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A few weeks back, Usman Khawaja raised some old school eyebrows by being rested from consecutive Sheffield Shield games for Queensland.
He’s captain of his state, he’s not injured, and the Ashes were months ago. Surely, he doesn’t need a rest or more time with his family? Or so the argument went.
Usman Khawaja (left) was pivotal to Australia retaining the Ashes in 2023, while Glenn Maxwell had a World Cup to remember as Australia lifted the trophy.Credit: Artwork: Aresna Villanueva. Images: Getty Images
It was the sort of critique raised around the same time by Mitchell Johnson, when he questioned why Lance Morris was being rested by Cricket Australia following his recovery from a back stress fracture.
Johnson, in his explosive column attacking David Warner and selection chair George Bailey, gave voice to a continuing sense of mystification about how the national team functions.
But in offering a planned break from the mental toll of batting, Australia’s head coach Andrew McDonald and Bailey were looking to ensure Khawaja will be at his sharpest for the home series against Pakistan, having already faced nearly 1000 more deliveries in Test cricket than anyone else this year.
For Khawaja, those sorts of pragmatic decisions are the key to Australia’s World Cup final rumbling of India, the Test championship win in England against the same opponents, and the retention of the Ashes, all in the same unprecedented year on the road.
“It’s an amazing effort, a great effort. Massive credit has to be given to Andrew McDonald, George Bailey and Patty,” Khawaja told this masthead. “I think a lot of times in the past with coaches and leadership members in the Australian cricket team, they didn’t respect how hard Test cricket is mentally.
“But I think Patty and especially Andrew and George understand how hard it is to be able to mentally perform at international level. I don’t think the guys would have been able to perform at the international level the way they have this year if it wasn’t for those people at the top.
“I know for a fact that they have worked hard at taking the load off, taking the pressure off, taking the stress off, and letting the players play at their best for as long as possible. The little things that don’t matter do not matter – we’re not there to box tick.”
Box ticking included things like compulsory warm-ups before play, micromanagement of player downtime, or discouragement of players resting during games.
As an example, a young Glenn Maxwell once commented on how much he was thinking about how he looked, especially being clean-shaven. Stubble certainly did not appear to be an obstacle during Maxwell’s remarkable 201 against Afghanistan.
“Going to play for Hampshire and then straight into the Australian set-up I’ve had to lift my game up a few levels and really just make sure I’m at least at that standard and looking like I’m at that standard,” Maxwell said in 2012.
“I turned up to the squad and [coach] Mickey Arthur goes, ‘Are you going to shave any time soon?’ … About 10 minutes later I went to my room and had a shave. So it’s basically just looking the part.”
More than a decade later, Maxwell reveals that his own performance has been greatly enhanced by being given the right to choose how he can best prepare for batting.
His anxiety about compulsory, adversarial net sessions with Australia’s pace bowlers peaked during the 2019 World Cup, where Maxwell struggled to make an impact and subsequently took a mental health break from the game for a variety of reasons.
“We used to have net sessions, and they would be ‘you have to be bat versus ball’, the top-six batters taking on the quicks, you’d be forced to stay in there for 45 minutes and battle it out,” Maxwell told this masthead. “You weren’t allowed to face the fast bowlers until they were 100 per cent up and ready.
“I’ve got to be honest, when I went into the nets I’m thinking, ‘As long as I don’t get hit or injured, this net session will be a success’. I couldn’t care less about my technique and the whole time was about survival and not getting hurt so I could play the game.
“Looking back on it, I just see it as complete madness that they would ever be thrust upon you. I’m the sort of person where if I can get 10-15 minutes of throwdowns and spin, I can feel like I’m ready to go mentally and technically. That’s been a big change for a few of us.”
Glenn Maxwell in the nets at the 2019 World Cup.Credit: AP
Ricky Ponting once described batting in the nets as “so false and fake to what you actually come across in a game”, and Maxwell agrees.
“It’s not like it changes the way you play quicks in a game,” he says. “In a game there’s no barriers around you, no nets, no feeling of being enclosed or caged in a net where you’ve got no escape.
“When you get out to the middle it’s nice and free, you can put pressure on the quick and hit them out of the attack, where in a net it just feels like they keep coming, and you feel stuck. There’s a few of the batters I reckon have felt like that, where the nets are a little bit spicy, or aren’t as good as the middle and at times can be quite dangerous.
