Usman Khawaja was the driving force behind one of the great Test match escapes, as Australia valiantly earned a draw in Dubai. Ben Jones analyses one of the finest rearguard innings of recent times.
“Khawaja can’t play spin”.
“Khawaja can’t succeed in Asia”,
“Khawaja can’t score difficult runs”.
Perhaps not then. Off the back of years of criticism regarding his game against spin, Usman Khawaja produced one of the finest knocks ever by an Australian batsman in Asia, almost single-handedly bringing his side a draw in another classic Test in the UAE. Stylishly, doggedly, Khawaja saw off a world-class attack for over 300 deliveries, guiding an inexperienced batting line-up through almost all of their 140 overs, the fourth longest any side has ever batted in the final dig of a Test in this country. This was, almost to the letter, the kind of innings that people said Khawaja couldn’t play.
Of course, you can have some sympathy with Khawaja’s critics. Averaging 14.62 in Asia isn’t a good base from which to be bolshy, and it’s hard to refute the argument that you can’t play spin when the numbers say that when you go to Asia, spinners dismiss you every 34 balls. In his five Tests in these conditions before this tour, Khawaja had made 117 runs. His monumental fourth innings effort yielded more than that in a single trip to the crease. But if ever one innings can transform the reputation of a player, this was it.
Indeed, transformations are rather the flavour of the day, because the approach Khawaja brought to Dubai is one we’ve never seen from him before. In the face of relentless scepticism regarding his ability to ever make runs in these conditions, he has completely transformed his game. This technical restructuring has seen him almost completely dismantle his previous strategy, and rebuild it with three key changes. One, an overall increase in attacking intent; two, a willingness to come down the track more regularly; and three, to sweep more frequently.
Underpinning it all is that first point. Attacking the spinners has always been a strength of Khawaja’s; across his Test career, when attacking spin he has been dismissed every 72 deliveries, compared to every 70 deliveries when he plays a defensive stroke. He has always been comfortable going at the slower bowlers, his issues coming when trying purely to survive, so it makes perfect sense to build his strategy around that innate strength. For Khawaja, intent doesn’t come at the expense of security; increased security comes as a result of increased intent.
Within that decision to be more attacking, he made the choice to use his feet far, far more than he has done previously when batting in Asia. He’s more than trebled the frequency with which he’s danced down the wicket to the spinners, disturbing their length and limiting the impact of any turn they’re able to find.
At one particularly tense moment today, Khawaja’s trust in the tactic was evident. When Mohammad Hafeez took the second new ball, the Pakistan veteran immediately removed the well-set Travis Head. The skiddy qualities associated with both Hafeez and the new ball itself meant that hanging back was a treacherous option, and Khawaja reflected on this, and stepped up his charge percentage. In the first full over he faced from Hafeez, Khawaja went down the track to four deliveries, refusing to let the off-spinner trap him deep in his crease. Those advances brought two boundaries, but that was besides the point – it was an essentially defensive method, and an effective one at that.
When he did stay at home, Khawaja didn’t prod or nudge – he swept, and he swept a lot. Significantly more than on previous visits to Asia, he was willing to get down on one knee and send the ball square, either to the off-side or the leg-side. 36 times in his century he dropped down and swept the spinners, 38 of his runs coming in this manner. He swept spin 52 times in the Test; in his entire career before this match, he’d swept the spinners on 80 occasions, meaning that 40% of all the sweeps Khawaja has ever played against spin have come in this Test. This wasn’t his typical strategy, but he executed it with aplomb.
Equally, it wasn’t just the volume with which he used the sweep-option, but the flexibility with which he played it. Before this Test, just 10% of Khawaja’s sweeps in Asia were reverse-sweeps; in this Test, it’s been 46%. The increased access to the off-side, access provided without having to indulge in the notoriously difficult task of cutting the spinner, is vital. It allowed him to manipulate the field almost in the manner of an ODI batsman, meaning that he could tick along with greater ease. Intent without aggression, without undue risk. Eventually the shot brought his dismissal, but it was a defining feature of his batting, a key reason for why he lasted as long as he did.
One result of this has been that Khawaja has reduced his dependency on scoring in the ‘V’. Previous to this Test, 27% of his runs against spin in Asia were in the straight ‘V’, between mid-on and mid-off. In Dubai, that’s dropped right down to 12%.
The more intangible result of these three crucial changes is that Khawaja looked completely at ease whilst in the middle. He is always an elegant batsman, but the particular breed of elegance on show in Dubai was different to that which we usually see. It wasn’t fluid, reactive strokeplay; it was proactive, his precise strategy dictating the play.
The material results this transformation produced were astonishing. This was the highest score by an Australian batsman in the fourth innings of an Asian Test. At 524 minutes, it was the longest (in terms of time at the crease) an Australian has ever batted in the fourth innings of any Test, anywhere in the world. He has transformed from a man who couldn’t succeed in Asia, to a man who has succeeded like none before him.
The success has taken time, of course. Some players, like Michael Clarke, waltz in and look immediately at home, that former Australian skipper making a century on debut in Bangalore, and within a year making another in New Zealand, then a 91 at Lord’s. But there is something beautiful about a sportsperson ticking the final box, succeeding in a manner they were told they never could. Virat Kohli finally succeeding in England; Dan Carter finally winning the World Cup in 2011; Sergio Garcia winning the Master’s in 2017. There’s a sense that having invested in these players despite their flaws, their failings, that when they overcome those flaws then the success is all the sweeter.
And make no mistake, this was one of the great innings. If Tim Paine and Nathan Lyon had slogged two up in the air in the last over, it would have remained a great innings, because it’s greatness wasn’t even really ever about the result. It was about the 302-ball spectacle of a man redesigning his entire batsmanship, taking it apart and putting it back together anew, in order to achieve a goal which looked to be beyond him. In doing so, he may have permanently changed the way the Australian public perceive him – perhaps the greatest achievement of all.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.