. They batted like they did more than 20 years ago when playing junior cricket in Sydney together.
There was a freedom and a joy from the two 35-year-olds that has not always been in their batting in recent years. They even spoke together in the middle about the warm reception they were getting from the Pakistani crowd. That is what Khawaja has brought to Australia's team since his return. He has been a breath of fresh air, and has dragged players with him in some tremendous partnerships.
He shepherded Steven Smith and Cameron Green to century stands in the first and second innings respectively in Sydney when both were battling form, and elicited the best from Warner here in Rawalpindi after his early struggles. Khawaja is playing with the type of mental freedom that few cricketers at Test level have ever enjoyed.
"I've been dropped. It doesn't matter. I just play the way I want to play"
Khawaja after he fell reverse sweeping on 97
"I felt really good today," Khawaja said. "I felt mentally in a really good spot coming into it, I guess. Probably because I've been out of the system. I've been out of cricket Australia for two years. And now it's not the be-all and end-all anymore.
"I've been in and out of the team so much. I've been dropped. It doesn't matter. I just play the way I want to play. I just think of it as if I'm playing club cricket or Shield cricket back home. And that's how I take it for Australia now."
In the end, it was Warner who perhaps let him down the most. Just as Warner was thriving, having cut Sajid Khan to ribbons off the stumps, he picked the wrong length and was bowled trying to cut something he could have driven.
Khawaja was on 80 at the time and looked destined for a massive score. But he faced just 27 of the next 77 deliveries as Marnus Labuschagne took his time to get set.
However, he looked to have broken the shackles with a powerful lofted drive down the ground and a slog sweep off Sajid. Perhaps impatience got the better of him as he fell for his third Test score of 97, and his second against Pakistan. But to Khawaja, it doesn't matter why.
"Obviously, I'm a Muslim. I believe in God," he said. "I trust what happens. Good or bad, you have to take it equally. A lot of good things have happened in my life. Sometimes you want certain things to go a certain way and they don't happen. I think you just have to accept that and move on, and take the good with the bad. I'm very grateful."

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo