Usman Khawaja shows the way for Australia with unbeaten ton | Crickit
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Usman Khawaja shows the way for Australia with unbeaten ton

By, Mumbai
Jun 18, 2023 08:22 AM IST

The left-handed opener's 126* means the visitors trail England's first-innings total by 82 runs

In 14 Test innings in England leading up to this Ashes series, Usman Khawaja was averaging 17.78 with a top score of 54. For a player of Khawaja's technique and temperament, it was an anomaly waiting to be corrected. The Australian opener managed to put things right to a certain extent on Saturday, batting through Day 2 of the first Test at Edgbaston in Birmingham for an unbeaten 126 to help the visitors reach 311/5 at stumps.

Usman Khawaja leaves the pitch at the end of play during Day 2 of the first Ashes Test(AP)
Usman Khawaja leaves the pitch at the end of play during Day 2 of the first Ashes Test(AP)

Aged 36, Khawaja is probably on his last Test tour of England and he set the tone for the series with a wonderfully crafted innings. His contribution, alongside Alex Carey's unbeaten 52, means Australia trail England's first-innings total by only 82 runs.

On Day 1, the story had revolved around England for the most part. Joe Root hit a high-class ton while Jonny Bairstow smashed a crucial 78. Ben Stokes then declared boldly at 393/8 and all eyes were on how the Aussies would respond on Day 2.

England gained an early advantage with the ball as Stuart Broad struck with consecutive deliveries in the 11th over of the innings. The seasoned pacer dismissed David Warner for the 15th time in Test cricket before Marnus Labuschagne was out caught-behind for a first-ball duck.

Things went from bad to worse for the visitors as Steve Smith was trapped in front by Stokes, who got one to nip back from a perfect length. Australia were 67/3 at that point and it seemed England’s ultra-aggressive declaration wasn’t a mistake after all.

But Khawaja was still at the crease and he had a point to prove. The left-handed opener had scored 333 runs in seven innings in his last Test series in India in February-March this year. He had hit a brilliant 180 in his last knock of that series and Australia knew all along that for them to retain the Ashes, the stylish southpaw had to come to the party.

And he did so in style. Khawaja added 81 runs Travis Head (50), 72 with Cameron Green (38) and an unbroken 91-run stand with Carey. His reaction when he completed his 15th Test ton, which saw him fling his bat and punch the air repeatedly, showed how much it meant to him.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Khawaja’s knock was his back foot play. The 36-year-old used his feet wonderfully against off-spinner Moeen Ali, but against pacers he remained on the back foot almost entirely. Because the pitch had no real zip in it, he stayed within the crease and blocked deliveries comfortably.

It was a simple, uncluttered approach that left England rather helpless against him. Australia could have conceded a big first innings lead but Khawaja held their innings together and with three days remaining, the contest is evenly poised.

It has been 22 years since the Australian men won the Ashes in England. Ben Stokes's boys have won 11 of their 13 Tests since the all-rounder took over as captain, and Brendon McCullum's go-for-broke approach as coach has infused a sense of freshness in the longest format of the game.

There’s little doubt that England will keep pushing hard for an early lead in the five-match series. But this Pat Cummins-led Australian team has shown it has the stomach for a fight. And thanks to Khawaja’s heroics, they would be left with great belief.

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