Usman Khawaja came into the Australian side with a lot of promise, but since his debut, the Pakistan-born cricketer failed to live up to the expectations of fans and critics.
Ever since the inception of cricket, the No. 3 slot in the batting line-up has been the most important position. The tradition has been simple, the team picks the best batsman for the role. A player, who can steady the team after an early dismissal and as well as can capitalise on a good start, is preferred. When you think of the No. 3 spot, the first name that comes straight to mind is Rahul Dravid. Talking precisely about Australia, you will immediately name Ricky Ponting, Don Bradman and so as Greg Chappell and David Boon batted at No. 3. Be it any conditions, venue or country, their team were not worried until they were at the crease.
A cricketer is well defined by his performances both at home and away. If he does not tick off even one of those boxes, a red flag is raised. Right now, the flag is red in Australia’s No. 3 Test batsman Usman Khawaja’s camp. The Queensland captain made his Test debut in 2011 and has played 33 Tests so far under the Australian flag. While his overall average of 42 does not reflect the current black clouds on his career, his away numbers would help in that case. From 18 Tests at home, Khawaja has scored 1,544 runs at a great average of 59.38 including five hundreds and eight fifties. However, where his overseas numbers are concerned, he poorly averages 25.25 in 15 Tests with 682 runs to his name. His 140 in Wellington in 2016 remains his only Test century away from home.
To make it more clear, Khawaja in his 28 innings away from home, he has only one century and four fifties and this certainly is not accepted from a No. 3 batsman. After a series of failed innings, he tends to save his place in the side by one good knock. Whenever one expects that Australia would finally take a harsh call and drop Khawaja from the playing XI, Khawaja scores some 60-70 runs to be retained again for the next match.
Talking of the recently ended South Africa tour, in the first three innings of the first two Tests, Khawaja scored 14, 6 and 4. Prior to the final innings, Peter Handscomb was expected to replace him for the third Test. However, Khawaja notched up a crucial 75 in the fourth innings to save his place in the side, for the ninth number of time. What followed next? Another failure as he managed only scores of 5 and 7 in the third Test at Cape Town.
While Australians are known to sack players quite often when they do not form regularly. However, that has not been the case with Khawaja. Recently, the Pakistan-born cricketer had admitted that he does not have the extra pressure of nail his place in the team. “Test cricket is not always flowing, most of the times it takes time to score runs, but that’s Test cricket. If you are not scoring runs you just spend time out there. The longer I bat out there the easier it gets for everyone else,” Khawaja had said.
But that is not happening, he does not spend a lot of time at the crease whenever Australia team tours to different parts of the world. Moreover, he has issues playing against spin. Although he has suggested that spin bowling does not trouble him, the opponents are well aware of the truth. He has been dismissed by a spinner 21 times so far in his career, out of which 14 has come in the last two years.
Instead of gifting Khawaja chance after chance, it’s high time Australia give a chance to players who have been waiting for a national call. There are a few players who have performed in the domestic circuit in the last couple of years and surely deserve a chance to be tested on the bigger platform. Now with Australia’s best batsmen – David Warner and Steven Smith – out for a year, Australia will be more desperate to have someone more dependable at No. 3.
The likes of Callum Ferguson, Marnus Labuschagne, George Bailey and Travis Head were among the consistent performers in Sheffield Shield this season. And not just this year, they have been knocking Australian Test doors for a while and it seems like a perfect time to try them. Australia will commence its new season by touring Zimbabwe where they are set to play a Test and limited-overs matches. Following that, they are going to host Bangladesh for two Tests and three ODIs. These series against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh come as an opportunity for Australia to try one of these guys as a replacement for Khawaja. You never know, if they click, Australia might have a better and more reliable No. 3 guy for the crucial India series at the end of the year.
The likes of Callum Ferguson and Marnus Labuschagne are the No. 3 batsmen for South Australia and Queensland respectively. Talking of Labuschagne first, he finished as the second highest run-scorer, behind his teammate Matt Renshaw, with 795 runs in 11 matches at an average of almost 40 as Queenlands lifted the Shield trophy a few days back. He is a young 23-year-old guy, who made his First-Class debut in 2014 and averages around 35. He already has four First-Class hundreds and 12 fifties. He comes in with an ability to bowl leg-break too as he has 12 First-Class wickets too.
One of the ideal candidates for Khawaja’s replacement is South Australia’s captain Travis Head. With Mitchell Marsh out for a few months with injury, Head can take over the all-rounder’s role too with his off-breaks. He has consistently scored 600-plus runs in the last two Shield seasons for South Africa and he looks in a great touch for a national debut. The other ideal replacement is Ferguson, who has been in the race for some time now. He finished as the third highest run-scorer in Shield with 780 runs at an average of a near 50. He bats at No. 3 for South Australia and time and again, he has proved to be one of their best among their current players. A few months back, a lot of experts had suggested that Australia should replace Mitchell Marsh with Ferguson as the former was unable to deliver with the bat.
Meanwhile, Bailey might be a temporary option but he has consistently performed for Tasmania in the last few Shield seasons. He even helped his side reach the final earlier this year but unfortunately, they lost the title to Queensland. He could be used until Smith’s return but if Australia need a long term solution, they have a talented bunch in Ferguson, Labuschagne and Head.
There is no doubt that Khawaja is talented and he would do well against the likes of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. But, this has been his problem. He has performed against the likes of weaker teams but does not replicate that when Australia locked horns with the big guns. Sometimes harsh calls do well for the person and Khawaja might come back stronger than ever in the future; for now, Australia need to strengthen their No. 3 position and that only happens if they drop Khawaja and bring in a fresh face there.