In a remarkable turn of events, Usman Khawaja only had to prove that his recently-injured hamstring could stand up to a game of smash-and-grab T20 cricket for the Sydney Thunder in order to be a shoe-in for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. It was remarkable in the sense that a man with a T20 average of 26 and a strike rate of just over 110 could be relying on a T20 innings to grab back his Test place. And Usman Khawaja’s remarkable turnaround in standing is all the more surprising given he wasn’t even part of the Test team two months ago but is now certain to play if fit.
Prior to the first Test against New Zealand at the start of November, Khawaja had played nine Tests in a little under five years since making his debut against England at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2011. His last Test was in the 2013 Ashes. Discarded back then after scoring 114 runs in six innings during a tricky series for Australia that they eventually lost 3-0, Khawaja had to wait more than two years for a recall to the Test team.
Michael Clarke’s retirement after the end of the 2015 Ashes left a hole in the middle order that needed filling, and Khawaja won his place back in November to allow new skipper Steve Smith to drop down one spot in the batting order. Taking his chance, he reached his first Test century in the first innings, ultimately crafting a fine 174, before following that up with 121 in the run-fest at the WACA in the second Test.
A hamstring injury whilst fielding kept him out of the inaugural day-night Test at Adelaide as well as the subsequent pounding of the West Indies down at Hobart. Shaun Marsh took the chance offered to him by Khawaja’s absence, hitting a crucial 49 in a low-scoring chase against the Kiwis before following up that innings with a monumental 182 against the shell-shocked West Indies. But all the talk in the lead up to the Boxing Day Test is not as to whether the 29-year-old will get his place back; rather whether it will be Joe Burns or Marsh that gives way. “Uzzy” is apparently a cert, fitness permitting.
It wasn’t always thus. For a few years Khawaja was in danger of earning a reputation of somebody who had an elegance about his play that didn’t translate into gutsy runs when tested at the highest level. After being dropped from the Test side during the middle of the 2013 Ashes, he enjoyed a decent domestic season back in Australia over the winter, scoring over 550 runs at an average of 46. However, coming over to England in 2014, he struggled for Lancashire, averaging just 31 as the Red Rose county were eventually relegated from Division 1 of the County Championship.
A broken winter followed from a First Class perspective but Khawaja responded with a bang when coming back into the Test side, fully justifying his recall. And because of that fine form in the two Tests against the Kiwis, his comeback game from injury was being watched more for the ability of his hamstring to stand up to the hurly burly of a T20 game than for any great hope of a bucket-load of runs.
Khwaja, however, had other ideas, and proceeded to produce arguably his finest T20 innings to date for the Sydney Thunder against the star-studded Melbourne Stars. After a slightly frenetic start to his innings, he settled down to produce an innings that was laced with clever and classy shots to prove that T20 doesn’t have to be all about muscle. He provided the perfect contrast to the power-hitting of Andre Russell, who was all ferocious bashing and powerful striking. Khawaja’s unbeaten 109 from just 70 balls was the first ton of BBL5 and provided the national selectors with the perfect confirmation that both hamstring and technique are in fine fettle.
And so to Melbourne on Boxing Day. Khawaja is certain to be there, making his first appearance in a Boxing Day Test at the MCG. What price on another ton for a man who finally appears to be fulfilling his ample talent?