“And you’re watching the quicks wheel in and fire off 18 yards and whizzing them past your ears or into your ribcage. The last thing you want is an injury, and you miss a series because you’ve been facing blokes trying to prove themselves in the nets.”
Khawaja, meanwhile, was one of four players suspended for a Test match in India in 2013 during the “homework” affair. He has played in teams mentored by every Australian coach and selection panel since January 2011.
“Five years ago, if I was sleeping during a cricket game, I’d get absolutely scolded,” Khawaja said. “A Test match is five days, it’s tough work, but ‘what are you doing sleeping during a game, wake up’. Now with Patty or anyone, if someone is sleeping during the game, no one says a word.
“Even the smallest things like warm-ups, getting you ready to play the game. That takes that little bit of mental strength. Every day you don’t have to wake up dreading doing a warm-up you don’t want to do. If I nicked off the day before, and I’m not batting, why do I need to do a warm-up? I don’t need to warm up until we go out and field again.
“They put the onus on the players and I think that’s been massive. I think there’s that respect, accountability and trust that everyone will do what they need to. Players are getting treated like adults for the first time in a long time, and they’re behaving like adults … for the majority of the time.”
Usman Khawaja with his wife Rachel and children Aisha and Ayla after the Lord’s Ashes Test. Credit: Getty
Khawaja was aware of the murmurings about him missing a couple of Shield games. He pointed out that in recent years, the vast majority of cricketers who have put their hands up for mental health breaks have tended to be batters or all-rounders: Maxwell, Ben Stokes, Will Pucovski, Jonathan Trott, Marcus Trescothick, Sarah Taylor and Meg Lanning to name a few.
Other approaches to relieve stress include careful consideration of when and how to relay feedback to players: batters, for instance, will never be critiqued immediately after they get out, a famously emotional time. Team meetings are rare, and must have a specific focus. As one squad member puts it: “Feedback needs to happen at a time when the information can be best absorbed.”
“No one questions when a fast bowler takes time off, do they?” Khawaja said. “So I don’t know why anyone was questioning myself taking a couple of games off. You never play six Shield matches before a Test series, there’s always a case of getting burned out before you get to a Test series mentally.
“The toll of batting isn’t physical, it’s more the mental toll, you’re always switched on. I’ve batted a lot this year, I’ve been switched on a lot, so I know at some level I’ve got to respect that. I was pretty tired after that Ashes series mentally, and going into [the Sheffield Shield] I played that first game and the plan was always set out.
“Credit to Andrew and George, they’ve been great through the whole process. We sat down and thought about what’s the best way to prepare and go about it, and that’s the way it was.”
While the achievements of 2023 will linger long in the memory, Khawaja said there would also be another macro effect of Australia’s careful management – lengthening the careers of top-quality players.
“If I was in the past environment I think I’d be done by now, mentally,” he said. “I would have been forced to play six Shield games before the Test series, I’d be forced to do 50 useless warm-ups before every Test match day – performative stuff. Those things would add up. At this point in my career I’d go ‘I’m 36, I’m mentally gone’.
“But the fact there are new ways to do things have definitely given me a spark and reinvigorated me and allowed me to play for a little bit longer. I’m in a place where if you ask me how long I want to play I can say I don’t know, I’m still enjoying it and feel like I can still do it. I might not have been saying that three or four years ago.”
Similarly, Maxwell’s horizons have been broadened by the chance to prepare the way he thinks best. It was a fresh rather than frazzled Maxwell who played the innings of his life against Afghanistan in Mumbai. Lined up against some of his 2019 World Cup displays, it looked like two different players.
“That shift in mentality of getting guys ready for the game … there are still some guys who like facing that and challenging themselves, but as I’ve got older it is more that I’ve just got to do whatever I can to get ready,” he says.
“It might be batting for five minutes or 10-15, but it’s never about needing 1000 balls to get ready. I just need to make sure I feel like I’m in good rhythm and then as soon as I hit that sweet spot, get out and make sure I’m fresh.”
In 2023, Australia have gained more sustained performance from their cricketers overseas than at any time in the past. As Khawaja says, it’s been a case of concentrating on what actually matters – not always an easy thing when the national team is very public property.
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