While the hosts are busy trying to save Test cricket, Khawaja is content to play it
Starc: There are only flat wickets, not quick wickets in England
Mitchell Starc had his say in Australia’s short-ball attack in England, as the visitors took a commanding lead.
As Usman Khawaja punched Stuart Broad’s full toss down the ground to pass 50 for the third time in four innings, he walked down to his partner Marnus Labuschagne. Without a smile, he shook Labuschagne’s hand and reluctantly raised his bat, as if asking the crowd to settle down so he could continue his innings.
TV cameras cut to the Australian supporters in the Mound Stand, all wearing their canary yellow caps, then the far balcony. David Warner, George Bailey, Pat Cummins, Andrew McDonald, Travis Head and Michael di Venuto sat silently applauding.
Watching from a chair at the front of the dressing room, slightly turned away from the balcony, Steven Smith was waiting to pounce. Smith clapped as well, then let out an uncontrollable yawn. It was that kind of afternoon at Lord’s, a wonderful return to the normal rhythm of Test cricket after a series played in fast-forward.
Forget Joe Root’s reverse-scoop and Travis Head’s half-cut-half-slap. Ignore Cummins’ swipe down the ground for six and Zak Crawley’s cover drive. The reference to the shot of the first eight days of this Ashes series was largely suppressed.
It has been played 189 times already, 34 of which came on a grim, dark Friday afternoon under floodlights: Khawaja calmly, carefully defending one of England’s three main seamers – Broad, James Anderson and Ollie Robinson.
Khawaja faced 486 balls from three seamers in this series. He defended 39% of them and left 24%. He scored 173 runs off them – at a strike rate of 35 – and was dismissed just once, when trying to squeeze Robinson at backward point at Birmingham.
There have been eight days of play in this series and Khawaja has been unbeaten overnight in half of them, the fourth coming at Lord’s on Friday. After seeing 123 balls in the dark, he resumes tomorrow on 58 not out with a chance to put the second Test beyond England’s reach.
Khawaja faced 711 balls in the series, more than twice as many as any other batter on either side. His strike rate of 39.52 was, by some means, the lowest of any batter who faced more than 10 balls; his aggregate of 281 runs was more than 100 runs from his nearest competitor, Root.
His innings on Friday was characteristic of his series: uncluttered, organized and ruthless. He had a life on 19 when Anderson, at short midwicket, allowed a pull to crack his hands, but otherwise played late and with control that eluded most batters. If this is really the Bazball Ashes, nobody told Khawaja.
Khawaja’s opening partnership with David Warner was seen as one of Australia’s few areas of weakness heading into this tour; at Lord’s, they added 73 and 63 in perhaps the most difficult batting conditions either side faced in the match.
“They are very good,” said Mitchell Starc. “They have played a lot of cricket together. There is a lot of focus in the series on the way they want to do their cricket and they have both been fantastic openers for a long time. Uzzie’s form in the last two years has been phenomenal.
“They’ve built a great partnership over a long period of time. To go into a big series like this [and make] some of what they started was quality, to see them go about their business there. Obviously the opening partnership is a key but throughout our top order, everyone has stepped up at different times.”
While England’s openers, Crawley and Ben Duckett, have both performed creditably, Khawaja has been the difference between the teams so far. He was named Player of the Match at Edgbaston and will have the chance to add to his 75 runs at Lord’s on Saturday.
England have been busy trying to save Test cricket over the past 12 months; Khawaja is content to just play it. He’s not the sort of player that Lord’s crowds rush back from their long lunch or skip dessert at the Nursery Ground; he’s not the type to care, either.
It is worth considering whether, if he qualifies for them, this England team will find a place for Khawaja. Earlier this year, Ben Stokes was asked by Nasser Hussain whether a young Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott or Michael Atherton would stand a chance of forcing their way into England’s Test plans.
“I’m not saying that’s not the way to play,” Stokes replied, implying exactly that. “But in this day and age, while I’m captain and Baz [Brendon McCullum] coach, that’s not what we’re looking for. That’s the truth. That’s not what we want. We want players who will go out there and put pressure on the bowlers straight away.”
Khawaja was not one of those – but he was the best batsman on both sides. He will be back again on Saturday, again defending against Anderson, Broad and Robinson.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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