Recent conjecture over the makeup of the Australian team for the upcoming Ashes test has centred around who will occupy the problematic sixth and seventh positions. The remaining eleven are seen as certainties in the eyes of most fans and experts.
The top five will comprise Dave Warner, Matt Renshaw, Usman Khawaja, Steven Smith and Peter Handscombe. Each of these players is backed by dominant figures at home where their batting averages all hover near or well above 60. The bowling line up is arguably the best and most diverse in world cricket. The opening pace combination of the left and right arm pairing of Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins is a fearsome duo. Josh Hazelwood accentuates their threat with his combination of skill with a ball and the pressure he exerts on batsmen with his relentless lines and lengths. The unit is perfectly rounded out by the off spin of Nathan Lyon who, after his efforts in 2017 where he has taken 46 wickets at an average of 21.95, has entered the discussion as the best spinner in test cricket.
Purely on figures, Usman Khawaja should be one of the first selected. A dominant overall home average of 63.73 has ballooned out to 78.21 since re-inclusion to the team in 2015.
The statement of support in favour of Khawaja taps into another aspect governing selection, one that harkens to the past and Dean Jones’ shock axing from the test team for the start of the 1992/3 home series against the West Indies. Jones was dumped from the team despite having a lead into the series of 433 runs from his previous 4 tests at an average over 70. The unspoken aspect is the behind closed doors dynamic of the Australian set up. Jones was known for ill advised utterances to the press about the decisions and motives of the Australian selection process. This part of Jones’ personality would have irked many and perhaps this led to a target being placed on his head.
It led to vicarious reasoning in the wake of his dumping from selector at the time John Benaud:
*Jones had a very poor record v the West Indies. This poor record was partly obscured by his tendency to make big hundreds in dead test matches at the end of a series. His lone fifty and lone hundred v the West Indies were both dead rubber affairs;
*While he did make runs in Sri Lanka prior to the series, he was dropped quite often and didn’t look that good. His form had been in decline for 2 years and he could easily have been dropped 12 months earlier before making another last test century v India;
*In the lead up to the start of the Australia – West Indies series, Victoria (Jones’ home state) had just 2 shield games so Dean got very little match practice. To make matters worse, he played badly in those games, where the conditions were not great for batting; *Steve and Mark Waugh both made hundreds against the WI that summer, Steve for an Australian XI side and Mark for NSW. Steve made 95 and 100 and Mark 200 not out;
*Damien Martyn had played a few excellent innings at 1st class level that demonstrated his considerable class. He seemed a player of the future and one who might not be intimidated by the West Indies.
This walk down memory lane has relevance to Khawaja, notably in recent times, where it seems a day doesn’t pass without him having a place in the tabloids.
Khawaja stole world headlines by portraying Australian cricket as being ravaged by ethnic bias. The basis of his claims centred on his own hardships in dealing with discrimination as a Pakistani immigrant in both Grade and State cricket. As you dig a bit deeper it paints Khawaja in a very dim light, exposing him as a somewhat erratic entity. The racist drum that he recently chose to beat is in opposition to this previous quote only a few years earlier:
“According to Khawaja, his life in Australia has been untainted by prejudice.”
“Both cricket, especially his State and Test teammates, and the wider society have embraced him and his family.” Said Khawaja:
“I have not had any incidents of racial stuff. Nor has my mum, who wears the hijab.”
This was followed by him taking aim at Australian selectors for their controversial ‘horses for courses’ selection policy, chiefly for being overlooked for the final 11 in any of the tests away to India followed by being dispensed in Bangladesh after just one test despite a dominant performance at home as a lead in to both series. It seems that Khawaja felt that his good showing at home justified a greater showing of faith in his place in the team selected to play on tour.
This selection gripe raised many eyebrows, notably Australian skipper Steven Smith who pointed out what was patently obvious to all bar Khawaja, that he has been stellar at home however has played poorly away. Khawaja’s Asian average of 14.62 after five tests in Asia pulls no punches. The call for a show of faith by Khawaja has merit. Sadly, it is diminished by his inherent denial, as shown by his reaction to his dropping in Sri Lanka in 2016. Rather than accept his failing against spin and the need to work on his game, he claimed both he and Joe Burns were made the ‘scapegoats’ for the team’s dismal tour.
Aside from his denial, what’s rarely touched on is his career long struggles in the field and the fact that he is not in the shape he should be. In Australia this is not such a factor with him predominantly fielding in the slips. It becomes a bigger issue in Asia where he is away from slips, allowing a weak link for opposition batsmen to exploit. This is a key point where the game is so attritional meaning the suffocation of runs and the pressure it exerts is key in gaining ascendency, leading to victory charges. One only has to look at the huge difference Hilton Cartwright made in this respect, in place of Khawaja for the second test in Bangladesh, that Australia won to tie the series.
If the batsmen on the outskirts of the team lit it up in the three Sheffield Shield games leading up to the first Ashes test and Khawaja is less than stellar, a similar shock dumping to Jones’ from 25 years back could ensue. The reasoning behind this decision would be the team’s desire to be a more complete entity – one that can win both home and away. Khawaja’s aforementioned frailties and one dimensional nature could be the reasoning for his demise.
In the lead up to the first Ashes test, Khawaja should stop murmuring to the press and as the age old cricketing saying goes, he should ‘let his bat do the talking’. He has played well in the current Sheffield Shield match, currently sitting on 99 not out at stumps.