Greg Baum: Usman Khawaja selection conundrum tests Australia

Usman Khawaja.Australia has to make up its mind about Usman Khawaja. Presently, the selectors are stringing him along, although they might argue that he is stringing them along. He has become Australia’s ghost who doesn’t walk.

Khawaja emerged as a straw to cling to at the end of the disastrous 2010-11 Ashes series in Australia. He played the last Test, replacing the injured Ricky Ponting at No 3, the first Muslim to play for Australia. He was an antidote to the prevailing depression, a sign of progression in a time of regression. Khawaja made two modest scores in a team that was again thrashed, but batted handsomely in both innings, and looked as if he might soon make big scores.

It was a spark that never became a flame. Khawaja played six Tests, all in the calendar year of 2011, but none of 18 Tests in 18 months since. He is one of nine batsmen who have auditioned at No 3 since Ponting vacated the spot, for the miserable a return of one century, Shaun Marsh’s debut innings.

Everything about Khawaja’s abortive career is enigmatic. His next Test series after debut was in Sri Lanka. The first Test was low-scoring. In the second, Marsh replaced Ponting, who returned to Sydney for the birth of a child. Marsh’s century meant that when Ponting returned for the third Test, another batsman would be squeezed out; it was Khawaja.

In South Africa later that year, he replaced the injured Marsh for the second of two Tests, and made a hard-working 65 to help build a successful chase of 310. Even in this, there was contradiction; he got out to a wrong-‘un from Imran Tahir, a feat few have managed before or since.

He played two more Tests in a low-scoring mini-series against New Zealand, but was replaced for the subsequent series against India, which Australia won by whitewash (but with negligible input from No 3). Since then Khawaja has been seen only in the abstract, a shadowy presence on nearly every tour and in nearly every squad, named as an emergency more often than St John’s ambulance. Now that Dave Warner is in exile, Khawaja is again THE spare part.

Here is the nub. The selectors see enough in him to bring him on every ride, but not enough to play him. It is not as if this has been a time of batting stability and plenty for Australia. As Australia fell apart in India earlier this year, Khawaja reportedly was about to be picked for the third Test, until homeworkgate intervened. Again, he was thwarted.

He hasn’t made the runs; that is clear. His average is less than 30. The received wisdom is that he does not work hard enough. Only the auxiliaries would truly know, but it seems a harsh judgement on a man who is nearly always under their nose.

Khawaja makes batting look easy, even in the nets, but that does not necessarily mean that he is taking it easy. He would not be the first stylist to be marked down this way. Some of his dismissals appear soft, but a limp edge always appears soft, and sometimes it is merely that the batsman got an edge to a ball that others would have missed.

It is true that by his record, Khawaja never has pounded on the selectors’ door, more that he has knocked politely. Again on this tour, his scores do not amount to an irresistable case. But his career has formed him into a kind of cricket itinerant, rarely playing a run of matches in one form of the game and one competition. This peripatetic life has ill-served him. On this tour, he has had seven innings in 40 days. That makes it hard to find batting rhythm.

Khawaja does not despair. He is living the good life of a professional sportsman. But the quality of that good life is predicated on playing for Australia, not almost playing for Australia.

By the third Test, Warner will be back. If Khawaja is not already in the side by then – we will know at the toss today – he will begin to wonder if he ever will be again.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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