There was a moment early in the second day at the Sydney Cricket Ground when Steve Smith looked nailed on for a hundred. Sure, it was a dot ball, and sure, he was on seven at the time. But there was something about the way he stepped into a straight drive back at Stuart Broad, the feet moving perfectly, the timing crisp with no attempt at power, the line so straight that the bowler bent to scoop up the ball. At the ground where Smith made three international centuries in the previous Australian summer, he looked like Smith looks when he is most switched on.
Yet a few hours later, it was Usman Khawaja raising his bat to the cheers of a home crowd. Broad had got the better of Smith for 67, to an uncharacteristic push at a ball that didn’t require one. Khawaja had left the bowling impeccably, defended it resolutely, and taken it on when given the opportunity, in an innings that showed all of the best parts of his game built over the course of his lengthening career.
It was the shortcomings in his game that led to Khawaja spending most of the past two and a half years outside the national team, having been dropped after the third Ashes Test at Headingley in 2019. Khawaja had not had a terrible series batting at first drop, making 40 in an important partnership at Edgbaston and 36 in another at Lord’s. But he hadn’t made a compelling score, and then ran into some bad luck or bad timing.
Australia pulled the trigger on the opener Cameron Bancroft early, replacing him with Marcus Harris after two Tests. Marnus Labuschagne impressed in the third Test as Smith’s concussion replacement, and had to be retained when Smith returned. Had Australia given Bancroft one more match, he could either have succeeded and kept his spot, or been replaced by Khawaja moving up the order. But with Harris having played only once, selectors had to keep him for a stint that was ultimately worse than Bancroft’s, while Khawaja returned home to a poor Sheffield Shield season and floated out of the reckoning entirely.
Since then the reasonable conclusion has been that Khawaja’s time is done. He turned 35 just before Christmas, while Labuschagne has cemented himself in Khawaja’s old spot at No 3, and Will Pucovski emerged as the young tyro most likely to accompany David Warner’s final years at the top. Warner and Smith are also moving deeper into their 30s and overall the Test team has needed to be refreshed.
But just as things change quickly in one direction, they can go quickly in the other. Khawaja had a good half-season, Pucovski was ruled out with another concussion injury, Travis Head returned a positive Covid test, and suddenly there was a spot that needed to be filled, and a job that needed to be done.
Khawaja is no stranger to solving problems for Australia. During the one-day World Cup in 2019 he was thrown in at No 5 despite never having batted there in List A cricket. In the current match he was asked to bat there despite never having done so in Tests. By this point of his career the details such as where he bats don’t seem to faze Khawaja. He walked in on the first evening with Australia 117 for three, with trouble looming for the team if he failed, and instead made sure that he didn’t. He first batted through to stumps, then through the first session of the next day with Smith, before assuming the senior role once Smith was gone.
Through those hours, and his 260 deliveries, his patience and concentration shone through. At times in his career Khawaja’s innings have been ended by lapses in either. After a long first session with an extra half-hour, as he moved beyond his half-century, he opened up his repertoire of strokes: that lavish cover drive, a back cut, the pull. But they were careful selections for the right occasion, not extravagances for their own sake. Through he went past tea, towards sunset, taking Australia to a point where his eventual dismissal for 137 prompted a charge towards a declaration rather than a rearguard.
Of course, there is the question of what is next. But Khawaja before this match said that he was filling in for the match in Head’s spot. He is probably right, with the longer-term holder having been anointed and having made his own match-defining century in Brisbane. Head will return for the fifth Test in Hobart. Khawaja’s assignment was short-term and it has been fulfilled immaculately.
It doesn’t need to lead to anything else for it to be a triumph in its own right, a player showing that he still has what it takes years after he stopped getting that chance. Beyond Hobart, Australia will play nine Tests in Asia in the coming year. On his last visit in 2018 Khawaja made his masterpiece 140 to save a Test in Dubai. There is every likelihood that more chances will arise, and Khawaja has shown himself ready.