As Stuart Broad sent another short ball sailing over backward square leg for another six, his run aggregate for the series was slowly getting closer to Usman Khawaja's tally of 162 runs. A couple blows and Broad, the tailender might have overtaken the Australian batsman.
Luckily for Khawaja, his teammate Pat Cummins ended any such embarrassing statistics trending on Twitter by disposing the England lower-order for a total of 346, and in process, finishing with figures of 4/80.
Strangely, much was spoken about Broad’s inability to tackle the short ball rather than Khawaja’s failures in the series. So the minute Khawaja entered the fray in the fourth over, the pressure and the spotlight was well and truly on the elegant Australian No 3.
Before the start of the series, Khawaja had taken a swipe at the selectors suggesting the constant chopping and changing would cause instability in the team. Khawaja might have been right, but to publicly slay the selectors was flirting with danger, especially when your form is bit shaky.
By no means has Khawaja looked completely out of sorts in the series, but the runs simply had not flowed off his willow like they had in the previous couple of summers. There are still plenty of chinks in his armour, but on placid Australian pitches, he has never been exposed.
England had worked him over all series by pushing the ball away across him in his initial phase and then cramping him for room by bowling from around the wicket once he was well-set. Add to that, the ring of tight off-side fielders and Khawaja had been choked out of the game.
One of the glaring issues in Khawaja’s game is his inability to rotate the strike. His only method for singles is to wait for the ball on the hips or the pads, and then nudge it into the leg-side. Even as he finished Day Two unbeaten on 91, only four of his 31 singles had come using soft hands and dropping the ball on the off-side. It is part of his game that has failed to evolve, as is his game against spin.
On Friday in Sydney, Khawaja first had to negotiate James Anderson and Stuart Broad. No easy feat regardless the nature of the pitch. But Khawaja was good enough to repel those early spells with some good leaves and punching the ball down the pitch.
Then the real test, against the style of bowling that proved to be his nemesis – right arm off-spin. His tussle with Moeen Ali was intriguing. He was charging, sweeping, poking, cutting and in between prodding.
Importantly, the front foot prods worked to a treat. The charge meant Ali had to continuously change his length, which brought about the short balls that Khawaja cashed in on. His only blemish came when he was on 28, when he tried to smash Ali into the Churchill stand, but he was nowhere close to pitch of the ball and miscued one that bounced just short of mid-wicket. For the rest of the day, he would put that shot against Moeen back into his kitty, preferring to play straight rather than across. The only time he came out his crease, he hit with the spin and cleared the long-off ropes by 10 meters.
Against the leg-spinner, Khawaja worked out an effective method from the start. He was going to play with the spin, regardless of what may come. It helped him that Root had spread the field and there was no way Mason Crane was going to choke Khawaja into a false stroke due to pressure.
Khawaja was able to manipulate the in-out field thanks to Joe Root's field placements. Working the ball into huge leg side gaps suited the bottom-handed Khawaja. Root's better option might have been to make Khawaja hit over the top.
By the time Anderson and Broad returned for their third and fourth spells respectively, the ball had gone soft and as long as he continued to play straight, there was no chance of the ball kissing the outside edge. It was smart batting and great game awareness.
Khawaja defiance led to Root trying to attack him with the debutant leg-spinner. Having worked out that Crane bowled a fuller length, more often than not, Khawaja then employed the sweep and played around with field. The minute fine-leg went to mid-wicket, Khawaja swept or paddled the ball behind the wicket. The minute Root employed a fine-leg, he used his wrists to deflect the full balls between mid-on and square-leg.
Khawaja was winning the patience game and Root was losing the battle of choking him. The England bowlers got tired, there lengths grew shorter and Khawaja had won the battle of attrition.
Right through his innings, his strike rate remained the same. He rarely changed any gears. On some days, such methods might result in him losing patience outside the off-stump, but on Saturday, he showed powers of concentration and belief. Perhaps above all, he found a method against the spinners to score runs. The pitch might not be rank turner and the spinners might not be of highest calibre, but discovery is an important art of batting and Khawaja has unearthed new methods to prosper as batsman.
For at least two sessions, Khawaja has shown some positive signs. There is a long way to go, but if he conjures up a century, at least he will head to South Africa next month with runs under his belt. And as the famous saying goes ‘doesn’t matter how you score them as long as you score’, Khawaja has done exactly that on Saturday.