The Khawaja enigma

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Usman Khawaja's stop-start Test career could start once again if Michael Clarke's hamstring doesn't come good. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

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Usman Khawaja is touted as Australia’s next in line and he showed why for the Prime Minister’s XI yesterday. He built a solid 69 against the touring West Indies.

Already this season he is the Sheffield Shield’s fourth leading run-scorer. He has been praised as one of the brightest young batting talents in Australia. He has a classy and sightly technique adept at combatting tricky conditions. He has tasted Test cricket before.

Despite all of this, Khawaja’s ascent to a mainstay in Australia’s middle order appears to have hit hurdles at every turn.

Khawaja is a shining light in the otherwise barren landscape of talented young Australian batsmen. In his 60 first-class matches to date, the stylish left hander has amassed 4045 runs, mostly in the toughest domestic competition in the world, Australia’s Sheffield Shield.

His average of 43.03 is all the more remarkable when you consider how highly-geared conditions have been towards fast-bowling and the recent and controversial emergence of ‘result pitches’.

The fifth and final Ashes test at the SCG in 2011 was the scene of Khawaja’s Test debut. Within only a few balls, he had clipped a two and stamped his authority on the match with a glorious hook for four off the bowling of Chris Tremlett.

A star was born, or at least, that’s what most casual observers thought that day.

Khawaja has since added only a further five Test caps to his name. He’s been a sporadic member of the side.

Had he been made a full-time test match player, he could have played a total of 21 Tests.

He would be an engrained, experienced and crucial middle order batsman. This is not the case, the selectors missed a trick here and his limited exposure may well come back to bite them come the Ashes this year.

The National Selection Panel continues to look for reasons not to play Khawaja. Last season, John Inverarity, head of the NSP, cited Khawaja’s fielding, nonchalant work ethic and application as areas of weakness, which if improved would warrant reconsideration of a return to the Australian side.

All areas of concern were valid and Khawaja needed to lift his off-field commitment.

It is evident that under the guidance of his new coach, Darren Lehman, that Khawaja has addressed these concerns and developed further into a well-rounded, adaptable and professional cricketer.

Despite his re-elevation to national squad honours, as injury cover, an actual breakthrough return to the Test XI is yet to come to fruition.

Khawaja was called upon as Michael Clarke’s back-up for the Boxing Day Test when the captain was under the cloud of a hamstring injury.

Clarke overcame his fitness concerns and took the field, while Khawaja seemed to have finally sealed his place as the next cab off the rank.

Yet when in Sydney only six days after the MCG test had finished, Shane Watson was forced to withdraw with a calf injury. It looked logical to most that Khawaja would slot seamlessly into the side.

However, it was opted for an extended tail and five specialist bowlers. It didn’t make sense that the side was made unbalanced when including Khawaja would have maintained team structure.

Khawaja was given a long overdue chance in the Australian ODI side. He was unluckily run out for three and abruptly dropped. His opportunities have been severely limited and this is another example of the selectors showing no faith in Khawaja’s ability.

All things considered, it is evident that Khawaja is deserving of a return. He has addressed his issues, is showing strong form and continues to score runs, especially when it matters.

Australian cricket fans are unanimous in favour of Khawaja’s return. Yet the NSP still look less convinced than ever that he’s ready.

The time to get him in the side came long ago, and the opportunity must now be acted upon before it is gone. If Australia is to continue its rebuild towards world number one, the classy left-hander is a must.

Over to you Roarers, how does Khawaja fit into the Australian side and at whose expense?

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