While hosts are preoccupied with trying to save Test cricket, Khawaja is content just playing it
Starc: There’s only flat wickets, not fast wickets in England
Mitchell Starc has his say on Australia’s short-ball attack to England, as visitors build a commanding lead
As Usman Khawaja punched Stuart Broad’s full toss down the ground to pass 50 for the third time in four innings, he strolled down towards his partner Marnus Labuschagne. Without smiling, he shook Labuschagne’s hand and held up his bat reluctantly, as though asking the crowd to settle down so he could resume his innings.
The TV cameras cut to the Australian supporters in the Mound Stand, all wearing their canary yellow caps, then the away balcony. David Warner, George Bailey, Pat Cummins, Andrew McDonald, Travis Head and Michael di Venuto sat applauding quietly.
Watching from a chair at the front of the dressing room, set slightly back from the balcony, Steven Smith was waiting to bat. Smith clapped, too, then let out an uncontrollable yawn. It was that sort of afternoon at Lord’s, a soporific return to the normal rhythms of Test cricket after a series that has been played in fast-forward.
Forget Joe Root’s reverse-scoop and Travis Head’s half-cut-half-slap. Ignore Cummins’ swipe down the ground for six and Zak Crawley’s cover drive. The defining shot of the first eight days of this Ashes series has been altogether more restrained.
It has been played 189 times already, 34 of which came on a grim, murky Friday afternoon under the floodlights: Khawaja calmly, watchfully defending one of England’s three main seamers – Broad, James Anderson and Ollie Robinson.
Khawaja has faced 486 balls from those three seamers in this series. He has defended 39% of them and has left a further 24%. He has scored 173 runs off them – at a strike rate of 35 – and been dismissed only once, when attempting to squeeze Robinson through backward point in Birmingham.
There have been eight days of play in this series and Khawaja has been unbeaten overnight in half of them, the fourth coming at Lord’s on Friday. After seeing out 123 balls in the gloom, he will resume tomorrow on 58 not out with the chance to put the second Test beyond England’s reach.
Khawaja has faced 711 balls in the series, more than twice as many as any other batter on either side. His strike rate of 39.52 is, by some way, the lowest of any batter who has faced more than 10 balls; his aggregate of 281 runs is more than 100 runs clear of his nearest competitor, Root.
His innings on Friday was characteristic of his series: unflustered, organised and ruthless. He had a life on 19 when Anderson, at short midwicket, allowed a pull to burst through his hands, but otherwise played late and with the control that has eluded most batters. If this really is the Bazball Ashes, nobody told Khawaja.
Khawaja’s opening partnership with David Warner was seen as one of Australia’s few areas of vulnerability heading into this tour; at Lord’s, they have added 73 and 63 in perhaps the toughest batting conditions that either side has faced in the match.
“They’ve been fantastic,” Mitchell Starc said. “They’ve played a lot of cricket together. There was a big focus heading into the series on the way they wanted to go about their cricket and they’ve both been fantastic openers for a long time. Uzzie’s form over the last couple of years has been phenomenal.
“They’ve created a really good partnership over a long period of time. To come into a big series like this [and make] some of the starts they have has been quality, to see them go about their business there. Obviously the opening partnership is a key one but throughout our top order, everyone has stepped up at different moments.”
While England’s openers, Crawley and Ben Duckett, have both performed creditably, Khawaja has been the difference between the teams so far. He was named Player of the Match at Edgbaston and he will have the chance to add to his 75 runs at Lord’s on Saturday.
England have become preoccupied with trying to save Test cricket over the last 12 months; Khawaja is perfectly content with just playing it. He is not the sort of player that has Lord’s crowds rushing back from their long lunches or skipping dessert on the Nursery Ground; he is not the sort who will care, either.
It is worth considering whether, if he qualified for them, this England team would find room for Khawaja. Earlier this year, Ben Stokes was asked by Nasser Hussain if a young Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott or Michael Atherton would have a chance of forcing their way into England’s Test plans.
“I’m not saying that’s not the way to play,” Stokes replied, while hinting exactly that. “But in this day and age and this era, while I’m captain and Baz [Brendon McCullum] is coach, that’s not something we’re looking for. That’s the truth. That’s not what we want. We want players who will go out there and put pressure on the bowlers straightaway.”
Khawaja is not one of those – yet he has been the best batter on either side. He will be back again on Saturday, defending against Anderson, Broad and Robinson once more.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98