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Feature

Khawaja in the subcontinent - unselectable to indispensable

He can't play spin, they said. He made sure he could, and has been one of Australia's standout performers in India on this tour

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
10-Mar-2023
Usman Khawaja remarkable resurgence as a Test batter has continued with a first century in India. After passing the milestone on the first day of the Ahmedabad Test, he reflected on the journey from often being deemed not selectable on the subcontinent. Here's a lookback at the tough times and now the prolific ones.

2011: Test series vs Sri Lanka

Innings: 3; Runs: 60; Average: 30.00
Khawaja's first innings on an Australian tour of the subcontinent actually brought a century, 101 in the warm-up match before the three Tests. Khawaja, who had made his debut earlier that year against England, played the first two matches of the series, the first of which Australia won, before being left out.

2013: Test series vs India

Khawaja's first Test tour of India turned into an interesting affair, and he didn't even make it to the playing XI. He also became one of four players suspended for the third Test after failing to complete an assignment ordered by coach Mickey Arthur.

2015: Australia A tour of India

This was a second Australia A visit to India for Khawaja, and though the four-day matches provided only middling results, he was prolific during the one-day games with scores of 100 and 76 against India A and 73 against South Africa A.

2016: Test series vs Sri Lanka

Innings: 4; Runs: 55; Average: 13.75
A return to Sri Lanka was not a happy experience for a number of Australia's batters, Khawaja among them. He had considerable issues with offspinner Dilruwan Perera. Khawaja's series ended when he shouldered arms to Perera in the second innings in Galle and lost his off stump.

2016-17: Test series vs India

Another tour carrying the drinks for Khawaja. "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," he said.

2017: Test series vs Bangladesh

Innings: 2; Runs: 2; Average: 1.00
Later that year, Khawaja was part of the squad to tour Bangladesh, where they lost to the home side for the first time. In the first Test, he fell for 1 and 1 which included running himself out in the first innings. He was dropped for the second Test, where Australia levelled the series. "Think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy in its own way," he said in Ahmedabad of the spin struggle. "Anytime I got to spin people were like 'you can't play spin'. I probably started believing it myself."

2018: Australia A tour of India

Another 'A' tour of India and this one brought impressive results across both formats. There was a first-class century, albeit in a game where the seamers played as much of a role as the spinners, and he also made a one-day hundred against India B. "Fortunately enough, I'm quite stubborn, so went out of my own way to learn then we had a couple of 'A' tours here in India which helped a lot," Khawaja said. "Had to go back and figure it out all by myself."

2018: Test series vs Pakistan

Innings: 3; Runs: 229; Average: 76.33
Following hot on the heels of that trip was the Test series against Pakistan in the UAE, which produced one of the standout moments of Khawaja's career. He produced an epic match-saving 141 in Dubai having also made 85 in the first innings. "I do feel like that monkey went off my back when I scored that hundred in Dubai," Khawaja recalled after his Ahmedabad innings. "[But] that was Dubai, I wanted to do it in the subcontinent."

2019: ODI series vs India and Pakistan

Innings: 10; Runs: 655; Average: 65.50
Hundreds on the subcontinent did follow, although as part of Australia's ODI side ahead of the 2019 World Cup. Khawaja made centuries in both Ranchi and Delhi, either side 91 in Mohali, as he took the Player-of-the-series award. The white-ball runs continued to follow in the series against Pakistan back in the UAE with three more half-centuries.

2022: Test series vs Pakistan

Innings: 5; Runs: 496; Average: 165.33
An historic return to Pakistan after 24 years and for a Khawaja a chance to play Test cricket in the country of his birth. It was a triumph for him amid a prolific run of form as he made centuries in Karachi (160) and Lahore (104*). "A lot of people talked about how flat the wickets were in Pakistan, and obviously I scored a lot of runs there. I was the only person to score a hundred there," he said.

2022: Test series vs Sri Lanka

Innings: 4; Runs: 137; Average: 45.66
The pitches certainly weren't flat in Sri Lanka, especially for the first Test, and Khawaja played one of the key innings of the game with 71 to help lay the foundation for what became a matchwinning lead. "Went to Galle in the first game on an absolute bunsen and felt like I batted well there," he said. "I felt like I've been contributing the whole time and that's been the most rewarding thing because I've been contributing to some wins."

2023: Test series vs India

Innings: 7; Runs: 333; Average: 47.57
And so, back to India and some of the toughest pitches you could face. After a lean start in Nagpur, Khawaja made a fluent 81 in Delhi before Australia collapsed dramatically in the second innings. In Indore, he again led the way to take the visitors into the lead in a game that barely reached the third day. Then on a better batting pitch in Ahmedabad he cashed in with a century, 180, his sixth since returning to Test cricket. "I just never expected this to happen," he said.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo