Magellan Ashes 2017-18

Unwrapping the riddle of Usman Khawaja

Both on the field and off, Australia's No.3 has been on an extraordinary journey since moving to Queensland five years ago, and it has all helped shape a man who looks set for a career-defining Ashes

Adam Burnett

17 November 2017, 09:20 PM AEST


Adam Burnett previously wrote for and edited at Inside Cricket magazine and The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia and The Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK.

For a batsman who appears to perform so comfortably in front of millions, it seems contradictory that Usman Khawaja is wary of the media. Encouragingly, he is candid enough to admit it, even if his artful dodging of confirming a time and place to catch up over the past four months had already provided strong evidence.

"I've always been cautious about the media," he says. "The problem with journalism today, I find, is it's all about the headlines."

Sitting in the home team viewing area at the Gabba, as a warm afternoon becomes evening, Khawaja's misgivings certainly aren't betrayed by his manner, which is engaging and relaxed. His replies, too, are considered, intelligent and often funny. Throughout our interview, that brilliant smile appears regularly, and a surprisingly booming laugh intermittently punctuates proceedings.

Khawaja on the key to playing the pink ball

Perhaps the comfort of the location quells his scepticism. Khawaja looks toward the middle as he reflects on the five years he has called Brisbane home – a period in which his life has changed considerably, despite a couple of key cornerstones remaining very much the same.

The centre square holds treasured memories, including his maiden Test hundred; a rollicking affair against the Black Caps just two years ago. After play that night, he talked about achieving a lifelong dream, one his father had predicted with a quiet assuredness long before young Usman dared to believe it could become a reality.

"I hope I don't wake up in the next five minutes," he told the press that night.

In October 2012, it was also the scene of his first Sheffield Shield match in a maroon cap. Queensland took on South Australia, who boasted a New South Wales recruit of their own: a dashing left-hander named Phillip Hughes, who had grown up as a friend and rival of Khawaja's as they went tit for tat on their respective cricket journeys. The two became mates as their careers converged at the Blues, and as Khawaja went north and Hughes headed west, their separate paths somehow brought them closer.

"We were just chatting after that game and it was so chilled out," Khawaja remembers. "Hughesy was having a lot of fun at South Australia – a different team, different dynamic, something new and refreshing, and I was the same with Queensland.

"Our relationship really grew from there."

***

Four matches. Three losses. One draw. Zero wins. That's the sum of Khawaja's Ashes career.

It's been seven summers since he made what he recalls as an "embarrassing" entrance to cricket's most traditional rivalry. He chooses the adjective not because of his performance – he made a respectable 37 and 21 on what was his Test debut – but because of the reaction it triggered.

Australia, beaten by an innings in Adelaide and Melbourne (and ultimately in Sydney) by a strong England side, had lost an out-of-form Ricky Ponting to a fractured finger for the final Test.

'It's always nice to have a bit of freedom' : Khawaja

Enter Khawaja. More aesthete than athlete, the left-hander had just turned 24, had earned a reputation as a silky stroke-maker, and promptly pulled the second ball of his Test career to the rope for four.

It was a delightful shot, daring in its execution, and the Sydney crowd embraced the chutzpah as well as the beacon of hope it represented in an otherwise painful summer.

When he departed two hours later, sections of the crowd stood in applause.

"I had a lot of people going, 'Yeah he scored 37, but what a 37'," Khawaja remembers. "And I'm thinking, 'Aww man, this is kind of embarrassing – I got 37'."

In seven Ashes innings since, his second-innings 54 at Lord's in 2013 stands as the lone time he has passed that initial tally. It's a statistic that pushes forward thoughts of unfinished business against the Old Enemy this summer.

***

Khawaja's distrust of the media is multi-layered. After a decade cast in varying degrees of limelight, he has learned to temper an impulse to speak freely, for fear of offence, misunderstandings, or mountains manufactured from molehills.

"You say one wrong line and it gets taken out of context," he says. "Or blown out of proportion."

Last month, he borrowed from the batting textbook and shifted onto the front foot, penning a column for a sports website. In it, he detailed the racial vilification he received while growing up as a Pakistan-born Muslim in Australia.

