“Just like de Villiers, Khawaja too saved his team the blushes and although both played strikingly different innings’, the ultimate aim was always to take the side to safety”.
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going” has been a much used and over-used adage in the history of the English language, but none has summed it better than Abraham Benjamin de Villiers on Day 3 of the Port Elizabeth Test match against Australia in what has been a hostile and an aggressive series. Caught up amid Kagiso Rabada’s hearing that threatens a potential ban on the bowler for the remainder of the series, the maverick batsman entered the crease after what had been a horror-partnership between Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar, to script a beautiful tale of revival that pushed him towards the horizon of awesomeness, if it was ever needed. Closing in the innings with a well-documented 126, he helped South Africa end their innings with a massive 139-run lead after it had seemed impossible when Amla and Elgar were gritting it out, sans much of a result.
Faced with a stiff challenge ahead of them, Australia’s top order failed to get past the South African bowlers, with the openers ending their vigil on the crease after piling on just 27 runs. With Steven Smith’s mental ailments against the left-arm spinners plaguing him in the series and Usman Khawaja’s dismal overseas record not holding him in good stead, the path ahead for the visitors looked anything but easy. Shaun Marsh’s tiredness and Tim Paine’s inconsistency only went on to send shiver waves down the Aussie camp, as the inevitable loomed large.
But just like the Proteas saw a fine player rise to the occasion, the Australians too witnessed their own moment in the sun. However, unlike de Villiers’ class – that almost had one anticipating such a knock – the rival player had everything going against him. An overseas average of just 24.59. No half-century outside Australia since the 2013 Ashes. The lack of technique in unfamiliar conditions and while his skills and potential were never in doubt – for he has an average close to 60 at home – his repeated failures away from the familiar by-lanes only weighed heavier with each failure. A first innings score of just 6 would have meant him getting axed for the next game, especially if Australia had failed to hold the game, and it was but imperative that the Pakistan-born player made a name for himself in trying conditions.
And that is where the beauty of Test cricket made way. Second chances and opportunities that are usually hard to come by in normal circumstances, knock on one’s door rather regularly in the longest format of the game and Khawaja knew that it would be his time to perform or perish; to flounder or flourish.
Though much was hoped, not many had expected Khawaja to rise to the occasion so emphatically to play the role of the sheet anchor for the Australians. He survived moments of strenuous examinations against Keshav Maharaj – Smith’s biggest nemesis in the tour so far – and with spin being Khawaja’s weak point as well, something that led to his undoing in the recent Ashes, many were left in awe at the wonderful confidence that the cricketer brought with him to the crease. He survived the onslaughts from Rabada, who was determined to end the series on a high if it does turn out to be his last match in the battle and steered the ship with a well-made 75 in 136 deliveries.
With the other veterans in the side all departing no sooner had they arrived at the crease, Khawaja was left on a sticky ground as he was soon left stranded with the team total at 86 for the loss of 4 wickets. He found an unlikely aide in Mitchell Marsh, who has been termed as a potential captain for the Aussies and together the duo piled on 87 to ensure Australia ended the day with no further loss.
But that was just wishful thinking from the left-hander who received a jolt with just seven deliveries to go for stumps. Rabada pierced his defence and had him plumb leg before for a valiant 75 that had been scored in 136 deliveries. In a parallel universe, Khawaja would have been returning to the crease on Day 4 with the younger of the two Marsh brothers, who was unbeaten on 39 off 119 balls, but not all things end up going according to plan.
Just like de Villiers, Khawaja too saved his team the blushes and although both played strikingly different innings’, the ultimate aim was always to take the side to safety. On the day, both did just that, but due to the pressure on the Australian and with the audience around hardly expecting him to raise his hands, he would have returned to the camp a more satisfied being.