Khawaja piles on the pressure
On a day when little of consequence happened for Australia's Test squad at the Gabba, something of significant interest was unfolding 1800 kilometres away. On a treacherous, green seaming pitch at Bellerive Oval, Usman Khawaja's simmering start to the Sheffield Shield season suddenly began to boil. His timing may not have been perfect - a ton last week might have earned him a place in the Brisbane Test - but he has given Australia's debutant Rob Quiney reason to look over his shoulder.
Of course, Quiney is yet to bat for his country and can lock himself into the Test side by succeeding at the Gabba, and there is also the matter of Shane Watson's potential return from injury. But should Quiney fail on debut and Watson remain unavailable, Khawaja will at least have given the selectors something to ponder. He finished the county season with Derbyshire by scoring three consecutive half-centuries and his first few matches for Queensland have brought several more. Khawaja needs a sustained period of Sheffield Shield form, but the signs are positive.
The most impressive thing about his innings in Hobart was that it came in such difficult conditions. The Bellerive Oval wicket block has been relaid and Ricky Ponting spoke earlier this week about how difficult it has been to bat on. By all accounts, the pitch for the current match looked as much like a tennis court as it did a cricket wicket. Tasmania, the home side, survived only 25.1 overs on it and made 95. Khawaja batted for more than twice that long and was finally dismissed for 138.
Not that runs were the only thing Khawaja was told he needed when he was dropped from the Test side last December. The Australian management wanted Khawaja to show more in the field and more of an inclination to rotate the strike. Khawaja's 138 in Hobart contained 21 fours and only 13 singles. All the same, Australia's coach Mickey Arthur said he had been impressed with the progress Khawaja had made over the past year.
"A couple of the messages around Usman were intensity when he bats, ability to rotate strike, ability to get ones," Arthur said. "We thought Ussie had played really well and he had a good defensive game, and he could hit a four. His ability to get off strike was something that we were worried about just a little bit, and Ussie generally in the field.
"What I'm saying is no secret - Ussie knows that. I've been very pleased with his progress. He's come into the season, he's got runs and his runs today were gold-dust on by all accounts a very seamer-friendly Bellerive wicket."
It is not clear just how far away from the Test side Khawaja is at the moment. He was not picked for last weekend's Australia A game against South Africa and despite his consistent starts and fifties recently, his Hobart century was his first hundred in a first-class game in Australia since October 20 of last year. But his off-season move from New South Wales to Queensland has not been a bad one - he sits on top of the Shield run tally this season - and he remains as confident in his own abilities as ever.
"I think I was always ready to play Test cricket," Khawaja said after scoring 54 in each innings of last week's Sheffield Shield game at Allan Border Field. "I think I'm ready to play Test cricket now. But in saying that, there are a lot of other players who are doing well as well. To see guys like [Alex] Doolan score a lot of runs. He's played well this year. [Rob] Quiney has played quite well this year as well. There is a lot of competition out there."
The same thought might have run through Quiney's mind today.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here