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Selectors ignore ideal stop-gap in Khawaja

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10th December, 2020
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In last year’s Ashes series, the Australian selectors were praised for instilling a horses-for-courses selection policy that reaped dividends.

In all five Tests, the final XI was picked solely upon who best fit the unique conditions and situation of each Test, rather than who would usually get the nod.

Mitchell Starc was left out for Peter Siddle at Edgbaston, and Travis Head was left out for Mitch Marsh at the Oval.

These were calls that nine times out of ten would not happen, but based on the set of circumstances in front of them, they were made.

And they were proven correct.

Australia celebrate retaining the Ashes

(Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)

Fast forward almost 18 months, and the selectors this week reneged on the policy that served them so well.

Usman Khawaja is the obvious stop-gap solution to Australia’s now rather desperate need for a Test opener against India until David Warner returns.

With Will Pucovski now under huge doubt too, Khawaja is the standout choice to fill in — likely for just one Test — until Warner’s targeted return on Boxing Day.

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His record in the opener’s role is exemplary: seven innings, 484 runs including two 100s and two 50s.

One of those centuries was in a pink ball day-night Test at Adelaide, the venue of next Thursday’s series opener, and against Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott.

The other was a gritty 141 (302) against Pakistan in the searing heat of Dubai; one of the best Test innings of the last decade.

His recent domestic form is strong, too. The Queensland skipper finished the latest Sheffield Shield round with a classy 131 and 46* to his name.

More important than those statistics, however, is the desperately needed experience that Khawaja would bring to an opening partnership featuring either Joe Burns or Marcus Harris.

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As shown in The Test documentary released earlier this year, Khawaja is one of the most senior players in the Australian set-up who both knows his game and is unafraid to speak up.

And it’s that assuredness that Australia needs in Adelaide.

Usman Khawaja

(Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images)

While this time around the Australian batting order is strengthened by the return of Steve Smith and the emergence of Marnus Labuschagne, it goes without saying that a sturdy opening pair is paramount to success.

In bypassing Khawaja for the day-night tour game against the Indians starting today at the SCG, the selectors have all but shown their cards that Burns and Harris are the likely starters next Thursday.

And as fellow Roar columnist Ronan O’Connell argued yesterday, that would leave Australia exposed in the all-important series opener.

It’s important to note that picking Khawaja over Harris or Burns is not the regressive move that the “he’s had his go, move on” brigade think it is.

Opting for Khawaja over a younger player like Harris would not be reflective of a wholesale change to selection policy, nor signal that Khawaja was back in Australia’s best XI.

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It would simply acknowledge that for the upcoming Test match, Australia’s best chance of victory likely includes a team where he is opening the batting. That is all.

If picked, Khawaja would not be guaranteed selection beyond Adelaide, and nor would he expect it.

Usman Khawaja

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Speaking on Wednesday, former Test player Simon Katich said the selectors should go one step further and shift both Matthew Wade and Khawaja to the top.

“He’s a Test batsman,” Katich said of Khawaja on 1170 SEN.

“He averages 40 in Test cricket and more importantly, in the seven Tests he has played as an opener he’s averaged just under 100, so in my mind I’d be picking those two experienced guys at the top of the order and going with that.”

Irrespective of the call to leave Khawaja out for today’s tour match, the selectors have backed themselves into a corner should Burns’ poor run continue in the coming days.

Another failure (or two, depending on whether Australia A get a second innings) would leave the Queenslander bereft of confidence entering the most important series of his career.

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And if the selectors are to then change their minds at the last minute and pick a player like Khawaja, they would leave him hopelessly underdone, without red ball practice in a month.