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Uzzy fires shots at past coaches after ton puts Aussies in command: 'Didn't really get support from people around me'

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9th March, 2023
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On Australia’s last tour of India in early 2017, Usman Khawaja was deemed such a concern against spin bowling that he was jettisoned from his previously safe spot in the XI for all four Tests.

Six years on, and the 36-year old’s tone-setting century on Day 1 in Ahmedabad not only steered Australia into a commanding position in their bid to square the series at 2-2, but put the exclamation mark on one of the most remarkable late-career renaissances in recent memory.

On the first batter-friendly pitch of the series, Khawaja, together with supporting roles from Travis Head (32), Steve Smith (38) and a late blitzkrieg from Cameron Green (49 not out), saw Australia to stumps at 4/255, with a wearied India facing another day’s toil in the heat on Friday, and giving Anthony Albanese early bragging rights over fellow Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the stands of the stadium that bears the latter’s name.

Khawaja’s performance told of the change in Australia’s mindset since their disastrous collapse in the second Test in Delhi, as well as his seismic improvement against the turning ball: content to trust in his defence for long periods and satisfied that the pitch offered far fewer demons than those in the first three Tests of the series, he ground out attritional runs rather than compiled them with his usual languid elegance.

Where the reverse sweep was once his shot of choice, today it was the flick off the pads to deep backward square, latching on anything remotely straight from Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja and making them pay time and time again.

In between, Khawaja’s forward defence was impregnable, his concentration unruffled, and his hunger for runs unyielding; his reward, perhaps not the finest century of his career, but surely one of if not the most satisfying of all.

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He described his perceived weakness against facing spin as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in previous years.

“Any time I got to play spin, people were like ‘you can’t play spin’ – I probably started believing it myself,” Khawaja said. “I didn’t really get the support from the people around me at the time. 

Usman Khawaja of Australia celebrates after scoring his century.

Usman Khawaja of Australia celebrates after scoring his century. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

“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. 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.

“Whether I was or wasn’t (weak against spin), I’m a better player of spin now, no doubt about that. Fortunately enough, I’m quite stubborn so I went out of my own way to learn. I had to go back and figure it out all by myself.”

India’s torrid day, meanwhile, could be summed up by two gruesome moments within the first six overs: a Steve Harmison-esque wide from Mohammed Shami that made a beeline for Virat Kohli at second slip off the first ball of the day, and – costlier still – a horrific dropped catch from wicketkeeper KS Bharat to spare Head.

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On 7 at the time, the life seemed to revive Head, the South Australian flicking the switch to turn aggressor as he has regularly in the latter stages of this series.

Helped by ball after ball from Shami and Umesh Yadav speared into his pads, the left-hander cashed in with glee, punishing the boundary rope through mid-wicket and unfurling a pair of glorious cover drives to boot.

Head’s fun ended at 32 as an attempt to larrup Ashwin down the ground ended in the safe hands of Jadeja at mid-on; with it, so too would end the flurry of runs. 0/61 after 15 overs prior to Head’s wicket, just 14 runs would be added from the remaining 14 overs before lunch, with the visitors also losing Marnus Labuschagne for 3 after chopping Shami on.

The grind continued after lunch, but Khawaja and Smith proved impregnable, their 79-run partnership bringing with it the first wicketless session of the series as Jadeja and Ashwin were successfully blunted.

Smith’s defiance ended through his own mistake: rather than meet Jadeja on the front foot with a straight bat, as he’d done throughout his 135-ball innings, he attempted to push through cover off the back foot. The ball skidded on, found the inside edge, and like Labuschagne before him, disturbed the furniture.

Peter Handscomb’s innings to follow was a stark divide: commanding against spin, as he has been for much of the series, his vulnerabilities against quality pace were exposed by Shami.

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Staying back in the crease, Handscomb played down the wrong line expecting inswing; he thought wrong, and lost his off stump as punishment.

Suddenly 4/170, and having looked bereft of ideas for much of the day, India sensed an opening.

Khawaja, but especially Green, put paid to that. The pair made for an ideal partnership to combat the tiring Indians: Khawaja the anvil, Green the hammer.

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And hammer he did; ruthless on anything overpitched, unfurling classical cover drive after classical cover drive, the Western Australian was also ruthless on anything short, raising to his considerable height to punish back of a length offerings repeatedly and mercilessly.

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On another day, his breezy 49, quite possibly the most commanding innings of his career to date, would have been the key story: but this was Khawaja’s day, and fittingly in the final over, another whip off his pads to the square boundary brought with it a joyous ton.

Usman Khawaja of Australia celebrates after scoring his century.

Usman Khawaja of Australia celebrates after scoring his century. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

For much of his career, and indeed his recent years in the wilderness, Khawaja seemed certain to end his time in cricket as an unfulfilled talent.

His century in Ahmedabad, capping his 15 months of glory, now make it clear he deserves his place among Australia’s modern batting greats instead.

“It’s just nice to go out there and tick off a hundred in India which was something if you told me that five years ago I’d think you were crazy,” Khawaja said. “There was a lot of emotion, I just never expected this to happen.

“I do feel like that monkey went off my back when I scored that hundred in Dubai (against Pakistan in 2018) – but that was Dubai. I wanted to do it in the subcontinent, so it’s very special.”

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