Australian batsman Usman Khawaja admits his usually cool facade was broken by his damaging dismissal late on day three of the Port Elizabeth Test, as he continues his struggle to reach the heights of his contemporaries Steven Smith and David Warner, in a team where he no longer feels like a junior member.
After a quiet start to the series, Khawaja had got into rhythm early with a volley of boundaries through the cover point region at St George’s Park, and seemed the man most likely to help Australia set South Africa a testing target on a deteriorating pitch. But in the shadows of stumps, he was pinned lbw by a Kagiso Rabada reverse swinger, and said he had seldom been more frustrated when walking off the field.
“I don’t really get angry at myself if I make a mistake or things happen, but if I feel that I am in a position to win games for my team or to make a difference in the game, that’s probably when it annoys me the most and gets me to the most,” Khawaja told SEN Radio. “So it did trigger a little response.
“It is a pretty bad feeling getting out right at the end. But, in my mind, I was making sure it was going to be a decent ball that was going to get me out. I wasn’t trying to go out there and do something extravagant. I was going to grind as long as I could, whether that could be for another half a day. Unfortunately, Rabada bowled a good ball and got me.”
The frustration of the dismissal provided insight into how Khawaja has evolved as a cricketer. He admits that it took him time both to feel comfortable in the Australian dressing room and also to invest fully in team success. “Over the last couple of years I’ve really enjoyed playing cricket and found ways to enjoy it – and one of the ways I’ve found it is really enjoying team success when we win.
“I probably feel a bit more comfortable now in this team than I did when I first came back a few years ago. I’ve been around for three years now so I don’t go out of my way and try to speak up for any reason, but if I think there needs to be something said I say it. I’ve got a pretty good relationship with Smudge (Smith) and with Davey (Warner) too, which always makes it better.
“We have all grown up playing together so there is no sort of older player/younger player at the moment. There are no egos going around. Smudge is an excellent leader but there are always people coming around and saying what about this and what about that, and he’s good at thinking about that, which is nice.”
“It was important just to get my story out there, so people can relate and understand that if you want to achieve something, play for Australia or have goals – there’s always going to be things that hamper you.”
As Smith and Warner have taken flight as international batsmen and leaders, Khawaja has remained a subject of some conjecture – brilliant in home conditions but less so abroad. The 75 in Port Elizabeth was Khawaja’s highest score in an overseas Test apart from New Zealand in 2016, and while prickly about addressing his away record, he said the familiarity of conditions in South Africa was useful in terms of starting an innings.
“I felt that first wicket in Durban was very SCG-ish. There wasn’t too much swing, it reversed, it spun a little,” Khawaja said. “So, I think South African wickets are very similar to back home. This PE wicket was a little bit different because it played tricks the whole way through. But that’s the beauty of going outside Australia in different conditions. As batsmen, if the wicket is hard it is hard for everyone. If the wicket is easy, or is is a nice wicket, it is nice for everyone.
One measure of Khawaja’s level of comfort with himself as an Australian cricketer is how late last year he penned a column about his experiences dealing with discrimination as a young player of an Asian background. In sticking his head above the parapet, in contrast to his earlier years when advised by his management to simply stick to the cricket, he faced criticism. But for all the barbs there was the knowledge that telling his story would also inspire others.
“It’s probably not something I would have said or talked about a few years ago,” Khawaja said. “I think it’s important. It’s one of those things where Australia is growing – both in a sense of the cricketing country but who is playing. And where cricketers are coming from. And Australia as a whole. So for me it was important just to get my story out there, so people can relate and understand that if you want to achieve something, play for Australia or have goals – there’s always going to be things that hamper you.
“I felt like if I wrote that story and it helped even one person to relate to where I came from, or where they are right now – to help them achieve what they want then it was a good enough reason to do it. I got a lot of good feedback, some negative feedback too. I’m fine with that, it doesn’t really bother me too much. The good far outweighs the bad.”