Usman Khawaja attributes his remarkable reversal in batting fortunes on subcontinent pitches to a strengthened belief in doing it his way, as well as the preparedness of the Australia team’s brains trust to show faith in his methods.
Khawaja is the leading runs scorer over the first two Tests of the Benaud-Qadir Trophy series against Pakistan, with 301 runs at an extraordinary average of 150.5 from his three innings to date.
But the 35-year-old was not always viewed as a safe pair of hands when confronted by spinning pitches, and in six previous Test tours to Asia (including the UAE) he won selection in just seven matches and twice lost his place in the starting XI.
In addition, the now-prolific left-hander who boasts an average of 111 in Tests since returning to the line-up as a COVID-19 replacement for Travis Head in the recent Vodafone Ashes series, was considered surplus to requirements on both his tours to India (in 2013 and 2017) where he did not play a Test.
On the first of those India assignments, he also found himself at the center of the infamous ‘homework’ scandal in which four players were suspended for a Test, and in 2017 he failed to earn a call-up despite being a stand-out performer and averaging 58 in a tumultuous preceding home summer.
Prior to the opening match of the current Qantas Tour, Khawaja noted he had learned much from previous campaigns in Sri Lanka (2011 and 2016) and Bangladesh (2017) where on each occasion he was dropped from the team mid-series amid claims from some quarters he was fallible against spin.
In recent comments, the reinstated opener claimed he had vowed he “wasn’t going to listen to anyone else about how I needed to bat on the subcontinent” after those bitter experiences, and has expanded on those thoughts in the most recent episode of ‘The Unplayable Podcast’.
“I got a lot of advice from a lot of people, trying to be helpful and have the best for me but at the end of the day I had to figure it out for myself,” Khawaja said.
“Whether I succeeded or failed, it had to be on me, the onus.
“I could do what everybody wanted me to do but if I fail, I fail – it doesn’t really make a difference.
“I guess for me after I failed a couple of times I had to figure out, how do I want to play this game overseas, what do I want to do?
“I’ve been on two tours of India, played eight Test matches and got dropped twice, once under (former coaches) Mickey Arthur and once (under) Darren Lehmann.
“It was a bit of a double-edged sword, because 10 years ago people were like, ‘Oh Uzzie, can’t play against spin, can’t do that’ and at the time I was scoring a truckload of runs (in Australia) but then I go to India and I get dropped. “
Part of that plan was to perfect the reverse sweep, a shot that wasn’t in Khawaja’s repertoire on those earlier tours where he averaged just 14.63 with a highest score of 26 in nine innings in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The last two of those campaigns saw him finish the tour out of the Australia team, and he admits he struggled with the vicissitudes of selection policy before deciding to back his own methods as well as develop some new tools that he slowly honed at home, in a UK county stint with Glamorgan and on Australia A trips.
Another key element in unlocking the secret to batting on subcontinent pitches was the appointment of Justin Langer, who replaced Lehmann as coach in the wake of the 2018 sandpaper controversy.
Not only did Langer back Khawaja to succeed by playing ‘his way’ in the 2018 Test series against Pakistan in the UAE, the improvements Khawaja had made to his game enabled him to score a game-saving 141 at Dubai and finish the two-match campaign with an average of 76.3.
“It’s very hard as a player, I find, to learn that way because you’re not getting the backing of the coaching staff and the selectors,” Khawaja told ‘The Unplayable Podcast’ of his earlier experiences being dumped from the team during subcontinent tours.
“It’s very hard to keep on learning and developing and trying things, so I just went back to Australia and worked at it.
“We had a few A tours away on the subcontinent where I tried to implement those things, I did it successfully but I did it my way.
“And then finally getting the opportunity overseas in Dubai, ‘JL’ (Langer) just kind of backed me and said, ‘I’ve seen you play against spin, I know you’re a very good player of spin and I want you to go out there and play ‘.
“Having that support at the time was really helpful, and being able to do what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it was important.
“It was a really good lesson for all players and I try and instil it in the Queensland guys too.
“Just make sure you are your best coach because at the end of the day you’re the one out in the middle and you’re the one that’s going to be affected whether you score runs or don’t score runs, and take wickets or don’t take wickets. “
Khawaja agrees that a “big part” of his changed fortunes in Asia – his most recent six knocks there have yielded 530 runs at an average of 106 with two hundreds – has been his mastery of the reverse sweep.
