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Match Analysis

Usman Khawaja and the century he never expected to happen

From being told he couldn't play spin to anchoring the innings in the deciding Border-Gavaskar Test, the Australia opener has come a long way

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
09-Mar-2023
This was all a bit different. And that isn't just a reference to the scenes preceding play in Ahmedabad which included the respective Prime Ministers of the two countries, Narendra Modi and Anthony Albanese, being driven around the boundary while the captains waited in the middle for the toss.
This was different because the team that started the first day batting finished the first day batting. The ball did not rag past the edge; wickets did not fall in clumps; batters did not fear for their existence in the middle. For the first time in the series there was a wicketless session.
It was a batting day. And Usman Khawaja did a lot of batting. When he clipped the first ball of the final over through midwicket off Mohammad Shami, it brought his 14th Test hundred and the sixth since his return to the Test side last January.
Twin centuries on his comeback, a hundred in his homeland of Pakistan and now this innings. Each of the multitude of milestones Khawaja has achieved over the last 15 months has held a lasting significance, but this one had an extra edge. Now he has a Test century in the country where he couldn't get a place in the starting XI on Australia's two previous tours. Across the three subcontinent tours in the last 12 months he averages 74.16.
"I don't think I've ever smiled so much on getting a century, there was emotion in it, I've done two tours of India before, carried the drinks for eight Test matches before I got a chance here," Khawaja said. "Throughout the middle of my career I got told I couldn't play spin and that's why I never got an opportunity to play in India.
"It's just nice to go out there and tick off a hundred in India which was something if you asked me five years ago if you told me that I'd think you were crazy. There was a lot of emotion, I just never expected this to happen."
When Khawaja went past 212 balls faced it became the longest innings of the series, overtaking Rohit Sharma's century in Nagpur. By the end of the day, having faced 251 deliveries, it was longer than three of the completed team innings for the series.
The slowness of the surface and the lack of big spin enabled Khawaja to play in a manner similar to what he used in Pakistan last year where he amassed 496 runs at 165.33. There was certainly no need for the get-them-while-you-can mentality which held sway in Indore. He could wait for the loose delivery rather than feel the need to manufacture something.
Khawaja played just two sweeps, a shot he employs when he considers conditions are in the bowlers' favour and he needs to reassert some pressure or take a risk to score. There were even times when he held himself back, knowing that this was a day for the long game.
"It was just a nicer batting wicket," he said. "We have come from three three-day games in the first Tests so there was a little bit of a change of tack, I felt like I could bat normally, hence why I just batted and didn't take too many risks. I just put my ego away, a few times they brought mid-on and mid-off up I really wanted to hit them back over their heads like I normally do, but I thought I'd just keep grinding away and see how far we get."
Steven Smith's pre-match reading of the surface appeared astute. He said it looked to have the potential of being the best batting strip of the series and it has played out that way. At times it could even be described as flat. The most threatening period of play was when Shami cranked things up after tea.
However, Australia did not quite make the most of their opportunity to forge a formidable first-innings total, although Cameron Green's princely unbeaten 49 ensured 170 for 4 became something more secure. One of the phrases that has been used within the team a lot during this tour has been that of batters being 'happy' or 'content' with the way they have got out - a reference to how challenging conditions have been and that you won't always be able to protect all modes of dismissal.
It's unlikely that any of Australia's batters to fall on the opening day would feel that way. Travis Head made a bright start after a horrendous missed chance by KS Bharat when he had 7 but miscued R Ashwin to mid-on. Marnus Labuschagne paid for a lack of footwork as he reached out to a delivery from Shami which tailed back a fraction.
The afternoon occupation between Khawaja and Smith, during which the captain donned a crisp, new baggy green, was ended when Smith played half-heartedly at a quicker ball from Ravindra Jadeja and inside-edged onto the stumps. Peter Handscomb was then cleaned by during Shami's excellent post-tea spell when he was caught playing deep in the crease to a fuller delivery, a manner of dismissal familiar from his previous stint in Test cricket.
Because India had held the scoring rate well for a long period, another wicket at this point would have turned the contest their way. But Green's positivity and Khawaja's obduracy put paid to that, while also setting the stage for the closing minutes of the day which provided a moment that really was worth cheering for.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo