Evolving Usman Khawaja sets the example for Australia

Usman Khawaja reverse sweeps Getty Images

Dhaka, August 2017. Usman Khawaja walks out to bat at the fall of David Warner's wicket for his first Test match in Asia since being dropped for the earlier India tour. To his first ball, from Mehidy Hasan, he skips down the track and rushes a single. To his second, from Shakib Al Hasan, he leads with his front pad, not offering a shot, and for reasons without fathom charges down the pitch for a non-existent run. The innings ends with a frantic dive and a nonsensical run-out, the match with Australian defeat.

Dubai, October 2018. Khawaja opens the second innings with Aaron Finch, having made a composed 85 in the first. For the start of the second over he faces Mohammad Hafeez, a master of the sliding new-ball offspinning delivery that whirs in to hit front pads for lbws. Faced by spin for the start of an innings, Khawaja steadfastly refuses to give Hafeez what he wants, leaning onto his back foot to cover up against balls he would once have met coming forward. One ball keeps slightly low and hits the toe of the bat, another turns a little and skitters along the ground to slip. Not pretty but pretty effective: Hafeez is withdrawn after two overs and does not return.

****

Virtually from the start of his first-class career, and certainly from the moment of his first Test innings, Khawaja has been a much-admired batsman, blessed with elegance, patience and all the shots. From those same points, however, he has been seen as a batsman susceptible to quality spin bowling, somewhat surprisingly for someone who played so many of his formative innings for New South Wales at the SCG. On his 2011 debut, he was dismissed by Graeme Swann - top-edging a sweep - and later that same year he looked ponderous against the turning ball in Sri Lanka.

Two years later in India he was a reserve batsman on Australia's tour of India, and one of the four suspended due to the homework affair that led to Mickey Arthur's sacking as coach. Recalled in England, Khawaja struggled once again against Swann, and found himself dispensed with by the new coach Darren Lehmann as he sought to pack Australia's top six with right-handers. A recall and regeneration followed in 2015-16, albeit on familiar surfaces against minimal spin, and more troubles in Sri Lanka had him dropped a second time, and after the home summer he found himself running drinks in India.

So when the Bangladesh sequence took place, followed by a top-edged sweep and another brief stay in the second innings, Khawaja was dropped a fourth time for issues related to how he played spin bowling, and went on to criticise Australia's selection policy in an interview with the ABC: "They never used to do it before, I'm not really sure why they do it now. It creates a lot of instability in the team I reckon, going in and out for everyone.

"You hear things like 'the players are playing afraid' or whatnot, but that's what happens when you drop players all the time. We've been doing that a fair bit lately. I know as captain of Queensland I try and avoid that as much as possible; players I pick in the first game, I try to stick with them as long as possible, because they'll always be the best players on the park.

"For some reason it seems like lately in Australia that the best players always seem to be the next guy in, which I don't totally agree with. [It is] very hard to develop your game and play some consistent cricket if you're not getting consistent opportunities overseas, which I haven't been getting. It's frustrating but I've just got to focus on what's in front of me."

These comments were not well received, and nor was Khawaja happy with the fact they were reported upon. The spin question was again placed on hold at home, where Khawaja prospered in the Ashes, and away, where the ball-tampering scandal of South Africa left the question of Khawaja's tenure somewhat in the background. But when Steven Smith and Warner were suspended for a year each for the events of Newlands, Khawaja suddenly became Australia's senior batsman, with a tour of the UAE looming.

What happened next reflected the fact that Khawaja, at the age of 31, either sensed an opportunity or was made very aware of one by the new coach Justin Langer. Training intensively on his own and making this known on social media, Khawaja shedded no fewer than 7kg in a year that also featured a stint with Glamorgan. Selection for the Australia A tour of India provided another chance to play and demonstrate improvement against spin, something he did with a fluent century in the first unofficial Test - a score that sewed up his spot in the team to face Pakistan.

But for all of that, the question of performance against the spinning ball still remained. What Khawaja has unveiled over two innings is a method now featuring distinctly different and thoughtful methods against all the types of spin he has faced. To Yasir Shah, he has used his feet to try to smother the spin, and made liberal use of both orthodox and reverse sweeps. To Bilal Asif, he has been decisive in getting forward or going back, with the exception of that one misread delivery in the first innings the reaped a half sweep-half pull and a top edge to short leg. And to Hafeez, he made sure to watch the ball intently, not propping forward and losing it as he had done in the past to the likes of Swann and Moeen Ali.

In this decisiveness and precision, Khawaja has recalled nothing so much as the following advice from Ricky Ponting, who went on a similarly lengthy and painful journey to handling the spinning ball. "It was all about not getting trapped to good-length balls," Ponting said in 2013. "Not trying to predict where the ball was going to spin to. It was about trying to hit it before it spun or [well] after it spun, and that's what the good Indian players always did.

"If you watched the way [Mohammed Azharuddin] played, he was always out in front, flicking his wrists, and for us that was so foreign," Ponting said. "[MS] Dhoni does it really well as well. He's not actually a great player of spin bowling but he's got the technique there where they work the ball around and never get caught at bat-pad or done on length. When we go there we always get caught at bat-pad because we're predicting where the ball is going to go.

"But yeah, I first heard it from [Azharuddin], he talked about getting to it on the half-volley before it has the chance to spin or get back in your crease and wait for it fully spin and play it from there. It sounds pretty easy but it's difficult to do in the heat of battle against good quality spin bowling. But the technique makes a lot of sense."

Alongside Shaun Marsh, Travis Head and Matt Renshaw, Khawaja joined Ponting's close friend Langer as the Australia coach delivered an impromptu tutorial on the third evening. As revealed by Head, who showed evidence of his own development across the course of two innings, Khawaja became not only Australia's top scorer but the example for the rest of the left-handed quartet to follow in the rest of their innings on this trip.

"We just spoke with Usman," Head said. "He played beautifully, and it was a lot about realising the work we've done over the last month, backing our plans, backing the way we've been playing and training extremely well. It was just to go out there, stay nice and relaxed, have a look at the wicket and talk about a few ideas and strategies Usman employed, and different guys have got different ways of going about it.

"So it was about staying calm, enjoying the challenge, and going out there and being nice and relaxed and calm, being brave and backing your ability. Different guys have different ways of going about it, my way's different to Usman, who swept really well, I'm trying to be as sharp as I can with my footwork, forward and back, and just making sure we have a clear plan and backing that plan."

Khawaja, then, has proven himself among the first beneficiaries of Langer's arrival. Given the decidedly slim batting stocks that surround him - epitomised by Mitchell Marsh's elevation to as high as No. 4 in Australia's Test batting order - an enormous amount rests upon Khawaja being able to repeat the composure and sound planning evident in Dubai, where he has thoroughly shaken off the sense of confusion that seemed to have enveloped him so much in Dhaka little more than a year ago.