Khawaja fitness – and return – still not set in stone

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    Thought you’d solved the Australian batting order mystery for Boxing Day? You’d have done well, with all the quotes, updates and selection statements made in the aftermath of Australia’s big first Test win over the West Indies in Hobart over the weekend.

    All seemed to be heading towards a Joe Burns versus Shaun Marsh showdown for the last spot in the order, with the confirmation that Usman Khawaja had been recalled to the Australian side for the Melbourne Test.

    There was the mere detail of Khawaja needing to prove his fitness for a Test cricket return via the Big Bash League to gloss over, and for the most part, that glossing over came easily as reporting and opinion quickly jumped to the ‘if they’ve picked him, he must be right to go’ conclusion.

    Before being named for his potential return, Khawaja had made what I thought was a really sound argument about finding his fitness playing Twenty20.

    “It’s not so much the lower intensity stuff that’s going to get a hammy, it’s the higher intensity stuff – so actually pushing it in the BBL will probably be a bit harder in some respects,” he said in a News Limited interview before the Hobart Test.

    “It’s a bit more of a test than it would be coming back in the four-day game in some respects.”

    When he was named, the expectation – a spoken requirement, even – was that Khawaja would need to get through both Sydney Thunder games this week, the Sydney derby on Thursday night, and then back up on Sunday to face the Melbourne Stars at the MCG.

    If he got through those two games, the implication was, then and only then would the selectors get into the looming selection headache that Marsh’s emphatic 182 has brought upon them.

    One part of the puzzle has been resolved, with Darren Lehmann saying in Hobart on Sunday that all-rounder Mitchell Marsh will definitely not make way in any batting order reshuffle.

    “There has been talk about six batsmen and no all-rounder, but we saw in the day-night Test against New Zealand, when Mitchell Starc got injured, that you need the all-rounder,” Lehmann said.

    “So we will certainly play Mitchell Marsh [on Boxing Day].”

    That put opener Burns in the firing line, who after starting the Australian summer with a bang in Brisbane, with 71 and 129, has followed with 40 and 0 in Perth, 14 and 11 in Adelaide, and 33 in Hobart.

    Not helping Burns’ cause was Lehmann’s admission that he’d be happy with Khawaja opening in a Test match.

    “I would – but the captain might not want that. We have to work out the best six and the batting order from there,” Lehmann said.

    “If [Khawaja] comes back in, someone will miss out and we have to work out who that is.”

    But on Monday, the news filtered through, first from the Thunder themselves, but then Cricket Australia, that Khawaja wouldn’t be lining up in the BBL05 opener on Thursday night.

    “Cricket Australia have been working with Thunder medical staff on Usman’s return to play criteria following his hamstring injury. At this stage the plan is to have him return for the Thunder’s second match against the Melbourne Stars at the MCG on Sunday. His participation will be confirmed later in the week,” the Thunder statement said.

    CA confirmed the development, and though it would appear the decision was made on CA medical staff recommendation, the wording of their report seemed to put the decision back on the western Sydney outfit.

    “The Thunder medical staff, in conjunction with Cricket Australia, have instead identified the December 20 clash against the Melbourne Stars at the MCG as Khawaja’s likely return,” the www.cricket.com.au report read.

    Plot, meet thickening agent.

    Curiously, only hours after this was all reported, Khawaja was batting in a Thunder centre wicket session, was hitting the ball very well and moving reasonably well between wickets, too, albeit without a great deal of intensity and certainly without the pressure of a match situation.

    Regardless, he now has just three hours and change on Sunday night to prove that his hamstring will be right to go for probably not all five days of the Melbourne Test.

    Throughout this whole situation, I kept thinking about how Lehmann has responded to the inevitable questions of Khawaja’s return, and which batsman might make way for Melbourne.

    “Usman’s first got to be fit. If he’s not fit he won’t play,” Lehmann told Damien Fleming on Cricket Australia’s Stumps show at the conclusion of the Hobart Test.

    “We’ve got to make sure he’s playing BBL to get some sort of match fitness and see how the strain of the hamstring is.”

    “We certainly need him playing and with the hamstring we don’t want him playing Test match cricket if he’s not fully fit,” Lehmann said of Khawaja post-match in Hobart.

    “He will have to be sharp in those Big Bash League T20 games he’s playing and get through those – then we’ll make a decision from there.”

    It’s an obvious and valid point, one I’ve thrown up myself over the last few days when commentary has inevitably gotten ahead of itself.

    But why make the decision on Monday morning to rule Khawaja out of playing on Thursday night? If “playing BBL to get some sort of match fitness” is an important part of the equation for a Test recall, why not give him every opportunity to play?

    If there’s a known risk of re-injury, then why put those requirements for a return up at all? And if there was a risk that Khawaja wouldn’t be right to return via the BBL, then why name him in the Test squad in the first place?

    I can’t help but wonder if a medical overrule is how the selectors will avoid what would undoubtedly be a tough decision.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.