"At school I was called things by other kids I had never heard before," he wrote for The Players' Voice. 'F---ing curry muncher' was one of the more popular ones that particularly hurt."

Majestic Khawaja scores maiden Test ton

In response, one newspaper published an opinion piece that accused Khawaja of "aligning himself … to our toxic victim culture". It was a reaction that, in a previous life, would have shaken him. Nowadays his concern is focused on reaching the people he is speaking to, as opposed to losing sleep over those who miss the point; Khawaja, now 30, at long last feels comfortable detailing publicly some of the racism he endured.

"When I was younger it was hard for me to speak my mind," he says. "I'd just come into the Australian cricket team. I've got all these opportunities from cricket, and growing up in Australia, which I'm so grateful for.

"So it felt tough to come out and say those things, because they can be taken one of two ways: very negatively, or positively, for what they are."

Khawaja's religion and ethnicity has provoked unending curiosity, likely due to the context of the sporting landscape in which he finds himself; he remains the only Muslim to play Test cricket for Australia. In his early twenties, and as his profile grew, he could predict the questions before they were asked: 'Is it true that you're a qualified pilot? What was it like growing up as a Muslim in Australia?'

In the humdrum of contemporary cricket, both subjects were legitimate talking points, but Khawaja's unwillingness to delve meaningfully into the latter made the point a little moot.

"Growing up, my management told me to brush it aside. Just let it go. Play a straight bat and just concentrate on cricket," he says.

"I can understand why they said that, (so as) not to get too involved in the whole politics side of things, so whenever I used to get asked about it, I'd brush it aside for that reason.

"As I've gotten older, grown up and experienced life a bit more, I feel comfortable speaking my mind (about) any experiences that I've felt, things that happened growing up.

"I'm in a different place in my life, and my career, where I can feel comfortable saying that.

"Not at any stage did I want to sound ungrateful for what I have. I was just giving a perspective of what my life was when I moved to Australia, which is something you don't hear a lot about.

"Hopefully someone can relate to it, and get something out of it. That'd be nice."

***

That place, in a literal sense, is Brisbane, a city considerably smaller than former home of Sydney and better suited, he believes, to his casual nature. The people just seem more in sync with Khawaja's sense of self, the humid air less thick with burdensome expectation. It has freed him up to be himself, as well. To embrace that streak of showmanship that has always lurked close to the surface, busting to break free via a celebratory dab for the kids or the wearing of a pair of braces to a team function. This is the real Usman Khawaja; a man who finds the expression of the NBA more in line with modern society's way of thinking than cricket's sometimes suffocating traditions.

"I love everything about the NBA – what a spectacle," he says. "It's entertainment. And that's what cricket is – we play a game and it's entertainment.

"I love cricket's traditions and respect them, but at the same time we have to move on, push with the times and really bring that entertainment factor to the game."

Khawaja is most comfortable being 'one of the boys'. He is witty and fun-loving, and as such, a well-equipped player in the daily shit-stirring that bonds professional sports teams like little else.

Khawaja, Agar in hilarious Pune net duel

"I just like to take the piss – I'm a big kid," he says, and you're inclined to believe him.

But he's also Queensland captain. The leader of a state side with a proud history and high expectations. The fact that he ascended to the role is a reflection of both his consistency as a batsman and the respect he has earned among teammates and coaching staff.

"I was worried coming into a new team, how I might fit in," Khawaja says of his 2012 move, which turned heads at the time.

"I had a lot of fun playing back at New South Wales too, but I really gelled easily with the Queensland guys, the personalities.

"We all live close together so we're always hanging out. Back in New South Wales, we all lived so far away from one another because Sydney is just so big.

"It's different here. I just love how relaxed and down-to-earth everyone is. I think it really suits me."

But there's more to the love affair than simply mateship.

***

The things he misses aren't items that can be neatly packed into a suitcase. The cooking of his mum, Fozia, who puts on family feasts that her boys rave about; mouthwatering Pakistani dishes, including a butter chicken to die for. The wisdom of his dad, Tariq, who he warmly labels "the smartest person I know". And the simple comfort of their company.

