Usman Khawaja’s fairytale return was arguably the highlight of the recent summer of cricket, and the Australian opener is cherishing every moment of the unexpected final chapter of his rejuvenated Test career.
Khawaja presumed his Test career was over after being axed from the Australian side during the 2019 Ashes series — the talented left-hander seemed destined to fade into obscurity and ply his trade at domestic level as national selectors threw their support behind Joe Burns and Marcus Harris.
But following a purple patch in the Sheffield Shield, the Queenslander earned a surprise call-up to the Test squad for last summer’s Ashes series, serving as the team’s reserve batter.
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Khawaja also needed a dose of luck to end his two-year Test exile — he slotted into Australia’s starting XI for the New Year’s Test in Sydney after teammate Travis Head tested positive for Covid-19.
Initially slated as a one-Test replacement, Khawaja made himself undroppable by peeling off twin centuries at the SCG, scoring 137 and an unbeaten 101 during the thrilling draw against England.
And since then, Khawaja has been nothing short of remarkable in Australian creams.
The 35-year-old has scored 888 runs at 98.66 in seven matches since January’s comeback Test, helping Australia claim a historic 1-0 series victory over Pakistain in March.
For the first time in his decorated career, Khawaja isn’t fretting over whether he’ll be named in the next Test squad — in his eyes, every match is a bonus.
His priorities have shifted away from cricket, which somewhat counterintuitively has augmented his love for the game.
“At this time in my career, I’m so relaxed; I’m just enjoying the ride,” he told reporters in Sydney on Saturday morning.
“These are all bonuses. I wasn’t expecting to play Test match cricket again … I’m not holding as strongly onto it as I was before.
“I have two beautiful daughters, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got a lot outside the game which I’m really happy with.
“I used to get a lot of people come up to me saying, ‘Uzzie, you’re so serious, you’re so serious all the time’. I’m actually not so serious. I’m trying to make a conscious effort to show people the real Uzzie.”
Khawaja confessed this relaxed mindset “definitely” helped make him a better cricketer in the twilight of his career.
“It gives you the best opportunity to be more successful,” he explained.
“But at the end of the day it’s a skill-based game. If you’re not hitting the middle of the bat or not doing the hard work, it doesn’t matter what position you’re in.
“No one season is like the other.”
Asked if retirement was on his mind, Khawaja responded: “The People’s Champion will just keep giving as long as people want it.”
Earlier this year, Khawaja signed a four-year deal with the Brisbane Heat after parting ways with the Sydney Thunder, for which he was a foundation player.
He remains the Thunder’s all-time leading scorer with 1818 runs and a Big Bash career strike rate of 129.85.
Despite boasting one of the strongest short-format records in the country, Khawaja acknowledges his chances of cracking into the T20 World Cup squad are slim.
Australian captain Aaron Finch and T20 powerhouse David Warner will partner at the top of the order, while all-rounder Mitchell Marsh has been a revelation since sliding into the No. 3 position last year.
“Might need 17 injuries, then I might be a chance,” Khawaja laughed.
“I love T20 cricket, I’m really excited to play for the Heat this year.
“If you look at our T20 team, we’ve obviously been very successful.
“We’ll be going in there as one of the favourites, so I’m excited to see how the boys handle it.”
The T20 World Cup gets underway in October, with Australia’s first match scheduled against New Zealand at the SCG on October 22.