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Usman Khawaja: 'There's only three spots in the top order. If you don't fit in them, it can be pretty tough'

Ahead of his first PSL, the Australia batter spoke about thriving in chaos, playing on gut feel, and trying to find a spot in the Australia T20 World Cup squad

"When we're on world tours and people ask me, 'When's the next game', I'll be like, 'I don't know!'"  •  Mark Evans/Getty Images

"When we're on world tours and people ask me, 'When's the next game', I'll be like, 'I don't know!'"  •  Mark Evans/Getty Images

We tend to think of a group of players like Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Asif Ali as typical Islamabad United players, but you're one of just a couple in the squad actually born in Islamabad.
That's the second time someone said that to me. I actually didn't know that. I assumed there'd be a few players from Islamabad. Yeah, it's weird. The guy from Australia is the one who actually was born in Islamabad and is playing for Islamabad. It's nice to have that little lineage, like back in the BBL with Sydney Thunder. I grew up in Western Sydney, so I still have that connection. It's nice to have that connection here, too.
It's been a chaotic few days with plenty of uncertainty. Have you at times thought, "What have I got myself into?"
No. I'm probably the best person to be in this situation. I'm not structured at all! I could go with the flow as well as any of them. Even when we're on world tours and people ask me, "When's the next game", I'll be like, "I don't know!" All I know is we have three training days and then we have a game. I'm not looking that far ahead. I've been more of a short-term "what am I doing to get to this next point" [person]. And I take it from there.
I think anyone who's played cricket with me or knows me knows that I don't get too flustered by these sorts of things. At the end of the day, we're in a beautiful hotel. We've had some really good food. All the facilities are here. For me, it's just about trying to get this tournament underway. And then hopefully we can get moving from there.
You've played a lot of cricket in hot places in your career, particularly with Queensland and New South Wales. But is there anything that compares to what the players are up against in Abu Dhabi over the next fortnight? How prepared do you feel for it?
Honestly, I haven't been out yet. I've just been in my balcony and it's pretty hot there, especially when the sun's on you. I played in some hot environments before - probably the UAE was one of the hottest ones. But I've played in Bangladesh, in Chittagong [Chattogram] or Colombo. Very hot and humid. You play in these environments a lot when you play cricket. One of the hottest days was during the IPL in Vizag [Visakhapatnam]. We were down there around May and it was the most ridiculous heat I ever played in. We didn't even warm up.
"It's weird - the guy from Australia is the one who actually was born in Islamabad and is playing for Islamabad"
You've faced some scrutiny in Australia when it comes to fitness. Do you feel you're under pressure to prove any sort of point playing in this heat?
I haven't had those issues over the last couple of years. I've kept myself pretty fit. As relaxed as I am, there's one thing that I'm very serious about, and that's what I eat and when I eat. It's very hard right now because we're getting this wonderful food with huge serving sizes. You get croissants and all these things that get put in front of you, and it's such a shame because I can't eat any of it.
I've been very disciplined. I dispelled those issues because I knew the older I got, the more I'd need to be fit moving forward. It helps the mind, helps the body and then hopefully helps you perform consistently over a long period of time.
How much value do you place on T20 cricket at this stage in your career? From the outside it feels like, aside from a really strong spell towards the end of 2015 and through 2016, this isn't the format you're most famous for.
I've played T20 cricket for Australia, played in the World Cup - I was the highest scorer for Australia in the last T20 World Cup. We haven't got the opportunity to play a lot of T20 cricket outside of Australia because of our domestic schedule, and I still want to play for Australia. So it's a balancing act. I could have easily given away playing for Queensland or Australia and then going to the T20 circuit. But I chose not to.
I could have put my name up early for the PSL, but I never had the opportunity, and if it wasn't for Covid postponing the tournament, I wouldn't have this opportunity now either, because the PSL would have happened while we were still playing Shield cricket. It's the balancing act which makes it hard at the moment. In a few years' time, if I feel like I can transition away from that and just concentrate wholly on T20, I will.
Do you reckon you're still in with a shot at playing the T20 World Cup?
Look, it's hard this year, but sport can change very quickly. I just love playing cricket. That was the reason why I'm in the PSL now. I want to play in Pakistan. It's not going to happen [in the PSL] this time, which is unfortunate. Hopefully [I can do that] in the coming years, because it's something I've wanted to do for a long time.
You had a purple patch in T20 in the BBL in 2015-16, with your side, Sydney Thunder, winning the title. You were Player of the Match in the final. What do you put that phenomenal run down to, and what can you do to try and emulate that?
No one really knows. Sometimes you just score a lot of runs. I worked really hard. In the three years before that, I was one of the leading performers for Thunder moving up to that year, but because Thunder didn't do as well on the field as a team, my performance probably got swept under the carpet a little bit. We were probably the worst team in the competition for a long time. And then when we started winning games, I was still contributing, and that's when people start to notice you.
It's just one of those things with T20 - if you can get on a roll sometime, you can keep going with that roll. It's a game that involves a bit of luck, you need to take some risks, and then it's your execution. You need all those three things to happen.
