Khawaja creeps closer to Test recall
Even if recent scores of 51, eight, a duck, 29 not out and six for Australia A do not suggest it, Usman Khawaja is slipping closer to a Test match recall in the Ashes series, more than 18 months after his last appearance.
The misadventures of others are helping. David Warner is pondering his behaviour and also a possible move down the order. Shane Watson is searching himself for a way to score runs again. Phillip Hughes is trying to repair confidence battered first in India and again during the Champions Trophy. And Michael Clarke just wants his back to stay supple.
All the while Khawaja's standing as the longtime reserve and sound preparation with Australia A is edging him closer to the XI, his inclusion to arrive perhaps as early as the first Test of the series at Trent Bridge. Of the selected Ashes batsmen, only Ed Cowan via Nottinghamshire and Chris Rogers at Middlesex can happily say they are in better touch.
This will be no surprise to those who have seen Khawaja at his best, whether it was standing up memorably to Dale Steyn in Johannesburg in November 2011, or sculpting a Sheffield Shield century of rare quality for Queensland on a Bellerive pitch that looked more likely to be a tennis court last summer. But it will represent a triumph of sorts for Khawaja, who has battled issues of perception, scheduling and punitive team justice since his last Test, against New Zealand in Hobart.
"I'm extremely hungry," Khawaja said. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about it before. Every time you go out and play for any team you want to strive to do your best and obviously playing for Australia is the pinnacle for anyone. But in saying that, there's a lot of time between now and the start of the first Test. I've got to keep my head down and go out there and score as many runs as I can because ultimately that's what it's all about for me."
Khawaja's return is not entirely certain, and he will require a substantial score or two in the warm-up matches to come against Somerset and Worcestershire to bolster his case. But there was useful evidence that he is batting neatly against Gloucestershire, as a first innings start was curtailed by Australia A's declaration, then a solid occupation in tougher second innings climes cut short by a direct-hit from the outfield and a tight run-out call by the umpire.
"Runs never hurt, time in the middle doesn't hurt at all; getting a hundred, getting 200 always helps," Khawaja said of his recent scores. "But when you get back out every time you start a new innings it's a different game, it's got nothing to do with what you scored the day before, the game before, you've got to start afresh. Like any other batsman time in the middle is invaluable but in saying that, I think you've got to take every game as it comes and I'm pretty confident the way I'm hitting them right now and pretty confident a few runs are around the corner."
That confidence has been derived at least partly by the presence of the Queensland coach Darren Lehmann as an assistant on the tour. Lehmann rated Khawaja's ability even before he encouraged a move to Brisbane at the start of last summer, and his combination of old school toughness, simplicity and a healthy dose of fun have helped balance the left-hander's desire to achieve.
"He's been awesome, he's my coach in Queensland, I get along with him very well," Khawaja said. "I love the way he goes about his business, he's tough but he's always having fun. One of the best things about him is he's got a really good cricket brain, and you just can't buy that. He's had so much experience, he's played 300-400 first-class games, and the way he talks about cricket he simplifies things. I think he's got a lot to offer Australian cricket in years to come."
Questions of Khawaja's drive had been raised in the past, and were given fresh impetus when he was among four players suspended for failing to follow team instructions on the India tour. The episode was a shock to Khawaja, who said such punishments had seldom come his way anywhere, let alone in cricket, but he soon resolved to use the experience as a spur.
"I'd never got in trouble much during high school, let alone university. Never failed a course at uni, so it was a bit weird for me," Khawaja said. "It was tough but I knew the sooner I got over it, the sooner I could get on with it. What had been done had been done, being part of Australia is what everyone wants to do and playing Test match cricket is what everyone wants to do. I'd give my left arm to play cricket."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here