Khawaja’s twin Ashes hundreds give Australia selection dilemma

If you’re 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 very rare club to have made twin centuries in a Test, alongside 16 other Australians, and in scoring his 10th Test ton he levelled up with Lindsay Hassett, Bob Simpson and Simon Katich.

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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 rather than being dropped.

Related: Usman Khawaja’s second century leaves England needing a miracle on final day

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 on his own blade. In the second innings in Sydney he settled himself in with 35 off 74 balls before tea before launching 66 off 64 balls after it. He played the reverse sweep to crisp perfection, deflected lap shots over his shoulder, and launched 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 set up 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 Australia’s forthcoming outing in Hobart. There will probably be a nationwide strike if selectors go that way.

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

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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 match of the series, setting 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 Khawaja need not necessarily be a straight shootout with Head. The two centuries in Sydney constitute the entirety of Khawaja’s career batting at No 5. He is a career first drop or opener, whether internationally or domestically. It is illustrative of England’s series that by the end of day four, the visiting 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.

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Harris doesn’t deserve to be punted in his own right – his 76 in Melbourne was an important innings, and he has looked better since. But he is strongly inclined to loose dismissals for middling scores, of which his nick behind from Leach for 27 to end his match in Sydney was just the latest. If the question is purely who is the better player between he and Khawaja, there are no grounds for debate. And at 29 years old with 14 Tests behind him, Harris can’t keep being defined as a project player.

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

What he is right 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 that he could be significant in the coming year with nine Tests in Asia ahead.

It is possible that Khawaja won’t play in the fifth Ashes 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 he will probably take that in his stride. But when Australia take the field in Karachi in March, it is very hard to believe he won’t be among those running on.

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