I went to an IPL where Virat Kohli scored four hundreds and that's absolutely amazing. And then you see tournaments where he struggled a little bit just because it's a hard place when you're not doing as well. It's very hit and miss, T20 cricket.
"Trust me, if you're not running twos hard in Australia, you'll get found out very quickly. You won't play international cricket"
In Pakistan, Islamabad United is known for advocating a certain approach to T20 cricket that relies more heavily on data than instinct or gut feel. Which side of that debate are you on?
I've already got some of that data. One of the managers sent me data about myself, which I always look at, but it's funny to get the data straightaway. I think there's always a balance: you need to look at the data, but at the same time, if you are not doing your skills, if you're not executing what you're trying to do, then that's a problem. If I'm a batsman, I need to know what the bowlers are trying to do and try to combat that. If you're not focusing on simple things, the game can get away from you very quickly.
I'm a very gut-feel kind of player - I like to keep things simple and not cloud my mind too much. But I think it's only because I've played so much cricket now and I've experienced so many things that a lot of the tactical things happen naturally for me. Being the captain for a few years, you learn the intricacies of the game and how it ebbs and flows. In T20 there are times when you need to attack and [times when you need to] defend and you need to understand which those times are. If you wait till too late, you can lose the game in those one or two overs.
I do go by gut feel. I think there are some people that require a lot of data and some people that don't. I'm probably on the lesser side, but there's no right and wrong in this.
So you're going to disregard the manager's data sheets then?
I read it, I always read it! I don't mind data because I've come from a science and mathematics background. But I also know that there's a place for both data and instinct. For me to execute my game, I know I need to keep things simple. So whatever data I look at, when it's game time, that data normally just gets put to the side a little bit and I just focus on the competition.
Historically, Islamabad have chosen foreign batters to open and occupy four of the top five batting spots. Do you have a firm idea of your role in the side?
Not yet, but I will. I'll talk to Johan [Botha, Islamabad head coach] about it. I'm sure he'll have a plan and I'll make it work. Obviously powerplay is where I've started for most of my career. It will be somewhere around there. I'll do whatever the team needs me to do.
How is T20 cricket in the subcontinent different to Australia?
Playing in the subcontinent, especially as a top-order batsman or even as a batsman in general, I feel like there are a lot more boundary options because the grounds are usually smaller. The fields are rock hard. In Australia, there are big boundaries, soft outfields. The twos are massive in Australia. A lot of teams that win games rely on hitting twos. Obviously, boundaries and sixes are important. I quite like batting in these conditions. It's a little bit different; Abu Dhabi's a bit more Australia-like than Dubai and Sharjah.
You've said before that you're not the most enthusiastic runner between the wickets.
I'm enthusiastic running between wickets. When I was younger, I might have been a bit slower. I run twos as hard as anyone. Trust me, if you're not running twos hard in Australia, you'll get found out very quickly. You won't play international cricket. So that's not the case at all.
But I've always been a strokemaker in general. I've always preferred boundaries and sixes just because they're more fun - I've always enjoyed that part of it. But as you grow up, you develop and begin to realise how important the other bits are.
I find I enjoy batting in the subcontinent with a white ball much more, just because you can caress balls for four. I can beat cover and midwicket by two metres and it's a four, whereas in Australia a lot of those times it's just two because the grounds are so big. So I find there's more value, even if the wickets are slower.
You haven't been in contention for Australia quite as much as perhaps you'd like. Why do you think that is?
That's a good question. I don't really know. It's one of those things where I got dropped from the red-ball and white-ball sides around the same time.
"Around the time Pakistan played Australia in the '99 World Cup final, my parents were Pakistan fans. Adam Gilchrist was the one who turned me over"
In any good cricketing country, there's only 11 spots in the team at once and I bat in the top order, where there's only three spots. If you don't fit in them, it can be pretty tough. Sometimes if players who are doing well are in front of you, you can score as many runs as you want, but you won't get in the side.
How's your relationship with the selectors?
I have good relations with the main selector in Australia, Trevor Hohns, who lives in the same city as me. And Justin Langer [Australia's coach] and I get along with quite well. We don't always talk about selection, but I keep in touch with JL just because we get along. And then, at the end of the day, it's just about scoring runs and hopefully doing it at the right time when the opportunity presents.
When you play for Australia against Pakistan, do your parents still support Pakistan?
No, of course, their son's playing for Australia! I'll be honest - my parents were diehard Pakistani fans and they lived there for 35-40 years. And even when I first moved to Australia, I pretty much supported Pakistan because I'd just moved to Australia and didn't feel the connection.
Around the time Pakistan played Australia in the 1999 World Cup final, my parents were Pakistan fans, but that's around when I started to change. I was probably ten years old then and Adam Gilchrist was the one who turned me over. I loved him - left-handed player, entertaining. And he's such a nice guy now that I know him, one of the best blokes you'll ever meet. I started feeling more Australian than Pakistani. But my parents had lived there for a long time, and so did my brothers. But now I've started playing for Australia, I've switched them all over.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000