Khawaja lives Derbyshire dream
Usman Khawaja will fulfil a boyhood dream when he makes his Derbyshire debut against Gloucestershire at Bristol tomorrow.
The opening day of the LV= County Championship season on Friday will provide Khawaja with his first taste of county cricket, an ambition he has harboured since he was in short trousers.
It may appear a strange goal for a player who was born in Pakistan and made his Test bow for Australia during the Ashes, but Khawaja is convinced it will help him become a better batsman.
He wasted little time seeking English employment when permitted to do so, and Derbyshire can now boast in their ranks a left-hander who is regarded by many as the future of Australian cricket.
“I’ve always wanted to come to England, ever since I was young,” said Khawaja, whose proposed stint with Ramsbottom in the Lancashire League last summer was scuppered by Australia commitments.
“I came on a schools tour when I was 15, I’ve been here on holiday and I toured with Australia last summer, but I’ve never played over here,” he told ecb.co.uk.
“You have to have played international cricket to qualify as an overseas player, so as soon as I played my first Test I got my manager straight on to it to find out if any counties were interested.”
Khawaja, who has scored heavily in state cricket in recent seasons, saw his stock rise to unprecedented levels on the back of his debut Test innings of 38.
‘Debutants ball’, read one headline in an Australian newspaper desperately seeking solace from an Ashes humbling. ‘Glimmer of hope’, claimed another.
A little premature perhaps, but not without foundation. The manner in which Khawaja batted in Sydney - he displayed a composure and maturity way beyond his 24 years, not to mention considerable style - suggested this was a player destined for the grandest stage.
Khawaja revealed “a few clubs” were interested in securing his signature. Derbyshire won out because “they were really keen to get me over”, and he hopes their partnership, which extends until July when New Zealand batsman Martin Guptill takes over, will prove mutually beneficial.
“Absolutely I want to learn," he said. “Coming to England is the major thing for me to get better as a cricketer."
Although he drew on advice from New South Wales team-mates Simon Katich and Phil Jaques, who have enjoyed spells at Derbyshire and Worcestershire respectively, before signing, one senses Khawaja’s decision had already been made.
He added: "Those two gave me positive feedback from county cricket, how good it was for them. I really wanted to play in different conditions, against new bowlers, at new grounds.
"An opportunity like this is too huge to pass up, especially at this moment in my life. I’m still young, my body can take a fair bit of cricket and I’m trying to get as much cricket as I can right now.
“From a personal point of view, I want to grow as a player and do well for Derbyshire - win games for them. Hopefully this will set me up for later in my career. Hopefully I’ll be better for the experience.”
When he speaks to ecb.co.uk, that experience happens to be on what could de described as a typical day at the County Ground, with grey clouds and a biting wind providing a stark contrast to the Sydney he has just left behind.
Sheltering from the elements in a hoody and with precious little sleep behind him - he only landed in the UK at 4am - the polite and unassuming Khawaja jokes that he may have picked the wrong half of the summer.
While he accepts that his technique will be severely tested in early-season English conditions, he insists it is only a small aspect of his game.
“I believe cricket’s more mental than technical,” Khawaja said. “The mental side is a big part, especially when you play a lot of games. To keep scoring runs day in, day out is not an easy thing to do.”
Though a novice in international terms, Khawaja must shoulder high expectations as the overseas import in a Derbyshire side otherwise boasting no Test caps, and one that finished bottom of County Championship Second Division last year.
Not surprisingly for a player who pulled his second ball in Test cricket for four, Khawaja is unfazed.
“You can't think about that,” he stressed. “You just have to go out there and stick to your plans. If you score runs, you score runs. If you don't, you don’t.
“If you start thinking about that, you ready yourself for a bit of danger. You don't want to get too far ahead of yourself and you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself.
“That’s just the way I am; it’s the way I enjoy my cricket. There's probably more going on inside my head than on the outside, but I like to soak everything in.
"When I made my Test debut, it felt like I was playing a first-class game but with a bigger crowd. The ball was still coming down from 22 yards.
“As long as I’m enjoying my cricket, that’s when I'm at my most relaxed and I just go along with the flow."
It seems Derbyshire would be well advised to make Khawaja’s life as enjoyable as possible.