IND vs AUS: Khawaja mere Khawaja rings around Kotla

The five-minute drinks break in the second session was sombre. The loud Kotla crowd was suffocatingly quiet. Beside the pitch, the Indian players stood scattered, gulping energy drinks and water; a few metres away, Usman Khawaja and Peter Handscomb stumbled on the ground in a satisfied world after quelling Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja.

It’s often the tone of the second session — meandering passages interlaced with standalone moments of magic. That moment of magic arrived in the fourth ball off the 45th over. Khawaja unfurled a reverse-sweep, a stroke that he executed adroitly throughout the innings. He sweet-spotted it as he had most strokes in the day, but KL Rahul, the condemned and ridiculed opener, leaped sideways like an alley cat to pluck a one-handed blinder. The catch was day-defining, in that it helped India restrict Australia to 263, when they looked destined for a meatier total. The crowd burst forth in joy; so did India’s cricketers under the Kotla sun that had begun its retreat into the horizon. Khawaja walked back shadow-reverse-sweeping, his head hung in dejection after his 125-ball 81 runs.

Not perhaps because he had missed a hundred, which could have been his second in four innings; but because he lost his wicket at the most critical point just when nerves were crawling into India’s head and the game was drifting from them. Nonetheless, Khawaja’s was a priceless knock in the context of the game and the series, one that kept his team hanging onto this match and series.

Brutally criticised for the Nagpur capitulation, Australia needed to fight back, and he was the calm face of his team’s fightback, the man who injected belief back in them, the man who showed the plans against spinners on paper could be executed in the middle too, the man who rode the storm after Australia lost Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne in the space of three balls before lunch. Earlier, he had shielded David Warner, later he would inspire Handscomb.

It’s fitting that Australia’s renaissance began with their renaissance man. Amidst the chaos around them, they required the calm head and soft hands of Khawaja to save the day from unfolding into a subcontinent ordeal. That he did not make it look like a hard battle is a testament to his technique as well as disposition. He breathes calm, even in the face of a tempest. He played and missed, edged a few balls, sought DRS’s intervention to overturn a marginal lbw decision off Jadeja’s bowling, saw his more celebrated colleagues sink, but he remained unflustered, his courage unbreakable. He would just tap his bat on the wicket, take a stroll and then bat on. Whenever India threw blows at Australia, he would counterpunch, with the nifty feet of a middle-weight boxer.

Khawaja’s technique helps in accentuating his calm demeanour. His movements are minimalistic, so minimal after the early shuffle, that you feel his feet barely move and wonder how he managed all the pile of runs. There are no jerky trigger movements, no fidgeting about, no pronounced stride either way. Often his feet, when defending, seem tied to each other, he defends not beside the pads but way in front of the pads. Hands he has, dexterous soft hands douse the fire of the fieriest ball. He has so much time too — an outcome of his supreme judgement and uncomplicated technique. Some batsmen create an air of intensity around them, which they feed on. Khawaja works the opposite way.

The strokes had the dexterity and precision of a pianist’s fingers, deft, measured taps. He would unpack the reverse-sweep against both Ashwin and Jadeja, jink down the ground and lift Ashwin over long-off, sweeping Jadeja off his stumps on a bouncy track. The sweep has been projected as the sharpest knife to blunt India’s spinners. No Australian batsman has swept with as much assuredness as Khawaja did. No one looked the most natural either in executing it. A semi predetermined shot, he hardly threw clues, bending only when the bowler has released the ball and he deems the length is suitable for the shot, before the quick hands takes over. He strips risk from the one of the riskiest shots in Test cricket, the reverse-sweep. Few play it as unhurriedly too—and hence make it enjoyable too.

Later, Khawaja would suss the sting out of the balls that kicked into him, balls that spat a cross him. It’s symbolic that to make a comeback into the series, Australia required the services of their man who had to make numerous comebacks into the team, his worth capped by the Allan Border Medal he wrapped on his neck at the end of last year. The moment had a wider resonance — he was the first batsman of Asian descent to win the medal, implying that the best Australian batsman of the last season was someone was a first-generation migrant from Pakistan.

Few Australia cricketers had to fight as hard as Khawaja for that moment when he was adjudged the best player of his country. Few cricketers had endured as many hardships to stitch a career as he had. Turned away from academies because of his background, forced to switch to a different state because of lack of opportunities, condemned the fall guy and extended the axe for the slight blip, his is a career of hurdling over setbacks, fighting on and not surrendering to destiny. “Whenever the Australian team wasn’t successful, Uzzy would be the first person to be dropped,” his mentor Bill Anderson recently told this newspaper.

Beneath the silk of his batting lies the steel of his soul. His was almost a career that slipped away; he was written off after the 2019 Ashes. When he was recalled in 2022, on the back of a deluge of runs that the selectors could no longer ignore, he was nudging 35, but in the autumn of his career, he has been Australia’s burning lights. On his splendour was built Australia’s conquest of Pakistan, and in the bigger picture, their dominance under Pat Cummins.

But India was supposed to be his sternest test of his career. Strangely, this was his first Test series in India. The double failures in Nagpur induced doubts. He seemed nervous in the first, jumpy in the second, swishing loosely at Ashwin. But as he has proven repeatedly in his career, he bounced back. And so did Australia, enjoying their best day of this tour, which muted the spectators in several long passages of the game, and which needed a magic on the field to bring joy back on their face.

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