Khawaja’s twin Ashes hundreds give Australia selection dilemma

By Geoff Lemon at Sydney Cricket Ground
Usman Khawaja hits out en route to a quickfire hundred, his second of the fourth Test
Usman Khawaja hits out en route to a quickfire hundred, his second of the fourth Test. Photograph: Jason McCawley/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

If you are going to make a statement, you might as well make it emphatic. That has been the attitude reflected in Usman Khawaja’s feats in Sydney at the fourth Ashes Test as he followed his first-innings 137 with an unbeaten 101. He joined the rare club of batters to have made twin centuries in a Test, alongside 16 other Australians, and in scoring his 10th Test ton he drew level with Lindsay Hassett, Bob Simpson and Simon Katich.

The first century was the work of an opener, even if in this match he was required to bat at No 5. Khawaja left the ball with dedication, waited out good spells and was restrained in his shot selection before gradually expanding it. He faced 260 balls at a strike rate of just over 50. His only close call was a fast edge from the left-arm spinner, Jack Leach, that hit the wicketkeeper’s leg and bounced clear.

His second hundred was the work of Khawaja circa 2016, when he made 104 not out in the semi-final and 70 in the final of the Big Bash to carry the Sydney Thunder to the title.

In the second innings in Sydney he settled himself in with 35 off 74 balls before tea and after launched 66 off 64 balls. He played the reverse sweep to crisp perfection, deflected lap shots over his shoulder and smashed slog-sweeps off the spinners into the stands. There was little pressure, coming in 190 runs ahead against a team whose batting has struggled, but he drove Australia’s advantage all the way home.

In doing so, Khawaja has introduced a very interesting selection quandary for those running his team. Four days ago, he was supposed to be a one-match gap-filler while Travis Head sat out the required time after a positive Covid test. Even scoring a hundred in the first innings did not mean that was going to change. But scoring two in two makes it far harder to leave out Khawaja for the game in Hobart.

Usman Khawaja laps up the crowd’s acclaim after a century that makes him very hard to drop.
Usman Khawaja laps up the crowd’s acclaim after a century that makes him very hard to drop. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

That said, leaving out Head would be harsh as well. He made 152 in the Brisbane Test to set up Australia’s first win, putting them on a path to an Ashes win in straight sets. At 28 years old, Head has been heavily invested in as Australia’s future. Having just turned 35, Khawaja is something else. But age should not exclude him. Chris Rogers had a profitable Test career from that age onwards, Adam Voges much the same. Khawaja, enjoying a mastery of his game, could still have several years to offer.

Retaining him need not necessarily be a straight shootout with Head. The two centuries in Sydney constitute the entirety of Khawaja’s experience batting at No 5. He is a career first drop or opener, internationally and domestically. It is illustrative of England’s series that by the end of day four their openers had made 187 runs for 14 dismissals, while Khawaja had made 238 for one. It is also illustrative to put Khawaja’s tally from two innings against Marcus Harris with 179 from seven.

Harris does not deserve to be punted in his own right – his 76 in Melbourne was an important innings – and he has looked better since then. But he is strongly inclined to loose dismissals for middling scores, of which his nick behind from Leach for 27 to end his match here was just the latest.

If the question is purely who is the better player between he and Khawaja, there are no grounds for debate. At 29 years old with 14 Tests behind him, Harris cannot keep being defined as a project player.

None of which means Khawaja is some batting god. He was dropped in England in 2019 after underwhelming returns from many opportunities over a decade. By then he had played in four Ashes series with an average of 29. He had played three great innings – in Dubai against Pakistan, Adelaide against South Africa, and Wellington against New Zealand – but had a lot of uninspiring efforts in between.

What he is now, though, is a player in supreme form, full of confidence, evidently more relaxed in the middle than he has ever been, having built an understanding of his game from experience while retaining the physical capability of delivering it. That he found a method against spin in the UAE in 2018 means he could be significant in the coming year with nine Tests to be played in Asia.

It is possible Khawaja will not play in the fifth Test. Team management backed Harris before the series to go the distance. Head has claims to return. But under the chair of selectors, George Bailey, Australia have shown a more flexible approach to picking the right players for the right conditions. Khawaja may not be opening in Hobart and will probably take that in his stride. But when Australia take the field in Karachi in March, it is very hard to believe he will not be among those running on.

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