"My mum has always been someone who can switch my mind off cricket," he says. "Always someone to talk to. She relates to me."

Khawaja has two older brothers, Nauman and Arsalan, and the family remains close, having experienced their share of slings and arrows throughout a life together that has encompassed a move from Islamabad to Sydney, and the culture shock that inevitably followed. The two countries' mutual passion for cricket helped the transition, and remains a constant for the Khawajas; the family attends Usman's matches whenever possible.

"I do miss them," he says. "I don't get to see them enough."

The house he spent much of his childhood in is still the family home today, in Parramatta, the heart of Sydney's west. Khawaja recounts its reconstruction at the hands of Tariq – an IT specialist – more than a decade ago; floorboards, fittings, frames, and ceilings. The man with a degree in electrical engineering went to work, looking up do-it-yourself clips on YouTube to guide him along the way.

"He had no idea how to build a house, but he just learnt," he remembers. "I didn't really appreciate it but now I look back on it and I think, 'The guy's a genius'."

The prospect of any visit there now is met with excitement and a degree of nostalgia for the memories it holds.

"It's quite empty now because me and my brothers have moved out," Khawaja reflects. "But my parents are there and I still love it."

***

Since the interstate move, Khawaja has become a better batsman with each passing season. In the JLT One-Day Cup in October, he was the third-leading run-scorer. In this summer's Sheffield Shield, he is presently second, having been in his team's top two highest scorers in all six innings to date. Across both competitions combined, he has more runs than anyone, while his first-class average for the Bulls has crept up to 51.52.

Not only are the numbers elite, but they're instructive, too, because it's difficult to escape the thought that with Khawaja, form in the middle is a direct reflection of life outside the cricket bubble; when it's good, there are runs aplenty.

Khawaja stands firm as Bulls falter

And right now it is great. You can almost feel the contentedness. Khawaja is calm and in control of his emotions. His ability to constantly centre himself is no small accomplishment given the vacillations of his chosen profession; in the past 16 months alone, he's been dropped from the Test team thrice. Never mind the five years prior.

But there's room for excitement, too. Particularly when he refers to his fiancée, Rachel McLellan, which he does almost by way of habit. The pair met through mutual friends and played mini-golf on their first date in Victoria Park. Just a couple of years later, Usman was proposing in Central Park.

"Things moved really quick between me and Rachel," he says, considering the dominoes that fell. "Moving to Queensland wasn't something I ever thought about, and I wasn't out of my way looking for a partner, or a wife. It just happened. It felt right.

"Things work out in a funny way, and I believe everything happens for a reason."

It's a credo Khawaja has repeatedly heard from his father, one he links back to his fundamental beliefs, and a recurring theme through his life. At the heart of all happening around him is the Islam faith which, he explains, teaches that there is good behind everything God does, though sometimes "we don't see far enough, we don't know enough to see it". It also teaches the importance of perspective.

"That's the backbone for me. It's what helps me stay level-headed," he says. "I won't have cricket forever, I'll have my family for as long as possible, but I'll always have Islam. My religion. It's a constant that I know will always be there."

Rachel, fittingly given the narrative, is a Queensland girl. She grew up just down the road from Khawaja's state teammate Ben Cutting, and their families are friends still. Her father is a big cricket fan while her brother is a professional golfer, both factors that have made life uncomplicated for the prospective son-in-law.

"I think I've crossed that last line," Khawaja smiles. "I've bought a place up here, I'm marrying a Queensland girl, so I've finally ticked all the boxes – I'm a Queenslander now."

The wedding, typically, is scheduled just after Australia return from a Test tour of South Africa, with Khawaja allowing himself a little latitude by offering a month – April – as opposed to an exact date for the nuptials. With Rachel as his wife, he will again be living with family, and in the same way he says Fozia understands his need to escape cricket, so too does she.

"There are times when it's easier to switch off than other times," he says. "Rachel understands that. She understands what it's like."

***

'To my friend. The worst speller I knew. And the best cut shot I have ever seen. "We just love batting aye bruz". RIP.'

It is closing in on three years since the cricket world lost Hughes, and Khawaja's Instagram post from the day after his death remains a touching tribute. He has more Test runs than his old sparring partner now, and more hundreds, and by the second Ashes Test in Adelaide, they will have each played 26 times in Baggy Green. The numbers are permanent ones for Hughes, though Khawaja believes they scarcely do him justice.

 

To my friend. The worst speller I knew. And the best cut shot I have ever seen. "We just love batting aye bruz". RIP

A post shared by Usman Khawaja (@usman_khawajy) on

"He was an amazing player," he says. "I just loved watching him bat. He'd go out there, and the way he'd play – the cut shots, big cover drives. People used to sledge him about his technique but I loved it. He was so fluent. He would just take attacks apart – bang, bang, bang.

"The way he came up through the ranks and dominated, it would've been nice to have seen him do that in Test cricket as well, and I've got no doubt in my mind he would've the more he experienced first-class cricket. It's just disappointing we didn't get to see it."

On the surface, they were worlds apart – the Pakistan-born city slicker and the country boy from Macksville. But the ties that bound them were deeper than that. Family was one.

"He loved going back home to his parents," Khawaja remembers. "And I could relate to that … we were very similar like that. We played cricket, but when we didn't, we would just disperse and stay away from the game – we were really good at that."

Khawaja a class above in Adelaide

A drive to succeed, to prove others wrong and themselves right, was another commonality. Khawaja recalls a period in which he was juggling his flying hours with cricket, and had to make some sacrifices with the latter to complete the former.

"Hughesy came up to me and said, 'You're not playing Second XI cricket?'" he says, smiling. "I knew why he was asking me, he was thinking, 'That means I've got a clear door', because I was scoring a lot of runs in grade cricket that season."

Ultimately, he can be philosophical about the loss of his mate; a stance perhaps afforded to him by his faith and a view that the greatest sadness and pain resides with the Hughes family.

"I haven't talked a lot about Phil," he says. "It's not easy, but at the same time, time heals all wounds.

"Playing cricket that first year was really hard for a lot of us, but I felt more for his family; I can't imagine how that feels.

"I remember talking to his dad not too long after he passed away. He watched me play a lot growing up, and he said a few really kind words to me which I'll never forget.

"I told him, in my mind, Phil was always just that one step better than me."

***

The barbs have been many and varied over the years. Criticisms of his fielding, or his fitness, or a general lazy attitude. A case of the Mark Waugh Complex, perhaps, when a nonchalant air can miscommunicate a lack of commitment or care.

"That hurts me a little bit. A fair bit," Khawaja says of those types of suggestions. "Perception is … if I get out and they say it's a lazy shot (but) it's not really. Or if I'm walking around in the field with my natural style – everyone else is walking around as well but for whatever reason I look like I'm being lazy. There's definitely been a bit of that.

"I've always had to work hard on my fitness. It's not something that comes naturally to me like it does to some people. I work very hard on everything so it is disappointing when you hear stuff like that."

Khawaja takes solace instead in his performances, and the toil he throws himself into with his teammates during pre-season and throughout a campaign. By now, he is accustomed to the negatives.

"If you're not willing to get criticised," he says, "then you probably shouldn't play professional cricket, because no matter what you do, you're always going to get criticised."

He knows it too well, having also dealt with the potshots due to an ongoing perception that he struggles against spin bowling on the subcontinent. The numbers are certainly working against him (he averages 14.62 from nine Test innings in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) but he has also suggested a lack of faith from selectors hasn't helped.

Last month he publicly questioned the new horses-for-courses selectorial policy, which looks at picking batsmen for conditions as opposed to form. Khawaja had passed fifty in six straight Tests when he was dropped for the India series, and despite being reinstated for the first Test in Bangladesh, a pair of ones was enough to see a line through his name for the next match.

"(It is) very hard to develop your game and play some consistent cricket if you're not getting consistent opportunities overseas, which I haven't been getting," he told ABC Grandstand. "(The selectors) never used to (change the team based on the country they were playing in) before, I'm not really sure why they do it now. It creates a lot of instability in the team I reckon, going in and out for everyone."

