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LONDON: Usman Khawaja has persevered through racism and a career crisis to emerge as the understated driving force behind Australia’s bid to retain the Ashes.

Khawaja extended his fine start to the series in England with a typically efficient second-innings 77 as Australia looked to press home their advantage in the second Test at Lord’s on Saturday.

The 36-year-old had already delivered a man-of-the-match performance in Australia’s recent first Test win at Edgbaston, scoring 141 and 65 as he became one of only 13 players to bat on all five days of a Test.

He is perfectly suited to the role of Australia’s quiet anchorman after spending much of his life trying to avoid being the centre of attention.

Pakistan-born Khawaja moved to Australia with his family when he was five years old, growing up in the shadow of the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Khawaja quickly picked up his father’s love for cricket, but opportunities to watch Australia in action were few and far between for a family that could not afford tickets at the SCG.

Instead, Khawaja would wait outside the gates in the hope of being allowed in for free later in the day.

That was the least of Khawaja’s worries during his cricket journey, with racism a recurring theme in his younger years.

“At school I was called things by other kids I had never heard before,” he said after revealing he was routinely labelled a “curry muncher” by other children.

“Getting sledged by opposition players and their parents was the norm. Some of them said it just quietly enough for only me to hear.”

Khawaja was forced to build a resilient personality to cope with the abuse.

“It still hurt, but I would never show it. Most of the time it was when I scored runs,” he said.

That refusal to be cowed by the ignorance around him stood Khawaja in good stead and he eventually became the first Muslim to play for Australia when he was selected to face England in 2011.

‘I stick out like a sore thumb’

“I’ve grown up as a coloured cricketer in a very white Anglo-Saxon country and a very white Anglo-Saxon cricket team,” he said.

“I stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t drink, I fast, English was my second language, my name is Usman Khawaja. When you think of an Australian cricketer you do not picture me.”

Even after breaking into the Australia team, Khawaja still had obstacles to overcome as he struggled to hold down a regular place.

Following a two-year absence, he was only recalled to the Test team in January 2022 because Travis Head was ruled out of an Ashes clash after testing positive for Covid-19.

Khawaja seized his chance and is now established as the metronome at the top of the Australian batting order.

Khawaja’s maiden Test hundred in England prompted him into a rare display of emotion as he roared with delight and punched the air.

Even England bowler Ollie Robinson’s foul-mouthed sledging after dismissing Khawaja in the first Test couldn’t unsettle the opener.

“I have no issue in dealing with conflict, because I’ve done it all my life,” he said.

After internalising the difficulties he encountered for so long, Khawaja finally feels able to express himself.

It was instructive to note his response to Australia’s victory against India in the World Test Championship just prior to the Ashes series.

Taking to social media, Khawaja had a point to make.

“Celebrating with a Diet Coke. Some old heads call it Un-Australian,” he wrote. “I call it the new Australian. A game for all.”

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