Khawaja's chance to make the starts count
Usman Khawaja will replace Shaun Marsh at No.3 for the Johannesburg Test knowing that he can learn a valuable lesson from Marsh in converting starts. In January, Khawaja excited Australia's cricket fans with a composed 37 in his first innings of Test cricket, followed by 21 in the second innings against England.
They were not earth-shattering scores, but it was the way Khawaja made his runs that caught one's attention. He was not overawed by the pressure of replacing the injured Ricky Ponting in an Ashes Test. He placed the ball beautifully and did not look flustered.
Fast-forward eight months and another batsman was given an opportunity at No. 3 because of Ponting's absence. Shaun Marsh duly struck a century on debut and followed it with 81 in his second Test, when Ponting returned and Khawaja was squeezed out of the side. Khawaja's Test scores of 37, 21, 21, 26 and 13 not out had been dwarfed.
Now the wheel has turned again, and it's Khawaja and Ponting in the side, with Marsh at home in Perth nursing a back injury. Australia are hopeful Marsh will be fit for the first Test against New Zealand, which starts on December 1, so Khawaja needs to make the most of his opportunity at the Wanderers. If Ponting fails and the selectors act, there could even be room for both Khawaja and Marsh in the near future.
"Every Test match is an opportunity," Khawaja said. "I would love to take it with both hands and score runs, but I can't promise that. I just have to go out there and make sure I control the controllables. I know it's a cliche, but if you start worrying about yourself, things usually don't go well. You have to put the team ahead of yourself and if I get the chance, that's what I want to do.
"I felt really comfortable in all three Test matches. I haven't put up a big total yet. I've really enjoyed my time there. I felt everyone was really supportive. I felt a part of the team, which is probably the biggest thing. I got a taste of Test cricket and realised that obviously it is a massive step-up in terms of who's watching, outside influences and all that. But when you're on the park it's pretty much the same thing. When I get out in the middle it's just bat versus ball."
Not that he has been out in the middle yet on this tour. Khawaja came on the trip fresh from a pair of centuries in his only two matches of the Australia domestic season for New South Wales, but since arriving in South Africa he has been limited to long sessions in the nets with the assistant coach Justin Langer.
"I feel really good right now," he said. "I've hit a lot of balls. Me and Alf [Langer], we've hit a million balls. In Potch [Potchefstroom] the nets were quite dodgy and I played a few sessions there, so I got a good hit in there. I played a couple of games before I left, which was only about two weeks ago, so it hasn't been that long since I've played in a game."
A classy left-hander who admired Brian Lara and Adam Gilchrist as a young man, Khawaja will be pleased with his return to first drop after he was asked to bat at No.6 in Sri Lanka. The captain Michael Clarke confirmed Khawaja would be back in his favourite position for this Test, with Ricky Ponting to slide back down to No.4.
"He bats in the top of the order for New South Wales. He's batted at No.3 for Australia," Clarke said. "The one thing I said to Ussie is that I take a lot of confidence out of his cricket at the moment. In Sri Lanka he batted at No.6 and I thought he did a pretty good job. He batted No.3 for Australia when Ricky missed that last Test at the SCG and did pretty well there.
"He's a very good all-round player who can bat anywhere in the order so it's a good string to his bow. I think he enjoys playing the faster bowlers, probably a little bit more at the start of his innings, but he showed in Sri Lanka he plays spin very well as well, so I'm really confident he's high on confidence. He's coming off a hundred back home in Australia in first-class cricket, I'm confident he'll be able to slip straight in and have some success for us."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo