Are the selectors gaslighting Usman Khawaja?

Stephen Vagg Roar Guru

By , Stephen Vagg is a Roar Guru

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    Another Test, another omission for Usman ‘bad in Asia’ Khawaja. What does this mean for Ussie’s career?

    Is he banished forever until he learns to bowl medium pace? Will he be picked for the Ashes? If he is and does well, will he ever get another overseas tour? Is he banned from Asia forever? Or is he simply being gaslit by the selectors for their own amusement?

    ‘Gaslighting’ is a form of manipulation that seeks to make someone doubt their own sanity. The term has its origins in a 1938 play (your grandma probably loves the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film version) and has come back into vogue recently, especially in political circles.

    Most of us know someone who is being gaslit, or who’s accused of being a gaslighter: an abusive partner, a dodgy nurse at an old person’s home, a psychopathic co-worker. In trying to make sense of how the selectors have treated Usman Khawaja, I’ve begun to wonder: are the selectors simply trying to drive him insane?

    I don’t think this was the case initially. Act one of Khawaja’s Test career had a trajectory similar to many champion players – he got thrown in the deep end (2010-11), got dropped after six Tests, got back in the team (2013), got dropped again after three Tests.

    He changed states, was caught up in a scandal (homeworkgate) and was publicly berated for being lazy – all very frustrating to his fans, but a lot of batsmen who go on to become legends have similar erratic international beginnings e.g. Dave Warner, Ricky Ponting, Steve Smith.

    The 2015-16 summer was meant to be the second act of his career – when Khawaja finally established himself as an integral member of the batting order for the next few years (followed by act three, where everyone just talks about when he’s going to be dropped all the time). But after a productive home summer and New Zealand tour, the wheels fell off.

    Steve Smith Usman Khawaja

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    On the 2016 tour of Sri Lanka, Khawaja batted poorly in the first two Tests – along with all the Australian batsmen other than Smith. He was dropped for the third game in favour of Moises ‘good against spin’ Henriques, who failed.

    The selectors showed they didn’t hold a grudge by picking him in the ODI side. Then he was dropped from that too.

    Khawaja was back in the Test side over the 2016-17 Australia summer. He survived the big cull after our fifth loss in a row and played extremely well all season, contributing some match-winning innings. “Okay,” figured Khawaja fans. “Maybe last season was part of act one – maybe act two starts now.”

    In January 2017 Australia rested Khawaja from the Chappell-Hadlee ODI series in New Zealand so he could prepare in Dubai for the 2017 India tour. On this tour, Khwaja was overlooked for the sole tour game prior to the Tests in favour of the Marsh brothers.

    “We see Usman as one of our best five or six batsmen,” head selector Trevor Hohns said at the time.

    “He’s included because of that. We would expect Usman to do everything he possibly can to improve his play. He wasn’t great in Sri Lanka – and once again, he knows that and understands that. We want to see him improve his play in those conditions against spin bowling. He’s one of our best batsmen, so there’s no reason why he can’t do the job.”

    Both Marshes scored runs in that tour game and were considered a lock in the first Test for some reason. Lehmann publicly wondered whether Khawaja might partner Warner as opener, despite Matt Renshaw being in strong form.

    In the event Renshaw kept his spot, and Khawaja was dropped for Shaun Marsh, who was “good in Asia” (he’d never played first class cricket in India before the tour) and Mitchell Marsh, who averages 30 with the bat at first class level, but who “batted well on the Sri Lanka tour” (he averaged 27) and could bowl.

    Shaun Marsh reacts with brother Mitchell

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Both Marshes failed in the first Test – Mitchell’s bowling was barely used – but Australia won so they kept their spots for the second Test, where Shaun did half-well and Mitchell failed again, then was injured.

    He was replaced in the side for the third Test not by Khawaja but by Glenn Maxwell – mostly because of Maxwell’s ability to bowl spin. This was an ability so highly thought of by Smith that the captain used Maxwell for a grand total of four overs as India put on 603.

    However Maxwell did score a century so he kept his spot for the fourth Test – which Australia lost due to dodgy batting.

    Khawaja was then overlooked for the 2017 ODI Championship Trophy. He was to captain an Australian A team to tour South Africa, which never happened because of the player strike, but was picked on the two-test tour of Bangladesh.

    Australia Test player Glenn Maxwell raises his bat

    Australia’s Glenn Maxwell (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

    The Marsh brothers had been overlooked for this tour, so Khawaja was back in the side at three for the first Test. “I think Usman’s going to be a really big player for us this summer,” said Steven Smith “He’s done incredibly well in Australia over the last couple of years.”

    Usman failed twice in that game, which Australia lost, mostly due to dodgy batting. He was dropped for the second Test in favour of Hilton Cartwright whose ‘medium’ pace bowling gave Smith an extra bowling option in a team with only one specialist paceman.

    Cartwright wound up bowling five overs in the whole game and only scored 18 with the bat. Maxwell didn’t cover himself in glory either and Darren Lehmann is now talking of Khawaja coming back into the side for the Ashes.

    The selectors clearly have some time for Khawaja – at least he’s got to play Test cricket which is more than can be said for, say, David Hussey and Michael Klinger. And he’s had more chances than, say, Joe Burns, George Bailey, or Ed Cowan.

    But it’s also clear they don’t believe in him as much as Warner (who failed a lot in Asia before he came good), or Lyon (who failed a lot in Asia before he came good), or Shane Watson (who failed a lot in Asia before he came good, then went back to failing), or Mitchell Marsh (who failed a lot everywhere and has never really come good).

    He was replaced in various Tests by Shaun Marsh, Moises Henriques, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell and Hilton Cartwright, none of whom locked down their spots so the selectors have to keep going back to Khawaja.

    For the selectors, it seems Khawaja’s like that girlfriend who they don’t want to marry, not really, so they never get serious about her – but they do like her, and miss her when she’s not around, and keep sleeping with her, and send her flowers every once in a while. And because this is international cricket, Khawaja can’t cut and run – he can’t go off and play for another country.

    So he sucks it up – the booty calls, the fake protestations of love, the mistreatment. He’s stuck in an abusive relationship.

    How is this treatment meant to make him better? Make Australian batting better? Has there ever been a consistently successful Australian side where one of their key batsman was excused from playing in certain continents?

    Is there a top level batsman in the world who would look back on their career and go, “you know what made me a champion? Being hidden from pitches that turned.” Have they not been able to draw a correlation between Australia’s batting to constantly collapse and the fact they keep stuffing around the batsmen who aren’t Smith or Warner?

    If the selectors were serious about Khawaja being an integral member of the Australian side, they would’ve given him a third Test to succeed in Sri Lanka, like they did with fellow failures Warner, Voges and Mitchell Marsh in that series, and at least two tests to succeed in India, like they did with the Marsh brothers, Renshaw, Warner and Handscomb, and a second Test in Bangladesh, like they did with Renshaw.

    They wouldn’t have replaced him with batsmen who are ‘good against spin’ who actually fail against spin, or batsmen who are mainly picked because they can always bowl whose bowling isn’t actually used by the captain.

    Steve Smith Usman Khawaja

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    In fairness, Khawaja isn’t the only Australian player who gets the hot and cold treatment. Others include Steve O’Keefe, who was treated with disdain, then reluctant acceptance, then worship, then disdain, then so much admiration he’s flown into the side mid-series… and that’s just this year.

    Then there’s Glenn Maxwell (“we love him!” “he’s an idiot!” “he’s got X factor!” “his own teammates have fined him!”) and Jackson Bird (who keeps getting selected on tours but who the selectors were so determined not to pick in the actual Test side they flew out a replacement player mid-series in India, and played three spinners in Bangladesh). But with Khawaja they’ve brought it to an art form because his humiliation has been so public and constant.

    The selectors aren’t serious about Khawaja – but they keep saying they are. It may be unintentional, it may come from a good place. But it’s gaslighting. And we’ll be lucky if it doesn’t actually drive Khawaja mad.

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