<
>

Usman Khawaja for Australia captain? Why not?

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

Sometime after Australia's international cricketers became fully professional, the captaincy of the national team became not just coveted, but a genuine prize.

This was not necessarily just because of the honour it conferred, but also the privilege. Captains are paid more, get an additional retainer above the money applied to players on Cricket Australia's contract rankings. They stay in the best suite at team hotels - a gift once bestowed on the team manager - and they also have the chance to monetise their leadership by all manner of additional endorsements.

Along with the increasingly elevated place of the Australian team in public consciousness and corporate attraction, these factors helped turn the national captaincy into a prize. The phrase "second most important job after the prime minister" was thrown around more often in the late 1990s when Mark Taylor held it, but ever since he took over from Allan Border it was to become almost as sought after.

What is awkward about this story is how much the lure of captaincy began to affect the team in terms of unity, or from the performance of its best players. Undoubtedly, some of the most prominent bust-ups, from Steve Waugh-Shane Warne to Ricky Ponting-Michael Clarke, had the question of captaincy or ambition for it at core.

After Taylor the role went increasingly to the best batsman, without any other qualifiers. Waugh, Ponting, Clarke, Steven Smith: all were, either shortly before they took the job or during their tenure, regarded as the premier batsman in the world, let alone Australia.

This process reached its apogee with Smith's appointment, both the most outrageously talented batsman and the youngest and least experienced leader. The shortcomings were to be seen in the worst possible way in early 2018 when, exhausted by his workload, Smith could neither lead with the bat nor with his words and advice in the dressing room. The Newlands scandal pushed him and David Warner, the other obvious candidate, out of contention for captaincy.

What happened immediately afterwards was a decision to hand the role to Tim Paine, a cricketer of worth but of the kind habitually ruled out in previous years. Before Newlands he would have been seen as one or all of too old, too inexperienced, ineligible as a wicketkeeper and not secure enough in the team. But the scandal left the board with few other options in their view, so setting up a period in which Australia's definition of captaincy was redefined, and broadened.

Eighteen months later and Paine's captaincy has been successful in helping to restore respect for the team, but not outstanding in terms of results. The question of how much longer Paine goes on is an open one, although it is difficult to see him keeping it beyond the forthcoming home summer. Many have assumed that once his leadership ban expires in April 2020, Smith will take back what he lost at Newlands, but there are just as many judges adamant that he should not - as much to ensure a continual flow of runs as anything else.

Many have bemoaned the lack of options, commonly wondering aloud whether Travis Head is ready, or whether Pat Cummins can be expected to do the job as a fast bowler likely to be rested or rotated at some point in a series. In this discussion there has generally been one curious omission, but selection as captain for the tour game against Derbyshire has raised it at a notable moment: Usman Khawaja.

In February 2012 I wrote a piece for ESPNcricinfo that summed up perceptions of Khawaja from the perspective of many inside Australian cricket. Essentially, it assessed him as a rich talent but lacking the work rate or yearning for constant improvement admired by coaches and selectors. Eight years later and this is still the perception among many, even though Khawaja has grown and improved an awful lot since, turning himself into a Test batsman of quality and a leader of considerable repute in Queensland.

It may be a surprise to some to know he has held the state captaincy of the Bulls since 2015. it may also be a surprise to learn that team-mates regard him as one of the very best they have had. "In short, excellent," says one. "Never once saw him get flustered even in pressure situations (he has that calmness that gets misinterpreted as not caring), very fair (listens to ideas and asks his chosen confidantes) and very decisive (never ums and ahs). Genuinely one of the better ones."

Khawaja has held a leadership role before, leading Australia A to a 1-0 series win over India A in India in 2015. A hallmark of the win was the nifty use of Gurinder Sandhu's offspin. Otherwise, he has been passed over for vice-captaincy, although with an important rider - last year the selectors made it crystal clear that the deputy role was not to be for a captain in waiting. Khawaja's captaincy appointment for Derby serves as a reminder that there is no line ruled through him.

One figure who had his perception of Khawaja changed was Justin Langer. Among the first things Langer did when appointed coach was to seek out Khawaja for some firm discussions about his future. Counselled to get fitter and work on his fielding, Khawaja responded with a fitness regimen that saw him lose somewhere in the region of seven kilos while also improving his agility.

His first Test for Langer was in Dubai, where he sculpted a fourth-innings masterclass that allowed Australia to squeak out a draw. If the runs have not been as consistent since, Langer was won over, and notably felt the World Cup semi-final against England would have gone another way had Khawaja not been sidelined with a hamstring strain.

"I think he's been the pin-up boy of Australian cricket in the sense that he knew what he had to do," Langer said earlier this tour. "He had to get fitter and stronger. He had to improve his fielding. We know he's a good player and he's done all those things. He's been very good as a leader and he's different, he's a bit quiet, he sits back and he's unafraid to give an opinion. He's got strong opinions. He's played a lot of cricket now.

"The young Queenslanders like Michael Neser and Marnus [Labuschagne] look up to him. I like how calm he is in big Test matches. Sometimes it comes across as him being very laconic but Mark Waugh was like that as well. There are different personalities, but I like how calm he is and I like his temperament."

"You learn pretty quickly you can't expect anyone else to do anything you don't do yourself. Don't try to be anything different just because you have a 'C' next to your name, it's really important to stay consistent and clear and I think that's what guys respect." Usman Khawaja on captaincy

As an example of Khawaja's thinking, his perspective on Headingley and how to deal with it was that of a mature cricketer at ease with the conversations any captain must have with distraught players.

"You lose from a point where you don't expect to lose and it hurts, probably hurts more," he said. "It definitely sticks with you. It's always tough to sleep that night because you're thinking what could you have done, what could you have done differently as a team. Probably one of the toughest losses I've had, a lot of the guys would be the same.

"But in the same respect you have a good night's sleep and then you wake up the next morning, the sun does come up and you're back at it again. It's all about being a professional, try to learn from your past, try to learn from those past mistakes. When you've done it for a long time you know how quickly things can change in sport."

Asked about what is key to captaincy, Khawaja offers a response enriched by living through Australian cricket's past decade. "Being yourself is the most important thing, You learn pretty quickly you can't expect anyone else to do anything you don't do yourself. Don't try to be anything different just because you have a 'C' next to your name, it's really important to stay consistent and clear and I think that's what guys respect. I hope the guys back home in Queensland that's what they respect me for, I'm pretty consistent and I don't really change much whether I'm captain or not captain, I still carry myself.

"I talk to Painey [Tim Paine] on the field about tactics and different things, not too much because I don't want to get into his head. I know what it's like to be a captain, to have everyone come up to you. So I pick and choose important times."

ALSO READ: Batting in spotlight as Australia plot resurrection of their own

One of the new variables in leadership decisions is that the ICC has provided cycles into which a Test captaincy appointment can be focused, such as the run up to the 2021 World Test Championship final. While it looks unlikely that Paine could make it all the way to that juncture, it is equally true that naming Khawaja as captain for the same amount of time would allow younger candidates to emerge. Undoubtedly, Head would be older, wiser and more secure by then.

Meanwhile, in Khawaja Australia has a candidate who has long, deep relationships with Warner and Smith at one end of the experience scale, but also the respect and admiration of Labuschagne at the other. And should the riposte to his mention as a possible leader be to an uncertain standing in the team in terms of selection at this very minute, then one need only look as far as Paine for an example of why the captaincy need not always go to the most accomplished batsman.

Given the divisive recent history of the position, in fact, the argument for Khawaja only grows stronger. Where Paine broke the mould, Khawaja would help to reshape it further. Why Khawaja? Why not.