Usman Khawaja’s international comeback comes full circle at Old Trafford this week. It was at this ground four years ago that he was dropped from Australia’s Test team and feared his career was over.
In 2019, Khawaja became the fall guy for Marnus Labuschagne’s impressive return to the Test team, firstly as Steven Smith’s concussion sub then his full replacement at Headingley. When Smith was fit again for Manchester somebody had to make way. It was Khawaja after scores of 13, 40, 36, 2, 8 and 23 in the first three Tests.
But over two years later, he returned with twin centuries against England at the SCG which heralded a golden run. His career is now in a very different place; he has averaged 63.77 in Tests since that comeback and is currently the leading run-scorer in this Ashes with 356 at 59.33.
“It was the toughest point of my career,” Khawaja recalled of 2019. “I thought my career was pretty much over then. My wife was joking about it the other day. She was sitting up in a shopping mall at Leeds and she was saying last time I was here, it wasn’t a good time.
“It was nice, it’s funny how things work out. You get to come back to England and actually play at Old Trafford this time. It’s a very different vibe. The team is in a different place. I am really just enjoying it.”
In a quirk of fate, Australia’s selectors are facing another tough call at Old Trafford four years on – although this time Khawaja is very secure. Cameron Green‘s return to fitness poses the question of how to fit him in the XI after Mitchell Marsh’s outstanding century at Headingley.
Talk, at least from outside the team, has centered on David Warner after he failed twice in the third Test, but Khawaja was of little doubt that he would be walking out to open with him in this Test.
“He’s probably the hot topic right now,” Khawaja said. “I don’t know because I don’t really read the stuff. If I will say anything, from my point of view, Dave Warner has been one of the greatest openers of all time, it is him and Haydos [Matthew Hayden] right up there for Australia I reckon, the top two ever, so I will always back Davey no matter what and I think the other guys will too.”
Khawaja, who was Player of the Match in the victory at Edgbaston, also stressed that batting conditions have been tricky throughout.
“I don’t think anyone has felt in at any stage,” he said. “That is England with Dukes balls, weather and conditions. Whereas Australia, sometimes you can kind of lock in and feel like I am in now, I can feel like stretching this for a while. Where here, it doesn’t feel like that because the ball is always going enough, nibbling about. You see that pace has dominated this whole [series] in the first three games.”
At Headingley, Khawaja was the first of Mark Wood’s wickets, inside-edging into leg stump to the last ball of Wood’s opening spell where he did not drop below 90mph. Rather than the raw pace, though, it was Wood’s movement that Khawaja singled out as what made him a challenge but he won’t be putting extra special focus on the quick ahead of this Test.
“That first spell was pretty fiery,” he said. “He looked like he had his beans going a little bit. I was at the other end for most of it, Marnus faced a fair bit. He was swinging it too. That’s what made it a little bit more difficult and he was doing it beautifully.
“Moeen Ali bowled a brilliant spell,” Khawaja added. “Think it’s probably forgotten a bit. He got Marnus and Steve Smith, potentially our two best batsmen of the last few years, so think that’s what broke our back that game. It was a team effort, it’s not just Woody. If you worry about one bowler, the other bowler will get you out.”
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