And even though the stroke cost him his wicket when on 97 in the opening Test of the current series at Rawalpindi – just 20km from the city of his birth, Islamabad – he cares not a jot for the criticism it drew from “old people” who don’t appreciate it’s an accepted part of the modern batter’s armory.
“It’s all about options, so I can sweep, I can reverse sweep, I can use my feet, I can hit over the top,” Khawaja said of his changed modus operandi against spin on turning pitches.
“I have plenty of options in my artillery now to use as I want, to manipulate the field to put pressure back on the bowler because if you just get stuck without putting pressure back on the bowler, you’re really just a sitting duck waiting to get taken off, especially as a left-hander.
“We deal with more rough (on dry pitches) than the right-handers do, it’s a harder game for us on the subcontinent.
“When I was younger my scoring rate would definitely be lower against spin, but I love playing against spin now and every time a spinner comes on I feel like it’s an opportunity to score runs and get the game moving forward.
“I know it (reverse sweep) puts a lot of pressure back on the bowler when I’m doing it well, which is most times.
“There will be times when I get out, same as I’ll get out cover driving the ball, but nobody ever says ‘Oh, why is Uzzie cover driving?’.”
Not that it was a simple process, perfecting a shot that has only been regularly seen in international cricket over the past 15 years, coincidentally the same time frame in which the T20 format has taken hold.
Khawaja admits it took him considerable time and courage to attempt the stroke when batting at training sessions, from which point unfurling it in match conditions became a gradual and careful process.
But in sticking with his mantra to prosper or perish by following his own advice, he learned a lesson just as valuable as the additional scoring weapon he now takes to the crease.
“It’s the hardest thing about trying to learn a new skill, and I even talk about it to young cricketers – don’t be afraid to look stupid to learn a new skill,” he said.
“It’s really hard, you start playing a reverse sweep and you get out like 10 times in a (net) session and I’m sure people around you are going ‘What is he doing?’.
“But you’re not going to grow as a player unless you try and push the envelopes a little bit.
“That happened for ages, maybe two or three months.
“It took me a long time and then I remember I hit a few in grade cricket and I was like ‘okay, okay’.
“Then I did one in domestic cricket and I thought ‘okay, all right’ and then I finally had the courage to do it in Test cricket, at international level.
“It doesn’t just happen, you’ve got to look silly and it’s really hard as a batsman or even as a bowler to try something and to look silly in the nets.
“People will always look at you and judge you in a lot of ways, so that’s probably the hardest thing to overcome but once you get past that it can be pretty rewarding.”
Qantas Tour of Pakistan 2022
Pakistan squad: Babar Azam (c), Mohammad Rizwan (vc), Abdullah Shafique, Azhar Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Fawad Alam, Haris Rauf, Hasan Ali, Iftikhar Ahmed, Imam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Wasim Jnr, Naseem Shah, Nauman Ali, Sajid Khan, Saud Shakeel, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shan Masood, Zahid Mahmood.
Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc , Mark Steketee, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner. On standby: Sean Abbott, Brendan Doggett, Nic Maddinson, Matthew Renshaw
First Test: Match drawn
March 12-16: Match drawn
March 21-25: Third Test, Lahore
Pakistan ODI and T20 squad: Babar Azam (c), Shadab Khan, Abdullah Shafique *, Asif Afridi, Asif Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Haider Ali, Haris Rauf, Hasan Ali, Iftikhar Ahmed, Imam-ul-Haq *, Khushdil Shah, Mohammad Haris, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Rizwan, Mohammad Wasim, Saud Shakeel *, Shaheen Afridi, Shahnawaz Dahani, Usman Qadir (* ODIs only)
Australia ODI and T20 squad: Aaron Finch (c), Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Jason Behrendorff, Alex Carey, Nathan Ellis, Cameron Green, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Ben McDermott, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Marcus Stoinis, Adam Zampa
March 29: First ODI, Rawalpindi
March 31: Second ODI, Rawalpindi
April 2: Third ODI, Rawalpindi
April 5: Only T20I, Rawalpindi
All matches to be broadcast in Australia on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports