Usman Khawaja’s classy ton yesterday in the second Test against Sri Lanka was a welcome return to form for a batsman who shapes as pivotal in the upcoming Ashes in England.
Khawaja (101 not out) and Travis Head (59 not out) gave Australia a lead of 515 before the Sri Lankan openers went to stumps at 0-16.
Australia will be keen for Khawaja to bat at first drop in England not just due to his significant experience – he owns eight Test tons – but because it will allow the returning Steve Smith to bat at four.
While Smith has a jaw-dropping Test record batting at three, with 1744 runs at 67, he will enter the Ashes not having played a Test match for 16 months. England’s quicks, particularly evergreen star James Anderson, would love to get early looks at Smith while he is trying to readjust to Test cricket.
Khawaja’s role in the Ashes would be to partner with Australia’s openers to shield Smith and the middle order from the new ball, with which England’s seamers can do so much damage so quickly.
Until yesterday it looked as if Khawaja’s Ashes spot was in serious doubt. He had laboured through the worst home summer of his career, with 209 runs at 23. The left-hander was troubled by India’s high-quality attack and then scored just 11 and 0 in his first two innings against Sri Lanka’s comparatively modest bowling unit.
Across this summer Khawaja was not struggling with one style of bowler or with one particular aspect of his technique. Against pace he was being troubled by quicks off both the front and back foot and was meanwhile unable to locate a consistent method of scoring from spin.
It was a similar story early in his innings yesterday as Khawaja made a scratchy start. Offie Dilruwan Perera has dismissed Khawaja four times in Tests and looked like adding to that total. Khawaja was getting stuck on the crease opposed to the tweaker and could not get off strike. He crept to 20 from 55 balls.
Then, just before tea, spin all-rounder Dhananjaya de Silva offered a half-tracker to Khawaja, who cracked it to the mid-wicket boundary.
Sometimes all it takes for an out-of-nick cricketer to turn the tide is one crisp shot, one rousing wicket, one brilliant catch or one sharp run out. Khawaja looked an entirely different batsman after the break.
He was nimble and assured against spinners Perera and Dhananjaya and began to thrash the inexperienced Sri Lankan quicks.
In the final session Khawaja cracked 76 from 79 balls without ever engaging full white-ball mode. He did not start slogging or risking his wicket.
Khawaja just seized upon every skerrick of width on each over or under-pitched delivery. Granted, he was facing a weak and green Sri Lankan attack on a wonderful batting pitch. This one innings is by no means evidence that Khawaja is back to peak form.
What it did represent, though, was a significant stride in the right direction.
Khawaja would now be best served by being left out of the ODI tour of India later this month so he can try to build on this momentum and get four to five Sheffield Shield matches of invaluable practice against the swinging Dukes ball.
Australia are fortunate that their entire current Test top seven may have this opportunity to hone their skills against the Dukes in the second half of the Shield season given none of them bar Travis Head is likely to tour India.
The Dukes which has been used at the back end of the past few Shield seasons swings significantly more than the Kookaburra employed before Christmas.
Khawaja will likely be tested more by top Shield bowlers wielding the Dukes than he was yesterday. But runs are runs, and this century, however cheap it may have been, has released significant pressure on the 32-year-old.