Usman Khawaja mounted a surely undeniable case to remain in the Australian team with his second century of the fourth Test at the SCG against a woeful England line-up.
Khawaja carved the tourists apart on day four to notch an unbeaten 101, his 10th Test century, and become the first player since Ricky Ponting 16 years ago to score tons in each innings of a Sydney Test.
He joins an elite list of six Australians with twin centuries in Ashes Tests alongside Steve Smith, Matthew Hayden, Steve Waugh, Arthur Morris and Warren Bardsley.
His 138-ball masterpiece enabled Pat Cummins to declare at 6-265, setting the bruised and battered English side a wildly improbable victory target of 388.
They faced 11 overs in the final hour of the day to be 0-30 at stumps with Haseeb Hameed (eight) and Zak Crawley (22) posting England’s highest opening stand of the series.
But judging by their brittle batting this series, it seems only Sydney’s fickle new-year weather can now save England from a fourth consecutive drubbing.
With first-innings centurion Jonny Bairstow (thumb) and keeper Jos Buttler (hand) unable to field on Saturday and all-rounder Ben Stokes (side strain) unable to bowl, it casts further doubt on their potential to bat time to force a draw.
Khawaja accelerated the Australian innings after tea, in concert with young all-rounder Cameron Green, smashing 10 fours and two sixes.
The 35-year-old Queensland captain, playing his first Test since 2019 as a fill-in for Travis Head after he contracted COVID-19, would be extremely unlucky now to be left out of the team to play the fifth Test in Hobart next Friday.
Make that TWO!
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) January 8, 2022
Selectors have the option of dropping under-performing opener Marcus Harris and elevating Khawaja to the top of the innings with Head settling back into the No.5 slot.
Harris again failed to capitalise on another start when he was dismissed for 27 off Jack Leach and has managed only 179 runs from seven innings at 29.83 with only one half-century.
The Victorian left-hander has not hit a hundred after 13 Tests and after averaging a modest 24.63, even the staunchest supporter of the 29-year-old could not complain if he makes way for Khawaja.
Australia opened their account 122 runs to the good after polishing off the last three English first-innings wickets with a minimum of fuss, including Bairstow for 113 after he added only 10 more onto his overnight total.
Second-gamer Scott Boland continued his remarkable start to his Test career by picking up two of the wickets to fall, finishing the pick of the bowlers with 4-36.
David Warner (three) was out cheaply to Mark Wood for three and then the English quick claimed Marnus Labuschagne’s wicket for the third straight innings when the first drop nicked him to substitute keeper Ollie Pope on 29.
After Steve Smith was bowled by Leach for 23, the English team had a chance to attack but captain Joe Root went on the defensive, giving Khawaja and Green ample opportunity to get into their groove and then up the scoring ante.
His tactics have been questioned by all and sundry throughout the tour and it is looking increasingly likely that Root’s captaincy stint will end after the Ashes but with Stokes the only well-credentialled candidate to replace him, it may come down to whether the all-rounder wants to take on the added leadership burden.
Khawaja and Green forced the pace with defensive fields set while Root, Leach and even Dawid Malan sent down ineffective spin.
It was the ideal way for Green to work his way into form with the bat, making his first half-century of the series.
Khawaja did not slow down as he moved towards triple figures, slogging Root over mid-wicket and into the stands to move into the 90s. He pulled a Malan half-tracker to the deep to bring up his milestone, receiving another standing ovation from the crowd of 20,777 after getting one during his landmark moment on day two on his way to 137.
Green fell soon after Khawaja’s magical moment when he skied Leach to Root on 74, ending his 122-ball confidence booster which included seven fours and a towering six.
Cummins strangely sent keeper Alex Carey out to the wicket but after he fell first ball to Leach, the Australian skipper finally closed the innings.
Cricket Australia has announced entry to day five, which gets underway at 10am due to time lost earlier in the match, will be via a donation to the McGrath Foundation, which has reached its pre-game target of selling 240,000 virtual seats to raise more than $4.8 million in funds for breast care nurses.