In the last week of March, 2018, Khawaja was part of the Australian team pilloried for egregious ball tampering and an even worse cover-up in South Africa, leaving a young deputy Jimmy Peirson to lift the Shield and then see Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns spirited away to fly across the Indian Ocean as replacement players for the banned Cameron Bancroft, David Warner and Steven Smith.
It’s an experience that Peirson remembers vividly as taking sizeable gloss off what is usually the most glittering prize in Australian domestic cricket. “It was day three of the game when that [scandal] broke and we were just in shock, we didn’t understand what was going on or how big it would get,” he told ESPNcricinfo this week. “Then by the end of that game we had guys literally pulled out of our team song to go ‘mate, pack your bags, you’re going to South Africa’ – Matty Renshaw and Joe Burns, they went over and played.
“So we very quickly went from winning the Shield and the euphoria of that to having them go over there to deal with what was happening. It was a bittersweet moment, we wanted to celebrate our achievement with those guys, but it was also very satisfying to see them go, although the circumstances weren’t fantastic. It’s certainly burned into my memory, that weird feeling in Australian cricket as a whole at that time.”
Three summers and one pandemic later, Peirson is happy to have handed the captaincy back to Khawaja, who in the wake of being discarded by the national team has proven himself a thoughtful and astute – both strategically and tactically – leader of the Bulls.
“He’s quite calm, whereas I’m not so calm in some situations so he’s a great factor for us and someone I’ve learned a lot from,” Peirson said. “I really appreciate that he’s using me more in terms of tactically coming to me and asking for my opinion on things, which is helping me to develop in my tactical role in the side, and I’m really enjoying working with him.
“When Usman went away [in 2018] and I was given the captaincy, it was something I was completely shocked by. I was taken off-guard and I actually considered not taking it on, because I didn’t feel like I was ready. But I’m glad I took it on, I learned so much and I was lucky that year was similar to this year where we had very few injuries and the same bowling attack for the whole season with our guys hitting their straps.
I think the team that comes first should have that little bit of advantage that you have to beat them [outright]. Because a team could come first by 15 points and they’re clearly the best team in the competition. They should have a massive advantage
Usman Khawaja on bonus points being used to decide a drawn final
“I was very lucky that the team ran itself and I didn’t have to make any massive calls. I had guys like Joe Burns there the whole year who really helped guide me in some of the decision-making. So I was making it up as I went and I was really lucky we managed to win the Shield that year.”
One area in which Khawaja has shown himself adept as a leader is in helping to change attitudes about spin bowling. He recalled a pointed conversation with the state coach Wade Seccombe that helped turn Mitchell Swepson from a week-to-week selection proposition to a fixture in the team and now a genuine challenger to Nathan Lyon’s spin supremacy.
“I think it was a line in the sand last year,” Khawaja said. “I remember talking to ‘Chuck’, Wade Seccombe, my coach about it. We were at the Gabba and we were umming and ahing whether to play Swepson.
“It was probably the third game and I said, ‘look, Australia has Nathan Lyon and they’re playing at the Gabba.’ And he said, ‘yes.’ So I said, ‘well we’ve got to play Swepo every single game. If they’re playing the best spinner, why aren’t we playing our best spinner?’ I think that was the line in the sand and since then we’ve always picked him.”
At the same time, Khawaja has been driving towards a title that has personally eluded him. He played for New South Wales in the 2011 Shield final on the losing side, and spoke passionately in his opposition to the new system that no longer awards the competition to the top team in the event of a draw.
“They talked about taking out the Shield final – I love the Shield final, I think it should be there, but I think the team that comes first should have that little bit of advantage that you have to beat them [outright],” he said. “Because a team could come first by 15 points and they’re clearly the best team in the competition. They should have a massive advantage. It’s not like a BBL tournament where you’re playing one day at a time, it’s four days at a time and takes a lot to win a red-ball game. Ten games, it takes a lot to get there.”
That passion, Khawaja noted, was a byproduct of how much interest he has felt about the Shield in his adopted state. Queensland, famously, did not win their first Shield title until 1995, spawning a sense of overdue reward that has added to the level of interest retained in a competition that is often reduced in status to that of “research and development”.
“I’ve got people from Mackay, Townsville, random people coming up to me and going ‘good luck with the Shield’, you realise how big Queensland is and you realise how much people care about the Shield, especially when it comes to country towns in Queensland,” Khawaja said. “First and foremost we have a lot of support here and it’d be really nice to win a Shield, because to me it seems a lot of people still care about it, particularly in the country areas of Queensland.
“Queensland’s a big state, there’s a lot of people living in the country areas, and so is New South Wales to an extent, but I think when you first move up to Queensland, you know how much Queensland love their sport, but you don’t realise how much until you come up here. Now I’m a Queenslander, as I say to my wife I bleed maroon, I love it up here, it’s my home. We love our sport and we want to win whether it’s in footy, in anything, particularly cricket.
“It’s good to see, in a world so BBL-dominated, that there are still so many people who love the Shield game. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Peirson, too, is eager to reclaim the Shield, as much because the last one disappeared in a Newlands-heightened blur as anything else. “It all went by so fast,” he said. “I told the guys that I really want to enjoy this week and enjoy a Shield final. Plenty of guys haven’t played one and plenty of guys haven’t won one.”
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig