Pat Cummins has full faith in Usman Khawaja moving into the unusual role of opener after he got the nod over Marcus Harris for the final Test of the Ashes against England in Hobart, starting on Friday.
Khawaja will open the batting alongside his childhood friend and former NSW teammate David Warner with Travis Head reclaiming the No.5 spot in the batting order after sitting out the drawn fourth Test against England in Sydney after contracting COVID-19.
Scott Boland, the find of the series, has not yet been ruled out after suffering a rib injury after falling in his follow-through in the first innings of the fourth Test. He trained strongly on Thursday afternoon and a Cricket Australia spokesperson said the team would make a final call on whether he plays on the morning of game day.
Boland had taken seven wickets in each of his first two games at Test level, including a memorable 6-7 at the MCG, to roar into calculations to be the unlikely Compton-Miller Medal winner for player of the series.
Cummins confirmed the Khawaja change on Thursday in the skipper’s final media conference before Friday’s day-nighter begins.
“I’m really confident in Uzzy opening, he’s a class player. He can bat anywhere in the order,” Cummins said.
“Even at the start of the summer when he was part of the squad, from the selectors’ point of view and from me as captain, I thought he could bat anywhere from 1-6.”
Khawaja was named man of the match in his comeback Test after stroking a majestic 137 in the first innings at the SCG and then adding an unbeaten 101 in the second dig.
The Queensland skipper is not 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.
Harris has been the least-convincing Australian batter in the series, compiling 179 runs at 29.83 in four Tests. He’s played 14 matches at Test level and the Victorian left-hander has yet to hit a hundred despite 26 trips to the crease.
There had been speculation that pace spearhead Mitchell Starc could be rested after playing all four Tests but the pink-ball wizard is again set to lead the attack.
Jhye Richardson is pushing for a return to the team – Cummins said the West Australian had overcome his shin complaint and was likely to replace Boland if needed. Michael Neser, who made his debut in the second Test in Adelaide, is also in the frame should Boland be ruled out.
Cummins said the performances of greenhorns like Boland, Neser and Richardson, who took a five-wicket haul in the second innings at Adelaide, had been a massive boost to the depth of Australia’s Test stocks.
“It’s been great that these other guys have come in and not only felt comfortable enough to not only perform but dominate straight away,” he said.
“It’s a real nod to the amount of talent we have around Australia that Shield cricket has produced so it has been really pleasing, it shows that we don’t have to be reliant on the same three or four players.
“I feel like anyone in the eleven, really in the squad, can be a match-winner and I’d add onto that some of the growth we’ve seen from the senior players as well. Mitchell Starc’s having a breakout summer 10 years into his career. Even Nathan Lyon, we’ve seen him bowl really well this summer, develop a few different skills.”
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He also showed his support for keeper Alex Carey, who has drawn criticism for a few missed catches in recent matches, and said the South Australian was working extremely hard at improving his game as he learns the ropes of Test cricket in his first series.
Cummins said it was hard to judge how the Blundstone Arena pitch would fare in its first day-night Ashes Test.
The fact that Australia will enter this match with a pair of 35-year-old openers after dropping Harris, who is six years younger, is not an issue, according to the captain.
“No, absolutely not. I think Uzzy and Davey have really earned that spot to open the batting,” Cummins said.
“But the reality is their both, I think, 35 years old so that doesn’t mean anything in the short, short term but there will be a day when we do need to find some other openers. Marcus has still absolutely got a huge future with us and he’ll be I’m sure around the squad.
“I think there might even be an Aussie A tour going away overseas in the off-season, there’s heaps of Shield cricket, county cricket, there’s lots of opportunities left. I’m sure this is more a case of someone demanding a spot as opposed to Marcus losing his spot with form.”