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Why innings like Usman Khawaja's are in short supply

Usman Khawaja looks to the heavens after making his first century in Asia Getty Images

If the arrival of Justin Langer as Australia's coach heralded a change in the national team's philosophy, his batting assistant Graeme Hick is hopeful that Usman Khawaja's remarkable Dubai hundred will lead to a desperately-needed, wider change at domestic level - the return of a higher rate of Sheffield Shield centuries.

Hick, who scored 136 first-class centuries, pointed to the fact that a mere 41 hundreds had been scored in last summer's Shield competition, and wider ESPNcricinfo analysis has revealed a telling trend that has made innings like Khawaja's the exception rather than the rule. Over the past 25 years, there have been only seven seasons with fewer than 50 Shield hundreds, and six of those have come in the past eight summers.

Seasons such as 1993-94, 1997-98 and 2003-04, in each of which domestic batsmen churned out 70 or more hundreds between them, are a distant memory. There have been numerous complicating factors, from the advent of the Big Bash League and scheduling changes, to the still hotly-debated introduction of the Futures League in 2009, which imposed age restrictions on state second XI teams, and thereby stripped out a host of senior players from the system, before it was wound back two years later.

"The message JL has been saying is get runs or get wickets to get picked. You're wanting to see that hunger in state land, see players starting to convert hundreds now," Hick said. "Over the next year or so, we may be able to look at the Shield stats and see. Last season, I think there was only [44] hundreds scored; this next season, it might be 50 or 55, as it has been in the past.

"Whatever cricket you're playing, as a batter you deal in hundreds, in any form of the game, especially in Test cricket. You want to be able to bat for five or six hours, and it takes a lot of different ingredients. So do that and then you put your name in the hat."

The advent of T20 has undoubtedly had some effect. The last season in which the Shield hundreds tally reached 60, in 2004-05, was also the final summer before the introduction of the state-based Big Bash, forerunner to the city-based Big Bash League that started in 2011. After the tally dropped as low as 30 in 2012-13, curators were instructed to prepare flatter surfaces, while another variable has been the use of the Dukes ball in the second half of recent seasons to try to replicate English conditions.

One of the drivers of the Futures League, as well as the more recent inclusion of a Cricket Australia XI in the domestic limited-overs tournament, was to offer greater opportunities to younger players. However, Hick noted that opportunities seem to be more commonly wasted in the current era, as players know that another innings in one of the three formats is never too far away.

"There's definitely been a big shift in the way batters are going about their first-class cricket now," he said. "If you're averaging 35 rather than 45, it means you're spending a lot less time in the middle, which is the best place to learn. So don't waste those opportunities, because as you come up into Test cricket, having to bat for four, five or six hours, it takes a hell of a lot. If you don't learn to do that in the earlier cricket you're playing, then don't expect to do it when you suddenly pitch up in Test cricket.

"Try and learn how your length of innings ebbs and flows through the day. If you don't do that there, try to do it in Test cricket for the first time under that pressure, and in that environment like Uzzie did, it's just not going to happen. There is a difference, and maybe opportunities are wasted at times, with the way players are playing a far more attacking, aggressive game these days, that's different to maybe 10 years ago."

Reflecting on Australia's great escape in Dubai, Hick said the key to the turnaround in the second innings was reassurance that the preparatory work had been done, and only needed to be applied under pressure. "We were a little bit flat, and I think that was because we'd worked so hard beforehand," he said.

"There was a mixture of some good bowling and some poor decision-making, so that was the main thing. It certainly put us behind, which was another disappointing thing. There were a lot of things that were bad about it, but in terms of what I did, not a lot; I just knew the boys know they didn't perform as well as they'd like, and quite often they're good enough to pick themselves up.

"They have a lot of pride in the way they go about their business. There was a certain element that they didn't want to get out there and not put on a good performance in the second innings. Whether we managed to hang on or not, we were always going to make sure there was a better performance. So it was just reassuring they'd done a lot of work, their preparation's been great, trusting their defence and still bat with intent."

Hick also made mention of Travis Head, the debutant, who built a critical stand with Khawaja in the second innings, after the rapid losses of Aaron Finch, Shaun Marsh and Mitchell Marsh. "Everyone knows that coming to the subcontinent, starting your innings is often the hardest part," Hick said. "I'm not saying we've only had collapses in the subcontinent; it's been pretty rife, so Heady coming in and getting through that, and making sure we didn't have that collapse again was a great effort.

"The fact that he had a duck in the first innings and was on debut, to come and play as he did in the second innings was an amazing test of character. It's getting through that first part, staying calm, not feeling the pressure: there's a lot of things that go into collapses; sometimes you can't explain them. Other times it could be good bowling. The more you're comfortable in this environment and trust your game, you just get used to dealing with it. Some deal with it better than others."