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Khawaja must play ahead of Harris while Starc should rest but selectors remain coy

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Expert
11th January, 2022
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If Australian cricket’s goal is to be the best in the world in all three formats, it cannot accept mediocrity and keep making the same mistakes at the selection table.

Friday’s fifth Ashes Test in Hobart is a dead rubber but qualification points for the World Test Championship are on the line and the selectors have to drop Marcus Harris and retain Usman Khawaja while they should also play the long game by resting Mitchell Starc after an arduous summer.

The Australian men’s team missed out on making the World Test Championship final after being docked points for slow over rates. It’s history now that New Zealand took their spot and won the trophy over India earlier this year.

Australia would have been underdogs against India but at a neutral ground like Lord’s anything is possible and after winning the T20 World Cup in November, they could theoretically be two-thirds of their way to world domination.

After being shuffled in and out of the line-up for his first 10 Tests, Harris has had four matches in a row to establish himself as David Warner’s batting partner. He has not done so.

A not so grand total of 179 runs at 29.83 means he cannot complain if left out of the XI for the series decider. He’s had 14 chances to wear the baggy green cap and his 79 in Sydney against India in 2019 is his high watermark.

The Victorian left-hander has had 26 innings without a ton and there have been several Australian players who took even longer to make their first Test century like Bob Simpson (51), Ian Redpath (48) and Steve Waugh (41) but Harris is 29 and highly unlikely to have a career anything like these three past legends.

By no means should his cards be marked never to play again, but let’s not forget he’s only been in the side since Will Pucovski was unable to suit up for the final Test of last summer’s home series against India and has been sidelined this season with concussion-related problems.

Mitchell Starc of Australia bowls during day four of the 3rd Test match in the series between Australia and India at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 10, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jason McCawley - CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Mitchell Starc (Photo by Jason McCawley – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

If Pucovski had produced middling numbers like this, there’d be a case for keeping him in the team on the promise of his potential ahead of Khawaja.

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And Khawaja could not have done more in his comeback Test than his crucial 137 in the first innings at the SCG and then adding an unbeaten 101 in the second dig.

He has modestly stated he was still expecting to miss out in Hobart with Travis Head returning from his COVID-19 infection but Khawaja can not only be a decent opening partner to Warner but thrive in the position.

The Queensland skipper is by no means a specialist opener but he has played five Tests at the top of the order, making 484 runs at 96.8 with centuries against South Africa in 2016 and Pakistan two years later.

National selector Tony Dodemaide told reporters on Tuesday that the panel chaired by George Bailey constantly had the World Test Championship in their thinking but did not give any secrets away about the team for the final stoush with England as Australia look to wrap up the series 4-0.

“That was just a phenomenal performance from Uzzy,” he said. “Having said that, there are a lot of conversations to be had over the next couple of days. It’s a very difficult one.

“You need to consider all the options and that’s probably the benefit of having three sets of eyes and three minds.

“There’s any number of left-field suggestions you come up with and what George has said, and I agree with as well, is ‘let’s not just think of the obvious’.

“Have the what-if scenarios … however left field or peripheral that might be, let’s just toss it around and see if there’s any merit.”

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With first-choice seamer Josh Hazlewood already ruled out due to the side strain he suffered in the opening Test at the Gabba a month ago, Dodemaide said the selectors would wait until they receive advice from the medico staff before finalising their attack.

Young all-rounder Cameron Green, who has bowled well in each Test and found form with the bat via his 74 in the SCG second innings, could be rested as he continues his comeback from a serious back injury.

“We’ll see how he pulls up,” Dodemaide said. “It was a terrific innings … and his bowling is really exciting. We do have to be mindful that he’s still a very young man … you’re always conscious of bowlers and their physical development.”

With the final Test being a day-nighter, it increases the reluctance to rest Starc, who has the world’s best record for bowlers with the pink ball.

He looked cooked at the SCG after playing four straight matches in the condensed schedule, taking 1-114 across the match.

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His record tends to blow out when a series stretches to five Tests – he has taken just six wickets in the three matches he has played in the fifth match of series at 52.66, nearly double his overall average of 27.51.

Last summer against India in Australia, the national selectors stuck with Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood in all four Tests and the attack looked flat as the series wound down with the hosts unable to get crucial wickets late in the third match in Sydney and the last game in Brisbane.

“It’s one of the conversations that we will have,” Dodemaide said of Starc’s fitness.

“He is a key asset for us with a heavy schedule coming up, not only in the white-ball [games] but also the tours that will come up soon afterwards.

“It’s certainly a conversation that we will need to have to see how he pulls up. He’s in some really great form both with bat and ball. So we’ll certainly take that into consideration.

“We haven’t seen the pitch yet … so we’ll take a few things into account.”

Jhye Richardson and Michael Neser, who played the day-night Test at Adelaide Oval, are keen for another crack at the Poms while Scott Boland is set to back up for his third match despite injuring his ribs after falling in his follow-through in Sydney on the way to taking seven wickets for the second consecutive game.

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