For believers in fate, the narrative arc of Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja’s story is about to reach its peak. Out of Australia’s men’s Test team for more than two years, the 35-year-old Pakistan-born batter forced his way back into the starting XI with twin centuries in this year’s Sydney Ashes Test. It was a match he was only playing in because Travis Head, ahead of him for the No 5 batting spot, had tested positive for Covid.
Now, Khawaja is on his way back to the country of his birth as part of the first Australia tour to Pakistan in 24 years. “I’m not that much of a narcissist that I believe that there’s an agenda with fate,” says Khawaja, shortly before Australia’s departure. “There’s nothing saying that all this happened just so that I could go back to Pakistan. But I am a God-believing man and I do believe that fate comes from God.
According to sources inside Cricket Australia, Khawaja has been an important sounding board for those in the team with questions about Pakistan, a country many of his teammates are visiting for the first time. “Maybe this was meant to be, and I was meant to be on this tour – that is, if I don’t get Covid, I don’t want to count my chickens too early!” laughs Khawaja. “But as long as everything goes fine, fate or no fate, it’s worked out really well. From where I was a year ago, outside of the team, nowhere to be seen, to be here now, it’s almost worked out perfectly.”
Having first forced his way into the Test team on the back of a stellar domestic season in 2011 to become the first Muslim man to win an Australian Test cap, it was Khawaja’s domestic form, captaining Queensland to last year’s Sheffield Shield title, which has once again forced him back into contention. Now a father, a husband, a state captain and a more settled mind than the young, at times brash, cricketer who first wore the baggy green, Khawaja is confident of the reception he and Australia’s cricketers will receive on arrival in Pakistan.
“We’ve always had great support from Pakistan,” says Khawaja, who was born in Islamabad, where the first Test takes place on March 4, but emigrated to Australia with his family at the age of just five. Of his wider family who still live in Pakistan, most live in Karachi, the venue for the second Test on March 12. “I’m not sure how many of them will be turning up, to be honest. I’m sure we’ll get some ticket requests closer to the date. But from all over the subcontinent I’ve always had great support. Even from the subcontinental Australians living over here [in Australia]. I don’t think it will be too different, I think they’ll still support me, but they’ll also be hoping that we get absolutely smashed.
After speculation Australian players might opt out of the tour over security concerns, following the cancellation of England and New Zealand’s tours to the country last year, head men’s selector George Bailey confirmed instead last month that no player had made themselves unavailable for the three-test/ three-ODI/ one T20 series.
“I wasn’t really involved in anything behind the scenes,” says Khawaja, who was elected onto the Australian Cricketers’ Association board last year. “But Cricket Australia and the ACA, they did all the hard work. I was obviously quite vocal. Not so much directly to individuals, more so just about where we were in Australian cricket, what we could do about giving back. In terms of security, I was always along the lines of, well, if Cricket Australia is saying that it’s safe for us to go and everything’s alright, then it probably is.
“I think it helped that representatives from the ACA and Cricket Australia actually went on the ground, they did their due diligence,” continues Khawaja. “They didn’t do it from afar. And when they came back they said that it was really good, it was unbelievable over there, it far exceeded what they had thought. That was a big stepping stone in the whole thing.”
As well as his own role, Khawaja also revealed the major part past Australian cricketers have played in ensuring a full-strength Australian side goes to Pakistan. “Shane Watson has been massive,” says Khawaja. “As ACA President, he’s been very vocal in terms of all of his experience in Pakistan [playing in the Pakistan Super League] and how good it’s been. Actually, it’s been the same talking to a lot of the older players too, who have been in Pakistan, including a few guys who played in the [Australia] A series over there.
“Talking to Darren Lehmann and other guys who have been to Pakistan before, they have had nothing but great experiences. To hear that, at the end of the day, it gives you a bit of confidence.”