February 15, 2012

Khawaja's curious fade

His scores may not quite bear it out but Usman Khawaja's game has stagnated, and he may miss the West Indies tour

Not everything in Australian cricket has moved forward this season. While the captain, Michael Clarke, grows in stature, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey enjoy Indian summers, and the fast bowlers discover the virtues of bowling full and straight, others have slipped up, or slipped back.

Some, like Shaun Marsh, Phillip Hughes and Callum Ferguson, have simply failed to make the requisite number of runs. In the case of Shane Watson, the recurrence of injury has demonstrated that he is not quite as indispensable to the Test team as many thought he was. Mitchell Johnson too has been inconspicuous by his absence.

A more complex case is the fading of Usman Khawaja from the immediate thoughts of the national selectors. As it stands, Khawaja is more likely to miss the West Indies tour than he is to make it. At first glance it appears a harsh judgement, given that in limited appearances for New South Wales in between Australian and Twenty20 commitments his scores have been 116, 24, 101, 100, 21 and 14. But beyond the bare scores are wider concerns about Khawaja's progress.

On his debut, against England last year, he looked the part, crafting 37 runs on the first day of the fifth Ashes Test. His composure was notable, as was his back-foot game - a pull shot to his second ball from Chris Tremlett still lingers in the memory when so much else in the series does not. But there were signs that he had more to do. After a fast start to that innings, Khawaja was becalmed, and ultimately dismissed, by Graeme Swann's spin, a challenge he is yet to master. In the second he edged a delivery angled across him as he probed forward, demonstrating far less comfort on the front foot than the back.

Those shortcomings notwithstanding, the consensus at the time was that Khawaja, provided he kept building on his fundamentals, would become a permanent part of Australia's top six sooner rather than later. Given a strong first-class record and seeming comfort in international company, it looked inevitable. A winter came and went, and he flew to Sri Lanka for Clarke's first series as captain, intent on adding to his one Test. A smooth century in the tourists' only warm-up match nudged Khawaja ahead of Marsh, and he stayed in the team for Galle.

Sri Lanka, however, was where the first suggestions of uncertainty, both from Khawaja and about him, began to emerge. Batting at No. 6 in Galle he struggled mightily on a turning surface. His pair of scratchy 20s looked reasonable on a scorecard littered with lower individual tallies but left an impression for their stiffness against the spinning, reverse-swinging ball. In Palekelle, Khawaja was unfortunate, unbeaten on 13 when impending rain forced Clarke's declaration. But he had not done enough to keep his place in Colombo when Ponting returned from a brief trip home for the birth of his second child - Marsh's debut century tilted the balance.

On the team's return to Australia, feedback about Khawaja from the tour party, selectors and management, was less than glowing. To paraphrase Mike Gatting's oft-quoted line about Graham Thorpe when an England selector, Khawaja did not offer much to the tour other than runs, and even those did not come in rich enough supply. He did not - does not - spend the extra hours in the gym that others do to cross the line from "cricket-fit" to athletic. He needed to do plenty of work on his fielding, which did not meet Steve Rixon's exacting standards.

In the era of Clarke, and what would soon become a bevy of new support staff, no man is an island. Simon Katich had paid a high price for becoming a cagey, brooding character within the Australian dressing room, even though his volume of runs over the preceding two years had been unmatched among Test batsmen around the world. Katich had his reasons for introspection, but the contrast with Hussey and Ponting in particular was stark. Khawaja entered the home summer having developed a perception of self-containment, if not absorption. It can be a difficult habit to break.

In the weeks between Sri Lanka and South Africa, Khawaja made sure he could not be cast aside, making centuries in his only two matches for the Blues, both against South Australia at Adelaide Oval. The first was a sedate limited-overs hundred in a match that would be lost when the Redbacks chased more audaciously than the Blues had set their target, the second a diligent, match-saving effort against the spin of Nathan Lyon after SA had rumbled through the NSW first innings. Either way, they were made against one of the weaker attacks in the country - another question mark that has been raised on closer inspection of Khawaja's batting returns in domestic cricket.

Marsh's back injury offered up another chance for Khawaja, in Johannesburg, and at the start of Australia's chase of a decidedly awkward target it was his composure that helped make a successful pursuit possible. Khawaja's 65 was his highest Test score, and worth considerably more for its circumstances.

The pace of Khawaja's scoring and the range of his strokes came up for discussion, but slow scoring is less of a problem than struggling to rotate the strike

While there, Khawaja and the rest of the Australian players were introduced to Pat Howard and John Inverarity, two key members of the new support structure for Clarke. In Brisbane ahead of the first Test against New Zealand, they met Mickey Arthur, the new coach. All were privy to the previous regime's thoughts about Khawaja, and were aware of what they wanted him to improve. At the Gabba, Khawaja was again unfortunate, run out when he appeared good for many more than his 38 - Ponting was at fault. But in the field he struggled, resting on his heels too often at short leg.

Khawaja would again battle in the position, in Hobart, in the last match he would play for Australia this summer. His two innings on a dicey surface were slow and halting, placing pressure on the men at the other end to score, albeit in difficult conditions. The pace of Khawaja's scoring and the range of his strokes had come up for discussion, but slow scoring is less of a problem than struggling to rotate the strike. In comparison Ed Cowan's rate of scoring is similar, but his tendency to work in singles has provided his partner, often the dashing David Warner, the opportunity to bat with both freedom and security. The same could not be said of Khawaja. As the national selector, Inverarity has spoken often of players putting more into the team's bucket of qualities than they take out.

Following the Hobart Test, Khawaja was informed by Inverarity that he would not be part of the team for the first Test against India. Inverarity conveyed his tidings at the same time and in the same room as Hughes received his own news, an exchange known to have irked Khawaja. Since that time he has played out an indifferent Big Bash League, before returning to action with NSW against Tasmania.

He made another hundred against the Tigers in a domestic one-day match, an innings of poise and style, though again for a losing side. But it would have been noted by the selectors that in his first ten balls, Khawaja played only two scoring strokes, one a pulled six, and on the 11th he was dropped at slip pushing forward to a ball slanted across him. It might have been the same Khawaja of a year ago, before his debut and all its attendant adulation and analysis. Very little, strength or weakness, has changed.

Mentors, of course, can and will help. Katich, in his more gregarious NSW posture, speaks regularly with Khawaja, as does Cowan. Arthur and Inverarity remain in touch, and Sydney is the right place in the country for a young batsman needing more and better exposure to spin bowling. His management also has a role to play, and as in the case of most international cricketers, cannot be underestimated as a source of advice and direction, good and bad.

Khawaja's presence in Australian sides of the future remains highly probable, but it is no longer certain. Rightly or wrongly, the men choosing Australia's teams want more from him, and they may ram home the point by leaving him out of the West Indies tour squad. They are waiting for greater signs that he is listening. Only then can Khawaja join the Test team on its quest for international credibility.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here