Ahead of the World Test Championship final, Australia opener Usman Khawaja has opened up about the difficulties he faced fitting in within the national team and the legacy he is trying to build as a player born in another country.
The 36-year old Khawaja is preparing for the WTC final against India, set to be played from Wednesday. For him, it is another chance to prove himself against one of the best sides in the world and, for a player that has faced numerous difficult challenges throughout his career, what goes on at the iconic south London venue this week pales into comparison somewhat to what he has already endured.
The left-handed batter was born in Islamabad and became the first Pakistan-born player to play Test cricket for Australia when he debuted in an Ashes Test at the start of 2011. But that was just the start of Khawaja's journey as he faced a long battle just to fit in with his teammates and earn their respect as a person.
"The biggest challenge for me throughout my career playing for Australia has been fitting in. For me it is always about fitting in and feeling like I can be myself in the Australian cricket team and that has taken a little bit of time," Khawaja told ICC.
"A little bit of that is earning the respect of my teammates by scoring runs and performing on the field, and the other side is me being myself and comfortable in my own skin. To do what I want and for the guys in the team to understand and respect who I am as a person.
That always takes a certain time when you are trying to change certain structural things around Australian cricket and for me, that has been my biggest hurdle."But at the same time, it is something that I am most proud of achieving because I am the first cricketer to be born in Pakistan or to come from a sub-continent background to represent the Australian cricket team. And I am one of few coloured cricketers to ever represent Australia, so it is very proud for me," he added.
Despite some good scores in 2015 and in the ensuing years against the red ball, Khawaja found himself on the outer following the Ashes series in 2019 when he was dropped from the Test side. Three years in the wilderness that followed meant time was running out for the left-hander to prolong his promising international career.
Khawaja responded with a mountain of runs in Australia's domestic competition -- the Sheffield Shield -- and selectors had no choice but to recall the batter for their home Ashes series against England in 2021.
He had an almost immediate impact by scoring centuries in both innings of his home Test at the SCG, but it wasn't just on the field that Khawaja was thriving.Khawaja felt as though he was finally earning the respect of his teammates and he was a major reason why Australia qualified for their first World Test Championship Final as he amassed a whopping 1608 runs -- second only to England batter Joe Root -- during the 2021-23 cycle.
It was that sense of belonging and the fact that he felt respected by his teammates that Khawaja credits for his good form."I definitely get to be myself more now. Two things. One, I don't give a crap because I am older and I am at the backend of my career so I can do what I want," he said.
"Two, these boys that I am playing with are guys that I grew up playing with. I grew up playing with a lot of them, playing for New South Wales."Starcy (Mitchell Starc), (Pat) Cummins, (Josh) Hazlewood, (Steve) Smith and (David) Warner - all of these guys I grew up playing with so it makes it a lot easier to be myself.
Even when I came into Australian cricket I was the young fella from a sub-continent background coming into a very white Australian cricket team.I found it very tough to fit into the mould. And there was a mould for Australian cricket at that time and that mould is not really there anymore," he added.
Khawaja knows he is close to the end of his Test career at the age of 36 and is content in the knowledge he has played 60 Tests for Australia and scored 14 centuries for his country.But it's now more about what he can do to leave a legacy so the next player to come into the Australian line-up and don the famous Baggy Green will feel comfortable within the team environment and find it easy just to be themselves.
"Hopefully, slowly, I can be the first of many Usman Khawaja's -- both male and female -- who come into the system who aren't born in Australia and traditionally aren't white Anglo Saxons," Khawaja said.
"That is the reason I feel most comfortable now. One because I am a little older and comfortable with myself, but two also the guys in the team and around me make me feel more comfortable than I have ever been," he added.