What To Do With Khawaja?

What should the selectors do with Usman Khawaja?


From time to time there are players who seem to tick all the boxes but simply fail to deliver in the Test arena for reasons nobody seems able to put their finger on. Khawaja is certainly one of those.

Given his weakness against spin bowling, the selectors kept him out of the Indian tour early in 2017. It is therefore easy to question why they picked him for Bangladesh but the answer seems simple: after keeping him hanging around in the wings for so long, they felt they had to either pick him to drop him permanently. So they picked him. I understand that, as far as it goes. But it did not go well in Mirpur.

Perhaps Khawaja will be jettisoned for the 2nd Test in Chittagong, perhaps not. But even if he is retained, what will the selectors do for the Ashes? Let’s mull the issues.

First of all, there’s the problem of age. i was surprised to realize that Khawaja will turn 31 in December. Frankly, I thought he was younger, but that’s how long he’s been hanging around since his 2011 Test debut without stamping his mark on the team. Obviously, the older a player becomes, the fewer chances the selectors are likely to give him. And Hilton Cartwright, who averages 52.07 in an albeit brief first-class career of 22 matches, is only 25. If the selectors are going to punt, they’ll pick the younger bloke, won’t they? It’s what they did with Renshaw and Handscomb.

Secondly, Khawaja is a home track specialist. Nearly half (20 out of 42) of his Test Innings have been played outside Australia. In Asia he averages 14.63 and at other away venues his average is 36.36.

In Australia, Khawaja’s average is 63.74 across 22 innings. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Three of Khawaja’s four Test centuries in Australia were scored in the summer of 2015-16, when the pitches served up – especially in Brisbane and Perth – were among the deadest, flattest and most batsman-friendly wickets ever seen in this country.

I watched Khawaja make his highest Test score of 174 in the 1st Test against NZ in Brisbane in November 2015. However, everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – made big runs in that game (Warner 163 & 126, Burns 71 & 129, Voges 83, Williamson 140 & 59, McCullum 80). I’ve never seen such a flat pitch at the Gabba. The local under-12s would have been making tons.

The 2nd Test in Perth was even worse. The pitch was so flat, it broke Mitchell Johnson’s spirit and helped convince him to retire. Khawaja made 121, but underperformed. Warner made 253, Williamson 166, Taylor 290, Smith 138 and Voges 119. Needless to say, the match was drawn.

Khawaja then went on to make 144 in the Boxing Day Test of the same year against the West Indies. However, against the West Indies’ popgun attack, Burns scored 128 in the same innings, Smith 134 not out, and Voges 106 not out as Australia declared at 551/3 and romped home by 177 runs.

Khawaja’s 140 against NZ in Wellington in Feb 2016 was unquestionably a good knock, but it came after Hazlewood, Siddle and Lyon had rolled the home team for 183 and was overshadowed by Voges’ 239 and supported by Smith’s 71. But we’ll give Uzzy a tick for that one.

Khawaja’s best innings – and really the only time he has set the game up for his team in a tough situation – was in November 2016. Australia had lost the first two Tests to South Africa, including the Hobart disaster in which Australia was bowled out for 85. The selectors dumped Burns, Voges, Ferguson, Mennie and Nevill and brought in Renshaw, Handscomb, and Maddinson while reinstating Wade. Khawaja’s 145 in the first innings was instrumental in posting a total of 383 that was enough to put the Proteas on the defensive. Australia won by 7 wickets. Interestingly, though, Khawaja succumbed for a second-ball duck in the second innings, trapped in front by a left arm Chinaman making his Test debut (Tabraiz Shamsi).

Khawaja made 97 against Pakistan in Melbourne in December 2016, but again, he was overshadowed by Warner (144) and Smith (165 not out) and Azhar Ali (205 not out).

Unfortunately, his track record strongly suggests Khawaja is the sort of Test batsman who performs only when there are plenty of runs in the wicket or if the bowling attack is weak or if he is batting with little pressure after the bowlers have blown away the opposition for a low score. He has generally failed when under pressure or when facing good bowlers.

Surely the mark of a Test batsman is the ability to occasionally dig deep and either set up a match or rescue one for the team when the chips are down. In the current team, only Smith and Warner have proven beyond doubt their capacity to do this on any sort of regular basis. Renshaw’s 68 in the first innings in Pune in Feb 2017 was crucial is setting up that victory over India, and Handscomb’s 72 not out in Ranchi the following month was responsible for the team salvaging an important draw. These performances (and their youth) are why the selectors will persevere with these players, although more is obviously required from both.

With Khawaja’s 31st birthday around the corner, it is getting increasingly difficult to see what the selectors hope to gain by giving him more opportunities when they could roll the dice on promising players five years his junior. I don’t know if he’ll be retained for the Ashes, but if he is, he should consider himself very fortunate.

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