Australia v South Africa Tests
Khawaja rules as third Test heats up
Stand-in opener makes epic unbeaten hundred before Proteas come roaring back
Andrew Ramsey at the Adelaide Oval
25 November 2016, 11:47 PM AEST
In an innings where his only misstep brought the downfall of his captain, Usman Khawaja produced his most accomplished Test performance to formally launch Australian cricket’s defiant new era.
On an Adelaide Oval pitch that has offered hope to seamers and spinners alike, and against a pink ball that is supposed to make batting problematic, Khawaja crafted a masterful, unbeaten 138 to put his team in the ascendancy.
With a lead of 48 runs on the first innings, plus four wickets up their sleeves when they resume on day three.
And the reassurance that a top-order batter survived an entire day and remains a chance to become the first Australian since David Warner in Hobart five years ago to carry his bat through a Test innings.
The only blip in the 29-year-old’s 285-ball occupation – the longest in terms of deliveries negotiated in his 20-Test career to date – was the run out that yielded the wicket of his skipper Steve Smith against the run of the game.
And for which Khawaja shared culpability, having shaped to steal a single as Smith dropped the ball to point and then, just as quickly, hit the skids to leave his captain stranded, flailing and ultimately seething to be run out for 59.
But the 137-run partnership the pair had built for the third wicket after the loss of Matthew Renshaw and David Warner in the day’s opening half hour left the home team in now familiar strife at 2-37, had brought the sort of stoic defiance the Australians have so sorely lacked.
A ‘resilience’, to quote one of Smith’s current buzz words, that continued when Peter Handscomb replaced his captain at the crease as Khawaja carved and caressed his way to his fifth – and arguably most significant – Test hundred.
Thrust involuntarily into the role of opening batsman for the first time in his Test career after Warner got his timings wrong and was forbidden from starting his innings when Australia’s got underway on Thursday night, Khawaja fused patience with polish.
A natural stroke maker compelled to curb those instincts because of the prevailing conditions that load the game in the favour of bowlers for a change, and because he was one of only three players in the top six with Test match experience.
The left-hander had survived a torrid time against the new ball under the floodlights, and then an inspired afternoon spell on resumption from Kyle Abbott who had bowled five overs before conceding a run.
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But Khawaja waited shrewdly for his moments.
Defending solidly and repeatedly, pushing softly at the ball to negate the ever-alert slips cordon, then climbing into the shorter, wider deliveries that would invariably if infrequently arrive.
When debutant wrist-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi was tossed the ball, Khawaja made it clear he was not about to let the left-armer find his feet at Test level and twice lofted him over his head in a single over.
It took him more than two-and-a-half hours to reach 50, before he delved deeper into his repertoire of strokes and fittingly reached his century with a delicate dab to the boundary off Shamsi.
A milestone that brought a suitably restrained celebration from the Queensland captain, who then set about taking Australia into the lead.
With more than a helping hand from the unorthodox but unarguably talented Handscomb who briefly lifted the crowd above the Adelaide evening chill with a half-century of enterprise and promise.
Having started his time in international cricket by sparring at the perfect late outswinger from Vernon Philander that nobody who has come before – not Bradman nor Tendulkar nor Renshaw – could have feasibly hoped to get a feather on.
Not that the 25-year-old was fazed by the moment.
At one stage as he warmed to his work channelling memories of the late local legend David Hookes (in his famous debut) when he crunched a hat-trick of boundaries from a Vernon Philander over that brought him a maiden 50 and the punters to their feet.
But just as they dared to dream of a fairytale first Test knock, Handscomb’s method of plunging himself deep in his crease brought him undone when he missed one from Abbott that he might otherwise have pushed forward to.
Abbott – as in Hobart when he earned his call-up by dint of the shoulder fracture sustained by Dale Steyn – was once more his team’s premier bowler, taking 3-38 from 25 overs on a day when the ball dominated in short bursts but only fleetingly grabbed control.
One of those moments coincided with the arrival of the second new ball, which nipped and nibbled around in the twilight to the extent that even Khawaja was drawn into the occasional play and miss.
And Nic Maddinson, who followed Handscomb to the middle but pocketed a contrastingly barren 12-ball duck, who simply missed.
While a combination of the harder, shinier new ball and the recall of a full slips cordon might have helped Handscsomb find the fence, it also heralded the middle-order wobble that is expected under artificial lights.
And even more customary for Australia’s batting of late, as the home team lost 3-10 in less than five overs after Matthew Wade nicked off for four, while only a handful of runs in surplus.
However, it was indisputably the Australians’ best day of the series since the opening day at the WACA, a fact that was perhaps most starkly illustrated by the fact that South Africa endured the indignity of a fielding blemish.
Dean Elgar’s diving snare from third slip to remove Renshaw – after lengthy deliberation with the video umpire – continued a seemingly endless highlights loop of catches by the Proteas whose in and out-fielding has been exemplary in Hobart and Adelaide.
But Hashim Amla, who dropped more than his share in the slips cordon at Perth, missed another off Smith when the captain was on 46 and threatening as the chance bobbled out of his hands and somehow eluded his clawing fingers as it ballooned over his head.
Perhaps a case for applying some of that sugary saliva to ensure sticky fingers.
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