Usman Khawaja looks likely to be dropped for the first Test against India on Thursday after being left out of the team for Australia’s only warm-up match which started yesterday in Mumbai.
Given the way Khawaja floundered against spin in the Tests in Sri Lanka last year it would be crazy for Australia to deny him a practice match in India if they actually planned to pick him for the opening Test.
So his absence from yesterday’s line-up strongly suggests the Test selectors have already made the decision to dump Khawaja. If so, I believe they are making the right choice.
Why? Allow me to explain.
Captain Steve Smith, star opener David Warner and prolific new middle-order batsman Peter Handscomb are automatic choices in the top six.
The fourth lock in the batting line-up is an all-rounder, whether that be Mitchell Marsh or Glenn Maxwell, because Australia cannot possibly take on the dominant Indian batting line-up with only four bowling options.
Australia can expect to spend a ton of time in the field during this series – India’s average first innings score was 550 in their recent five-Test home series against England. In light of that, fielding just four bowling options would place massive strain on Australia’s gun new ball pair, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
With Warner, Smith, Handscomb and an all-rounder locked in, that leaves Khawaja, young opener Matt Renshaw and veteran Shaun Marsh to fight it out for the two remaining spots.
Shaun Marsh, to my mind, should be the second player picked in the batting line-up after Smith, thanks to his incredible Test record in Asia – 393 runs at 79, including two centuries.
The final spot then is between Renshaw and Khawaja.
The 20-year-old is a complete unknown in these conditions – he has never played in Asia in any format. Renshaw has made a fantastic start to his Test career, averaging 64 after four Tests, and made 184 in his last Test innings, during which he expertly countered Pakistan’s star spinner Yasir Shah.
With his endless patience and willingness to bat well within himself, Renshaw is a fine foil for the cavalier Warner. Among international batsman Renshaw is most similar in style to gun English opener Alastair Cook, who has a sensational Test record in Asia.
Of course, that does not at all mean that Renshaw is destined to succeed in India, he could just as easily flop, as have so many Australian batsmen before him.
But he does look confident against spin and is yet to garner any mental scars against slow bowlers in Asia. The same can’t be said of Khawaja, who looked petrified against spin in Sri Lanka and was dropped after four consecutive failures in that series.
It would be a tough call to drop Khawaja, who has piled up 1349 runs at 64 since being recalled to the Test team after a long absence in November 2015. On a horses-for-courses basis, however, he should not be in the starting line-up in India.
In Sri Lanka, the left hander’s batting against spin was a complete mess. It’s not just his technique against spin which is a concern, but also his mentality. Khawaja looked flustered and panicked against Graeme Swann earlier in his career and, three years on in Sri Lanka, nothing had changed.
Khawaja lacks a clear plan of how to get off strike against slow bowlers when conditions favour them. He allows them to deliver dot ball after dot ball until something gives. His timid, unfocused approach in Sri Lanka prompted the selectors to drop him for the third Test in Colombo.
It also looks like it has convinced them to leave him out of the starting line-up next week in favour of Shaun Marsh and Renshaw. If Khawaja does appear at Pune it will now come as a major surprise.