His forthrightness predictably attracted headlines, which in turn brought to the surface another facet of his angst with the media.

"There was a lot of negative stuff that came out, which was blown out of proportion … I didn't mean it like that at all," he says.

"When I read that, I was like, 'that's a bit unfair'. When people make up headlines they don't really relate to the context of what was said, and people just believe that; they don't read the article for what actually has been said.

"So on the one hand everyone wants you to be open and honest, but then on the other hand, you have these editors making up headlines.

"In a game where you're in a team environment and everyone's working for a common goal, it can be sometimes very hard to even just speak your opinion a little bit. As players we've got to be really circumspect.

"Sometimes the more I deal with it, the more I think, 'Why should I even say anything?''"

***

It is more than four years since Khawaja played an Ashes Test. He made 0 and 21 in Durham in August 2013 and didn't play for Australia again until November 2015; just one of a host of times he has found himself on the outside looking in. He marked his return with 174 against the Black Caps and has averaged 58.73 for Australia since. On home soil, that jumps to 77.50 – superior to superstar pair Steve Smith and David Warner through the same period. In fact, you have to go back 10 Test matches and six years to find a Test in Australia in which he batted and failed to pass 50.

Consequently, despite the three subcontinental axings (the most recent of which means he is not a Test incumbent), there has been zero debate as to the identity of Australia's No.3 for this week's first Ashes Test. England will come across a new Khawaja at the Gabba from Thursday but he has an interesting take on how far he has come since that first Test outing in Sydney all those years ago.

Aussie cricketers hit the Big Apple

"I'm definitely a different player (from his debut)," he says. "A better player? I like to think so, but our game revolves around performances. As a batsman, you can play really well and the rub of the green will go your way and you have a great series.

"Then sometimes it doesn't. The best players average 50 for a reason – because you can't go out there every time and score a truckload of runs. That's not how the game works.

"But I think I've definitely grown as a player in that time, that's what I know for sure."

***

Enjoyment, plain and simple. That's what drives Khawaja now. He's at a place in his life and career where he can see the forest for the trees.

"I've learned to just play the game as it is instead of set major goals," he says. "I've found if I play with that mindset I'm better off anyway; I'm competitive enough as it is, and if I try to be any more competitive I just tip over the edge."

He has his parents to thank for that. And his religion. A healthy blend of perspective which, judging by an avalanche of early season runs, has also greatly benefited his batting. More than anything or anyone though, it's Rachel who has relaxed him. Her calming influence has also helped the public get a glimpse of the Usman Khawaja she sees.

"I get asked to do interviews, and I'm always shying away from it," he says. "Rachel's like, 'Just do it – people want to know, they're interested'."

On The Road: Uzzie mic'd up in nets

He says Rachel laughs at him for coming across so seriously on the cricket field, especially when he's batting. He explains in response that he's concentrating quite hard on adequately handling 140kph projectiles being hurled his way. She tells him he should be smiling.

"I'm like, 'I'm trying to score runs here – I'm not trying to like, you know, make everyone feel good!'" and he erupts into a laugh that echoes off the walls of an empty viewing area that will be buzzing come Thursday.

The stars have aligned perfectly heading into this first Test for Khawaja to exorcise his ghosts of Ashes past. Mentally, he's as well placed as he's ever been. His form is superb. And he averages a century almost every second first-class match at the Gabba. He knows none of that guarantees runs, but he's also overcome worse odds.

"For some reason, my dad always said I was going to play for Australia – I never believed it but he always said it," he remembers. "In my head, I was like, 'Dad, do you realise how hard that is? It's a pretty slim chance. I want to play for Australia as much as anyone, don't get me wrong. Part of myself thinks I can, but it's so far away'. Then I debuted and he was like, 'Told ya'."

Whatever his Ashes outcome, Khawaja will balance it contentedly in the context of life, comfortable in the knowledge that everything happens for a reason.

2017-18 International Fixtures

Magellan Ashes Series

First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets

Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets

Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets

Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets

ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets

Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets

T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21