@Aadya_Wisden 4 minute read
Usman Khawaja‘s comeback century in Sydney, in front of a cheering home crowd, was a surreal piece of theatre in itself. While it doesn’t necessarily guarantee him a middle-order spot in the future, there are other ways for Australia to retain him if they really want to.
When Usman Khawaja reached three figures in Sydney – his first Test ton since February 2019 – out came LeBron James’ famed ‘Silencer’ celebration… one step, two step, three step and the chest bump. In a 45-Test journey that has seen five Ashes series, Khawaja’s ton, possibly, and quite incredibly, revived an Australian career in limbo, ‘silencing’ those who’d doubted his inclusion after a two-year hiatus.
Quite simply, Khawaja wouldn’t have been picked at the SCG if Travis Head hadn’t returned a positive Covid-19 test result ahead of the game. Before the series, Head versus Khawaja for the No.5 spot was a raging debate, and the only spot up for grabs in the top six after selectors had made it clear that Marcus Harris was there to stay.
“Heady deserves it as much as I do, I’m really good mates with him,” said Khawaja then, “I have got no issues with whatever happens.”
There wasn’t much to discuss after Head cracked an 85-ball ton in the first Test, sealing his position in the middle order, with Khawaja, seven years his senior, left on the sidelines again. However, if India’s tour Down Under last Australian summer was anything to go by, chances can be handed out when you’re least expecting them.
There have been detailed discourses over Khawaja’s skewed home versus away numbers; averaging 55 in Australia is no mean feat (among current batters with 30-plus innings in Australia, only David Warner and Steve Smith average higher), and for some, including Ricky Ponting, there aren’t many new batters who can challenge Khawaja’s quality in the top six. Away from home though, his average drops to 28.69, and after six fifty-less scores in England in the last Ashes series, it appeared as if Australia had decided to move on from the then 32-year-old.
Khawaja, though, didn’t give on his dream, despite the giddying ascent of Marnus Labuschagne, and much younger names popping into the discussion. Even after an underwhelming 2019/20 Sheffield Shield season – he averaged 18.36 from seven games – the hope remained, and along came a bit of calmness and philosophy. In a 2020 interview, he recalled some advice he received from Ricky Ponting from years ago that had stuck on – ‘Uzzy, the harder I tried, the worse it got’.
And so, Khawaja waited, letting fate take its own course, while quietly doing the talking with the bat. He roared back into form in the next Shield season, scoring 473 runs at 59.12 with two hundreds. This season, he fared even better, scoring 460 runs at 65.71 to break into the discussion again. Combine his current form with his Ashes track record in Australia (average of 52.80), you just couldn’t leave him very far out.
What’s next, though? When Head recovers, he should logically reclaim that place. For a 35-year-old, it can be difficult to think long-term, but a readymade source of motivation can be found in his former teammate Chris Rogers.
After one Test and a five-year gap, Rogers earned a recall at 35 for the 2013 Ashes, partnering Shane Watson in Nottingham at a time when Australia was still yearning for a stable opening pair. He eventually forged a fruitful, albeit relatively brief, partnership up top with Warner, which ran for two whole years, and saw Rogers play 24 Tests.
Seven years on, David Warner could be in need of another opening partner, with Harris still searching for that one breakout innings to prove that he belongs.
And while Harris has shown some promise of late, with scores of 23, 76 and 38, it remains to be seen if there’ll be enough coming off his bat to keep the others at bay. Among the options at hand, Australia could hand Khawaja the same role at the top of the order that they once gave to another 35-year-old – incredibly, Khawaja averages 96.80 while opening the batting, having struck hundreds against Pakistan and South Africa. He’s given enough evidence of being a versatile, resourceful and gritty batter with a penchant for big ones, and it’s the sort of presence Warner would surely love to have by his side. It’s also easy to forget that, since 2015, only Smith and Warner have scored more runs than Khawaja for Australia.
“I wasn’t really sure if I was going to represent Australia again, let alone score a hundred, ” Khawaja said after the day’s play, “so it’s amazing how life can work out both ways.”
Be it a middle-order spot, or one at the top of the stack, Khawaja is likely to get you runs either way. Right now, though, Australia wouldn’t mind an in-form opener, even if he’s 35.