Just when it seemed that Travis Head had done enough to secure an Ashes berth, Usman Khawaja fired back to give the selectors more to ponder.
Pitted against each other for Australia’s vacant number five position, Head and Khawaja faced off in this week’s Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and Queensland.
Both men failed in the first innings, but with Bulls skipper Khawaja selflessly enforcing the follow-on, his opposing captain struck a timely 101 off 149 balls on Thursday to poke his nose in front.
With Queensland only needing 87 for victory, it appeared Khawaja wouldn’t have another real chance to push his claims for a Test recall until an Ashes intra-squad match from December 1-3.
But coming to the crease at 2/16, Khawaja thumped an unbeaten 52 off just 36 balls – whacking 10 fours – to guide his team home.
— Nic Savage (@nic_savage1) November 26, 2021
It remains to be seen how much weight the selectors place on the duo’s performances.
Chief selector George Bailey said when the 15-man Ashes squad was announced last week that they were “pretty close to where we’re going to land” in picking a number five batter.
“We’re leaning towards one of them but the whole purpose of naming a squad is to have a squad there. So we’ll work through that much closer to the start of the first Test,” Bailey said.
At least Australia will know that whoever gets the nod is in good nick.
Former Test captain Ricky Ponting said when the squad was announced that he thought Khawaja was likely to be thrust back into the middle order.
“I was actually a bit surprised that they named the two (Khawaja and Head),” he told cricket.com.au.
“If they haven’t made a decision on it yet, I’m not sure how much clearer it’s going to get over the next period of time.
“I’m rapt for Khawaja. I’ve been on record a few times that even when he got left out, I still felt he was in Australia’s top six batters.
“Just reading between the lines, it would seem strange to go back to someone like him and not play him.”
Meanwhile, incumbent Aussie number three Marnus Labuschagne also enjoyed a strong hit-out, the Queenslander posting 110 on a tricky Karen Rolton Oval pitch before scoring 28 not out in the second dig.
Weather permitting, Australia’s Ashes group will play in the intra-squad match, also featuring members of the Australia A list, at Redlands next week.
While it might be billed as a bat-off between Head and Khawaja, new Test captain Pat Cummins said last week that “I wouldn’t look into that game too much”, describing it as “pretty relaxed”.