Khawaja's Ashes hype grows into substance

"Like Barbra Streisand, a star is born in Usman Khawaja. The lad is a prospect but he only got 37! Anyone would think he's the new Bradman judging by the reaction. He's all over the papers. It's incredible." This was how David Lloyd summed up Usman Khawaja's debut innings at the SCG in January 2011, which on a runs-to-column-inches ratio would have to rank among the most lauded performances of all time, coming as it did on a rain-interrupted day after Australia had already lost the Ashes.

After his brief taste of the Test match spotlight, which started with a whip-crack pull shot off Chris Tremlett and ended with a top edged sweep at Graeme Swann, Khawaja reflected the hunger of a young batsman who wanted more. "I had a ball out there, was having so much fun," he said. "I just wanted to stay out there as long as I could. I didn't want to come off." Seven years on, Khawaja reflected on his headlining start with some bemusement.

"That 37 was a bit embarrassing," Khawaja said, grinning. "It was a lot of carry on for a 37. But it was really nice to be out there. Playing in the Ashes was a dream and I did that. Winning an Ashes was a dream, we won. Scoring a hundred in the Ashes has always been something that I wanted to do and I've done that now too. So it was a really rewarding day. And having my family around, a few of my friends were in the grandstand today too, which was nicely timed, I couldn't have asked for anything more."

During the debut innings, Channel Nine's cameras had zoomed in on Khawaja's mother, Fozia, and her emotional rising of every delivery her son faced. This time, Fozia was again in attendance, this time alongside Khawaja's fiancee Rachel, as that yearning for a long Ashes innings was finally fulfilled on the same ground where it all began. When he reached three figures, his eyes searched for and then found that vital pair.

"It was elation, you don't get to celebrate Test centuries too much unless you're Steve Smith so you've got to enjoy them when they come," he said. "My mum and Rachel were sitting in the little box section, apparently my mum was wearing a pink hijab too, very cute. My mum all through my cricket career has always supported me, she's always been someone I can lean on through good and bad times and Rachel since I've known her over the last three years has been exactly the same, so they're two special women in my life. I knew they were up there [in the stands] and just paid tribute to that."

Khawaja is now older, wiser and with a much better-rounded game, something he demonstrated amply during a stay that stretched into a seventh hour before his dismissal. Easy of technique and languid of movement, he has sometimes attracted criticism, both from within the Australian cricket set-up and in public circles, for appearing to be too relaxed, even lazy. They are words that do not sit easily with him, and his long innings in Sydney, much like another fine century against South Africa under lights in Adelaide last summer, showed Khawaja's steelier side.

"It's disappointing, because when I'm scoring runs I'm elegant and when I'm not scoring runs I'm lazy," he said. "I can't seem to win when things aren't going well. But I've had that through my whole career, it's not like I'm going out there and not trying. It's disappointing to hear but something I've dealt with my whole career so when I play nothing really changes for me.

"I go out there and try to score runs every single time, try to score centuries every single time, and the way cricket works is sometimes you score runs and sometimes you don't, sometimes it feels really simple and easy and sometimes it's a bit of a grind, that's just the way it is.

"I think experience is one of those things [I've gained], the more you play, the more you learn if you're willing to learn. There's definitely been a few things I've changed from the first Test match to now, they haven't been major, but definitely things I've learned along the way in terms of facing the different bowlers. I haven't played against a lot of these guys a lot, people like Broad and Anderson and Moeen Ali, so it was good to play a five-match series because I haven't played one before. You learn a lot in those sorts of matches and contests, and I'm better for it."

Apart from the mental strength required to bat for a long period at the end of a series now about to stretch into its 24th of 25 days, Khawaja also put down a significant marker in terms of the way he played spin bowling. While Moeen and the debutant Mason Crane are not exactly Ravi Ashwin and Yasir Shah, they still gained appreciable assistance from a drying SCG surface, and required diligence and concentration to keep out. The fruits of Khawaja's toil were seen later in the day when Shaun and Mitchell Marsh took advantage of looser offerings from hands and shoulders tired by trying to find a way past the No. 3, who acknowledged this was probably the best he had played against spin in a Test match.

To that end it should help him the next time the selectors discuss the make-up of their team for Asian assignments, after Khawaja was shunted out, then in, then back out of the team in India and Bangladesh last year. "I've had a lot of good innings at the SCG when I used to play here on similar turning wickets, overseas in England a couple times on a few turning decks, I guess they just haven't been at Test level," Khawaja said. "For me I always knew I could score runs on these sorts of wickets, especially an SCG wicket.

"Playing here when I was younger certain things come back to you in terms of the way you play spin and the way I play spin, and it was nice to come out and score runs. I had that confidence.

"I'd love to be playing for Australia every single Test match, every chance I get. It hasn't gone that way over the last year, but all I can do is try to go out there and score runs for my team and do well in the top order. I like to be playing every single game, but I can't look too far ahead either."

Something else Khawaja has grown into over the past seven years is in becoming a voice for diversity in Australian cricket, penning a thoughtful column for Players Voice about his racial past and present, from being vilified as a junior player to witnessing the flowering of a far broader cross section of cricket talent down under, and acknowledging his part in that.

"So why is there an emergence of multi-race players now in Australia? Maybe it was inevitable with the growing multicultural community in Australia. Maybe it was a few friendly faces at the highest level. We will never know," he had written. "What I do know is Australian cricket is slowly changing and will finally have a chance to reflect what Australia really is. An international team truly representative of its richly diverse population."

In that sense, as well, Khawaja has emerged as a cricketer of substance beyond the hype of that first Test innings. And now he has an Ashes hundred to back it all up.