A Test cricket career is a tough business, and Usman Khawaja faces a difficult assignment to keep his alive, if he gets that chance in Sydney’s fourth Ashes Test.
At first glance, it appears the veteran left-hander will have an easy ride – coming in at number five after an Australian top order likely to again put the home team in a dominant position against this bruised and battered English squad facing a series whitewash.
But for the 35-year-old Queensland captain, it could be the last opportunity he receives to have a late-career run in the baggy green.
Travis Head is ahead of him on the pecking order and will return for the fifth Test in Hobart on January 15, assuming he recovers from his COVID-19 case in time.
But if Khawaja fails to score runs, he may also cost himself a chance to be in the touring squad for the trip to the nation of his birth, Pakistan, in March.
The selectors have shown by their decision to draft in Mitchell Marsh, Nic Maddinson and keeper-batter Josh Inglis to the squad as extra cover in case of further COVID-19 dramas, that they have an eye on regenerating Australia’s ageing batting stocks.
Will Pucovski and Cameron Green were ushered into the Test side last summer as selectors look to shore up the future in a few years’ time, when prolific duo David Warner and Steve Smith call it a day.
Khawaja had the talent to be a mainstay of the Australian team like his pair of former NSW teammates, but has been in and out of the line-up several times due to a mix of form and injury issues since his debut, also in an Ashes Test at the SCG.
That game was 11 years ago but seems like a lifetime away for England and Australia. The tourists were in the process of sealing a 3-1 series win, while the locals were looking for a saviour to lead them out of their darkest period in decades.
Khawaja scored a promising 37 on a rain-shortened first day of that Test and such was the nation’s appetite for a ray of hope, it was lauded as the potential dawn of a bright new career by the national media.
He added just 21 in the second innings but it was enough to get him on the plane for the next Test tour of Sri Lanka seven months later.
But it wasn’t until 2015 that he established himself in the side on the back of his first two Test tons against New Zealand, and another on Boxing Day at the MCG against the West Indies.
The next four years demonstrate the rocks or diamonds stretches of his career.
He tallied 753 from 10 Tests in 2016 at 47.06 in 2016 and 732 at 40.66 from the same number of games in 2018.
In between he added 256 and 265 in 2017 and 2019 respectively, both at a sub-30 average, and has not been selected since a paltry three-match return of 122 in the last Ashes tour of England.
Khawaja was not putting too much pressure on himself when he spoke to the media on the weekend.
“Potentially I’ll have one game for Australia here, but I know it’s not going to be the be all and end all. I’ve done a lot of hard work to get back to this point where I am right now,” he said.
“But even if that doesn’t happen, I know there’s still… a lot of cricket on the subcontinent which I feel I’m very suited to, and which I’m looking forward to hopefully being a part of moving forward.”
Although he scored a mammoth match-saving century against Pakistan in the UAE in his last Test in Asia back in 2018, his record on the continent is not that great.
He averages 31.45 from seven games, well down on his overall record of 40.66 from 44.
Players such as Chris Rogers and Adam Voges had career revivals in the latter stages of their careers, while Mike Hussey played his entire career after his 30th birthday. But they are the exceptions to the rule.
If Khawaja doesn’t grasp this opportunity at a ground he knows so well after many summers playing for NSW, it’s hard to see the selectors giving him any, let alone many, more.