With measured grace, Khawaja shines bright
The left-hander spent his first two tours of India carrying drinks but is now showing Australia the way.
Usman Khawaja sprinted before leaping with joy after flicking the first ball of the last over on Day 1 to get to his hundred. He started laughing before raising his bat repeatedly to acknowledge the applause from his teammates in the dugout.
The spontaneous show of emotions was natural. It was Khawaja’s 14th Test hundred but his first in India. He had got this opportunity to prove himself at the age of 36. It was his third Test tour to India but had sat out all eight Tests on his first two tours.
The reason for not getting an opportunity on earlier tours – in 2013-14 and 2016-17 series -- was that they believed he wasn't a good player of spin. The lost time won’t come back, but on Thursday he had proved his doubters wrong.
For the current generation brought up on wickets falling in a cluster and bred on Bazball-type batting approach, the Day One of the fourth Test would be too slow for their liking. But, for those who loved cricket during India coach Rahul Dravid’s time as a player, Motera’s Narendra Modi Stadium was the place to be.
While all the batters were relieved to be finally playing on a proper Test match wicket in India, Khawaja took the opportunity to showcase the art of building an innings. In a flawless display of concentration and perseverance, his unbeaten 104 ensured Australia didn’t waste away their chance of getting a good platform after getting the chance to bat first. It was the kind of knock that would have drawn appreciation from none other than Dravid, who built his career on such measured performances.
Unlike the pitches of the first three Tests, the Motera track had no demons. But run-making on slow tracks is not a cakewalk compared to pitches where the ball is coming onto the bat. It is a test of patience, one that Khawaja aced with ease. Batting for more than six hours (251 balls), he made a workmanlike hundred to make the India bowlers toil and it was his innings that helped Australia hold the edge after reaching 255 for four at stumps. One more wicket and the home team would have been the one better placed.
“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,” he said after play. “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 added: “I got an opportunity to play in a white ball series a few years ago and was man of the series, got an opportunity here again with the red ball. 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.”
As often happens in cases of negative talk, the opening batter said he also started having doubts about his ability to play spin bowling. There was no support from the team but he took it upon himself to work on his game. At the Motera track, runs were not easy to come by as on the slow pitch it was not easy to use the pace of the bowler. But he showed the technique of playing with low hands to negotiate the spin easily by pushing the ball around with the turn.
He said not being backed by his team hurt.
“I probably started believing it myself. I didn’t really get the support from the people around me at the time. Didn’t feel like the team really supported me, didn’t feel like the coaching staff and selectors really supported me through that journey. It just made it so hard. Whether I was or wasn’t, yes I’m a better player of spin now, no doubt about that, I have more shots, better defence. But I didn’t really get the opportunity to learn at that early stage. 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. Had to go back and figure it out all by myself," said Khawaja
The results are showing. He has been Australia’s best batter on this tour (257 runs with a hundred and two fifties). He is the second-highest run-getter in the world in the ongoing (2021-23) World test Championship cycle with 1532 runs.
Khawaja focussed on building partnerships, but India bowlers chipped away till Cameron Green came and changed the momentum of the game in the final session. The strapping all-rounder raced away to 49 not out and added 85 runs with Khawaja in less than 20 overs. India captain Rohit Sharma took the second new ball after 81 overs, the total of 201 for four. One more wicket and the bowlers would have been on top. Green, however, pushed back India’s charge by helping Australia plunder 54 in nine overs.
The rest of Australia's batters had frittered away good starts. After setting the tone for the day with a brisk 44-ball 32, opener Travis Head perished while taking a chance against R Ashwin to hit him over mid-on. The batter who would be cursing himself the most, is Steve Smith. With Khawaja, he helped to take the total from 72 for two to 151 and was well set when he played on to an innocuous delivery from Ravindra Jadeja.
Among India’s bowlers, Mohammed Shami stood out. He started waywardly in the morning but came back in his latter spells to pick up two big wickets. He induced a false shot from Marnus Labuschagne to bowl him off an inside edge and later produced a peach to send Peter Handscomb’s off-stump cartwheeling.
The Test match is nicely poised. India will have to strike early to break Khawaja and Green’s partnership. If Australia get to a total of 400 plus, the pressure will be India.