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Analysis

How can Australian selectors leave Usman Khawaja out of fifth Test?

Batter "resigned" to making way for Travis Head in Hobart finale despite two centuries

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
08-Jan-2022
For the second time in three days the SCG rose to Usman Khawaja as his extraordinary return to Test cricket reached a new zenith.
As he sprinted back for the second run he joined a special group of Australian players - Warren Bardsley, Arthur Morris, Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden and Steven Smith - to have score two centuries in an Ashes Test.
On Thursday, after his first century, he was still acknowledging that this was likely a one-off comeback having replaced Travis Head after he tested positive for Covid-19. But what now?
In this match the Australia selectors were going to leave out Scott Boland despite his 6 for 7 in Melbourne only for Josh Hazlewood to not recover from his side strain. The situation is now repeating itself: a batter who has just made twin Test hundreds is not expecting to play next week.
"At the moment I'm probably quite resigned to the fact that I will miss out," Khawaja said. "Talking to George Bailey and the selectors about continuity [and] I'm not totally against that process, either. Throughout my career a lot of changes were made and I was on the wrong side of them a few times. I'm the first to say there needs to be stability. I know how hard it is for a cricketer chopping and changing.
"I actually like the process the selectors have been taking. At the moment I'm not expecting to play the next Test but I'll always be ready. Who knows someone else may get Covid or something else happens. Heady batted beautifully in that first Test. I'd be very surprised if too much changed. Scotty Boland was amazing last game, something I'm not sure I'll see again, and he was going to be dropped. It's just the reality. It sucks, but that's just cricket."
There is, however, a similarity to the situation which found Khawaja dropped during the 2019 Ashes. Marnus Labuschagne had been subbed in for Steven Smith at Lord's and then Smith missed the next match at Headingley with concussion. When the teams reached Old Trafford Smith was back but there was no question that Labuschagne had to stay in the team. Matthew Wade had also scored a century earlier in the series. It was Khawaja that made way. And that was it until this memorable week in Sydney.
Now the script has been flicked, and in some ways Khawaja's claim is even stronger. If we assume Head will return as promised - and as Khawaja said that is an understandable position for a player who scored an agenda-setting 152 three Tests ago and would have played in Sydney under normal circumstances - then somebody else would have to make way for him to stay.
The only option is Marcus Harris. Last week in Melbourne Harris top-scored with a gritty 76 in tricky conditions. The problem for him is that in this match he has twice got set and not been able to capitalise. He edged James Anderson to slip in the first innings and nicked Jack Leach behind today. He now averages 25.29 from 14 Tests with a top score of 79.
This will be a big test of the Australia selection committee, which also includes Justin Langer and Tony Dodemaide, with national selector Bailey big on loyalty and giving players the sense of security that Khawaja spoke about.
There will also be an argument that Khawaja isn't an opener. That is largely correct, but in five Tests in the role he averages 96.80 which includes a century in the 2016-17 day-night Test against South Africa.
Also, while he has batted at No. 5 in this match, for the majority of his Test career he has been a No. 3. And that brings a link back to his head coach and one of the selectors. Langer's career was transformed when he was recalled for the final Test of the 2001 Ashes to open alongside Matthew Hayden. He would go on to score 16 off his 23 Test centuries in that position over the next six years.
At 35, Khawaja probably does not have that amount of time left at the top level - and it needs noting his last two seasons for Queensland have been at No. 4 - but that does not have to preclude him becoming an opener for the next year or two. It would allow some of the developing openers on the domestic scene - the likes of Bryce Street and Henry Hunt - to not need to be rushed.
"You can't really compare five to opening, I know because I've done both," Khawaja said. "Opening is very tough. All I've done is got an opportunity with Australia, scored some runs which I'm grateful for, the hunger is still there and hopefully, not that I have to, I've shown I can still score runs at this level if an opportunity presents itself in the future."
For a variety of reasons this series has forced Australia to explore their depth: Jhye Richardson in Adelaide, Boland in Melbourne and now Khawaja in Sydney have all taken it with both hands. Before Khawaja doubled up, Langer admitted the impact of his comeback had left the selectors plenty to ponder.
"Usman Khawaja's [first-innings] hundred was absolutely sublime... it gives us plenty to think about," he said after the third day's play. "They're nice problems to have. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it actually is. We've made some pretty good calls so far I think, so hopefully we'll do the same in Hobart as well."
Even if it is a nice problem to have there is going to a huge decision to be made in the coming days. It's hard to believe there is not a spot in Australia's batting line-up for Usman Khawaja.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo