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Did Usman Khawaja save his career at Port Elizabeth?

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Usman_Khawaja_Cricket_AustraliaMost cricket teams prefer to have their best batsmen in the top three or four in the batting line-up. In the usual pattern, teams play their two best batsman at the No. 3 and No. 4 positions. These are players who are comfortable playing both the new and old ball and in any given situation. They are given those spots. If a wicket falls early, the No. 3 batsman might have to face the new ball. If the opening pair goes on to bat for a very long time, the next two batsmen should have the technique to carry on from there.

If you go through the No. 3 batsmen of the higher-ranked sides, India have Cheteshwar Pujara; New Zealand have their skipper Kane Williamson; South Africa have one of their senior-most batsmen, Hashim Amla; but Australia have a batsman who is nowhere near the level of these batsmen - Usman Khawaja.

The Pakistan-born leftie has played 31 Tests so far in his career, though he cannot be included with the likes of Virat Kohli, Steven Smith, David Warner, Joe Root and Williamson. Hence, whenever Australia loses either of their openers, they can never breathe in peace as there is no certainty that Khawaja could handle the situation, especially if the side is playing an away game.

Australia managed to join the dots to win the first Test in South Africa, but there was one player whose performance was singled out by critics and fans on social media: Khawaja finished with scores of 14 and 6. In the second Test at Port Elizabeth, nothing had changed for him in the first innings. Everything went against him as he was dismissed cheaply for just 4 runs. His drought of runs had now begun to hurt Australia and the spotlight shone on that when his side only managed to make 243 runs in the first innings.

 

Khawaja's talent and skill was never in doubt. He has averaged close to 60 at home. But when Australia plays in an overseas land, Khawaja's form always dips. Fans and pundits had begun to speak up against him; it was quite clear that neither Khawaja's struggle with technique in unfamiliar conditions nor his atrocious away average of 24.59 would be tolerated anymore. It would not have been wrong to assume that Darren Lehmann and the Australian management had started talks on replacing Khawaja with Peter Handscomb or Matt Renshaw.

 

What followed was a glorious example of the fact that the game of cricket is unpredictable yet beautiful. A second chance is precious and no one in the Australian cricket team would know that better than Usman Khawaja. South Africa took a lead of 139 runs in the second Test. It was time for the touring party to bat again. On fire, Kagiso Rabada removed Australia's vice-captain and crucial opener David Warner, leaving them at 13/1 early on.

Not many would have expected to watch Khawaja play anchor and architect of Australia's innings from there. Their best batsman, Steve Smith, had struggled against left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj throughout the series. Khawaja was not a good player of the spin, and yet he survived anxious moments against Maharaj in a manner that left his critics in awe of the confidence he showed at the crease, especially when the team required its No. 3 batsman to rise on the occasion.

Meanwhile, there was Rabada, who was bowling like this could be his last Test of the series and was determined to finish on a high note. That did not stop Khawaja from registering a diligent knock of 75 off 136 balls which helped Australia cross the 200-mark. While the oft-criticized batsman steered Australia's ship from one end, the veterans Shaun Marsh, Smith and Tim Paine got dismissed one after the other.

Khawaja found an unexpected support from the junior Marsh and the duo went on to put up 87 runs for their stand. The Australians in St. George's Park were no doubt wishing that they would watch Khawaja take strike again on Day 4 along with Mitchell Marsh. Khawaja himself would have hoped to convert that innings into a big, match-turning knock. Alas, not everything fell into place. Just seven deliveries before stumps, Rabada trapped Khawaja LBW. The left-handed batsman saved Australia from an embarrassing collapse but could not save the Test for them.

The series is not yet done. There is still a long way to go on the tricky South African roads for Khawaja in order to prove his worth as Australia's No. 3 batsman. A good knock followed by a series of poorer ones is something that will not be accepted from him. He needs to show consistency.

"The series is going to be so tight, runs are going to be at a premium against two quality bowling attacks. We need those guys [Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja] to go on once they get in," said Australia's head coach, Darren Lehmann.

 

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