Usman Khawaja was repeatedly told to put away the sweep shot while learning the intricate craft of batting during his youth, but why?
Like most young Australian cricketers learning the intricate craft of batting, Usman Khawaja was repeatedly told to put away the sweep shot.
It was branded extravagant, unnecessary and dangerous, with coaches directing the left-hander to instead focus on hitting down the ground between mid-off and mid-on; sound advice when tackling Australia’s bouncy pitches.
But the dusty Sri Lankan decks are a different kettle of fish.
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The sideways movement witnessed on the opening two days of the Galle Test was nothing short of extraordinary, prompting Khawaja to label it the most difficult pitch he’s batted on in his professional career.
And although sweeping is not the foolproof secret to batting in the subcontinent, it does partially negate the threat heavy spin poses.
“The way the guys have played and how we talk about the game and playing in the subcontinent’s changed a lot since I started playing for the Australian cricket team,” Khawaja told reporters at stumps.
“I think we’ve learned from mistakes, I think guys are more trusting of their plans and able to adapt to different situations and bowling, and bat very differently from the way we do in Australia. When you see someone like (Alex) Carey come in and sweep, even me as a youngster, the amount of times growing up I got told not to sweep the ball in Australia, it was every second coach telling me.
“Even (Cameron) Green doing it now, the amount of times I’ve heard people say, ‘You’re a tall bloke, just hit down the ground’, it’s just the biggest bull crap in the world.
“If a player has the ability to sweep, whether he’s six foot seven or five foot five it doesn’t really matter, it’s still a shot in your repertoire. It’s actually even more potent when a taller person does it, as we’ve seen Matthew Hayden do in the past.”
Sweeping certainly paid dividends for wicketkeepers Niroshan Dickwella and Alex Carey, who executed the unorthodox stroke beautifully during their respective cameos.
Carey attempted a shot sweep on 24 of the 47 deliveries he faced on Friday, with 28 of his 45 runs scored on one knee.
Earlier, Dickwella ruthlessly punished Mitchell Swepson’s leg-spin with powerful lofted sweep shots on his way to a half-century, reviving Sri Lanka’s innings on the opening day.
But of course, sweeping remains a risk for any cricketer. Australian golden boy Marnus Labuschagne was dismissed for 13 in the first innings after reverse-sweeping a delivery from Ramesh Mendis directly towards the only fielder behind square on the off-side.
And the following day, Cameron Green’s masterful knock ended 23 runs shorts of a maiden Test century when he misjudged the length of a Mendis ball that crept under the bat and struck him on the front pad.
Regardless, the strategy has worked wonders for Australia in Galle, with the visitors taking a three-figure lead into the second innings.
Six years ago, the Australians passed 300 only once during their three-Test tour of Sri Lanka, with Rangana Herath’s well-directed off-spin making Steve Smith’s men look painfully ordinary. Khawaja did not pass 26 once in that series.
For the Aussies to register 321 on this Galle minefield, scoring at quicker than 4.5 runs per over, is an extraordinary feat.
It ranked as the fastest innings by an Australian team in Asia since the famous Mumbai Test of 2001 (minimum 30 overs).
Rather than looking to survive, they counterattacked.
“I was enjoying the challenge out there,” Khawaja said.
“There’s not much you can do other than have your areas to try to score runs and there’s going to be balls that do some random stuff.
“It’s not the kind of wicket you play on, the kind of wicket you practice on back home and you think, ‘Yeah I’m probably never going to get wickets like that’.
“If you try to block on that wicket too often it’s almost goodnight. The guys have done extremely well to get 300. I was joking around with the boys saying I think we scored 240 last time we were here for the whole game, so we were one step up on that one.”
Khawaja’s classy knock ended on 71 when his forward defence against Sri Lankan debutant Jeffrey Vandersay caught the inside edge, with Pathum Nissanka taking an excellent catch at short leg.