With superstar batsman Steve Smith very unlikely to play the third Ashes Test due to concussion, veteran batsmen David Warner and Usman Khawaja must step up to ensure Australia don’t let this series slip.
Warner and Khawaja have had a shocking Ashes to date, together making 109 runs at 14 from their eight innings in this series, and both failing last night on the final day at Lord’s.
By churning out 378 runs in his three knocks in this Ashes, Smith remarkably scored 37 per cent of Australia’s total runs across those innings. His influence was particularly pivotal in the first innings of both of those Tests.
At Edgbaston he rescued Australia from 8-122, and at Lord’s he shepherded them to relative safety after they were 5-102.
This is a familiar pattern. Smith has been carrying the Australian batting away from home for the past five years. In that time he has, quite incredibly, averaged 61 with the bat in away Tests, cracking 10 tons from just 25 matches.
Despite his dominance Australia still have underperformed overseas in that period due to the lack of support Smith has received. Particularly notable has been the number of times Warner and Khawaja have gone missing on the road when their side most needed them.
Perhaps never before have Australia required that pair to lift to the extent they do right now. Smith’s absence will leave their already vulnerable batting line-up dangerously fragile.
With 29 Test tons between them – more than the entire England top six – Warner and Khawaja are accomplished veterans.
The remainder of Australia’s top seven, assuming Marnus Labuschagne replaces Smith, collectively own just four Test centuries.
While the likes of Travis Head, Matt Wade, Labuschagne and Tim Paine all could potentially prove influential with the blade in the next match, it is Warner and Khawaja who have the greatest responsibility.
Australia’s ability to halt England’s momentum over the remaining three Tests will lean heavily on whether they blunt the new ball.
As top order batsmen, Warner and Khawaja must take it upon themselves to shield their unproven middle order. If they can do that, this could be a career-defining series for either man. Khawaja was immense in the UAE last year but it was in a losing cause.
Warner’s finest moment away from home came more than five years ago when he belted 543 runs at 90 in South Africa. When he followed that up with 239 runs at 60 in the UAE later that year, it looked as though Warner might have cracked the code for foreign success.
It proved a false dawn. Since then he has had just one genuinely impressive series away from home out of eight attempts.
He struggled in the West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, and now in this series in England, while producing middling efforts in SA and last time around in the UK.
Khawaja, meanwhile, has had just two good Test series overseas from 10 attempts in his career. The left hander has been especially poor in the pace-friendly environments of England and SA, averaging just 22 across his 20 Test innings in those countries.
Smith’s likely unavailability means Australia will need Khawaja’s experience in the third Test. But his position is tenuous. If he again falters at Headingley then the axe may swing.
Warner likely will get more patience from the selectors due to his far superior Test record.
The time has come, though, that he must stride out of Smith’s shadow and prove he can lead Australia’s batting line-up in difficult circumstances overseas.
It is make or break time for both Warner and Khawaja.