Usman Khawaja was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 2023. Daniel Brettig’s piece on Khawaja originally appeared in the 2024 edition of Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack.

The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. The Five are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players’ excellence in and/or influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.

Usman Khawaja finished his first Ashes tour, in 2013, unsure if he wanted to play for Australia again. He finished his second, six years later, wondering if his Test career was over. So it was with a sense of catharsis that he celebrated his hundred in the First Test at Edgbaston last summer, the opening contribution to a series in which – playing at his chosen tempo – he was the leading run-scorer, with 496 from a painstaking 1,263 balls.

If Khawaja found himself at the centre of a storm in the Lord’s Long Room, harangued by furious MCC members following the stumping of Jonny Bairstow, he did not let it get to him. After all, part of the reason he had become arguably the world’s leading Test opener was his comfort in his own skin, and willingness to express his thoughts. “MCC wanted me to write a statement, and I said: ‘No, these are your members.’ Plus, I didn’t want to detract from how good the on-field contest was. It was one of the great series.”

Khawaja is complimentary about England’s attack, scoffing at those who felt James Anderson was not performing. Their discipline, and Ben Stokes’s nifty field settings, were a long way from perceptions of Bazball as laissez-faire cricket. “It was more a war of attrition,” he says. “I reckon I’d score a lot faster against our bowlers than theirs. Bloody hell, those guys – they don’t give you many opportunities.”

USMAN TARIQ KHAWAJA was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, to Tariq Khawaja and Fozia Tariq, on December 18, 1986. His family emigrated to Australia when Usman was four, and settled in Sydney’s west, where he balanced a flair for study – he later attended university, and qualified as a pilot – with a flair for batting. One of his earliest team-mates in junior cricket was David Warner, a bond that would endure for three decades.

Runs for the Randwick Petersham club helped Khawaja into the New South Wales side in February 2008, followed by a first Baggy Green in January 2011, against England at the SCG. He was a rare bright spot for Australia in a grim Ashes summer, though his transition to the international game was far from seamless. Khawaja was still wrestling with who he was and, given his background and Muslim faith, how much he wanted to fit in with Australia’s cricket culture. He has spoken of wishing he were white, if only to blend in more easily. He was subjected to racial slurs, on and off the field. Largely through stubbornness, he forged on, never forgetting his social conscience. As recently as December, he failed to get permission from the ICC to sport the image of a dove on his right boot and bat during the Boxing Day Test against Pakistan – a gesture, he said, to show solidarity with the people of Gaza.

Back in 2013, Khawaja had already moved from NSW to Queensland, feeling he needed to become a more senior figure in a different environment, but was one of four Australian players suspended during the “homeworkgate” affair in India, amid criticism of his work ethic. When new coach Darren Lehmann dropped him after three Tests in England, he knew he needed a reset.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I also didn’t feel like I was well supported in the team. I learned to let go and enjoy my cricket: I’m not going to worry about playing for Australia and, if I do play again, I’m not going to put it on a pedestal, or let Cricket Australia dictate my happiness. My dad was my biggest influence, and I always wanted to get a hundred for him. But he wouldn’t want me to play the game for anyone but myself.”

When Khawaja returned to the Test team in late 2015, he was more self-assured – captain of Queensland, and in a new relationship with Rachel McLennan, whom he would marry in 2018 (they have two children). Team-mates remarked on how he now wore his loves of American basketball and music on his sleeve. By the 2019 Ashes, Khawaja was a senior player but, in fiendishly tough conditions, he was dropped after three Tests. When that decision was compounded by his removal from the ODI team – despite being Australia’s most reliable run-maker over the preceding year – he felt his time was up. “In 2013, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t really understand how to score runs in England. In 2019, I was 100 percent ready, but those balls were diabolical, and the pitches too. I cannot explain to you how hard that was.”

An unexpected revival of his Test career began with twin hundreds against England at the SCG in January 2022, followed by a prolific series in his native Pakistan, and Khawaja maintained a clear mind before last summer. He was proud of his patience at Edgbaston, where he followed 141 in eight hours with 65 in more than five, batting on all five days; he also points to his opening stand with Warner of 73 on the first day at Lord’s.

If there are regrets, they involve the second day at Headingley, where Australia let slip a dominant position. “I still sledge Marnus [Labuschagne] about his sweep shot against Moeen Ali. If we’d batted another 30 minutes, they were cooked. That dismissal was just one of a few turning points that game. Afterwards, I was thinking: ‘Man, it feels like we might’ve just lost a massive opportunity, and I’m not sure we’ll get that again, because they’re a very good side.’”

At The Oval, where he made 47 and 72, Khawaja was vocal about the ball change in the 37th over that saw conditions revert to something more akin to 2019. He laughs when he remembers the England players’ reaction to their stroke of fortune, after he and Warner had made the perfect start to a big chase. “It’ll be one of those mysteries,” he says. “But they gave England a ball that was eight overs old – even Broady said that. Everyone knew.”

Above all, Khawaja is grateful to have played such a major part. It made the experiences of previous tours feel more worthwhile. “I would’ve loved to win an Ashes in England, and in a way we did – we won the Ashes because we retained them. The amount of people who told me in Australia how many sleepless nights they had: I’ve never had that kind of feedback from fans. People talk about 2005. Well, this was our 2005.”

Subscribe to the Wisden Cricket YouTube channel for post-match analysis, player interviews, and much more.