Pivotal summer for Khawaja

Usman Khawaja was on the back foot against Mitchell Johnson this week © Cricket Australia

You got the feeling that Mitchell Johnson was testing Usman Khawaja‘s mettle.

At Drummoyne Oval this week, Khawaja was given a working over, as Johnson put him on the back foot with a series of well-directed short balls then extracted an outside edge from a ball not quite up there for the drive. This summer looms as a wider test of Khawaja’s abilities, for he seems set to be pitched back into the Test team as a top-order batsman.

Four years have passed since Khawaja’s much lauded Test debut, and the first flecks of grey are becoming visible in his 28-year-old hair. This year he was captain of Australia A; this season he is captain of Queensland, and this week he is captain of the Cricket Australia XI to face New Zealand in Canberra.

In a limited field of Australian batting talent, Khawaja needs to step up. This summer shapes as his best chance to finally settle into a a permanent spot in the Test batting order, but perhaps also the last. He is favoured to be chosen at No.3 when the squad for the Gabba is announced next week, as the critical link between a likely top-order pairing of David Warner and Cameron Bancroft and the captain Steven Smith.

New Zealand will be hopeful of applying pressure in the same way Johnson did, but Khawaja feels he is capable of grasping the opportunities likely to come his way. In truth, he thinks he always has been.

“To be honest, I always felt ready, but you don’t really want to know what’s going to lie ahead of you in the future,” Khawaja said. “I just have to concentrate on what I can control, and make sure I have fun. That’s why I play cricket, I love cricket, I’ve grown up and played it my whole life, it’s a game I love and I’ll always love so I just want to make sure I go out and enjoy it every time I play.

“I’m four years older, I’ve got a couple more grey hairs and that’s about it. There are slight differences, you want to improve and if I wasn’t improving as a cricketer then I’d be staying behind the pack. I’d like to think I’ve improved, but at the same time sport is that kind of thing where you have to make sure you tick all your boxes off the field so that when you get on the field you can just compete and try and win games for your team.”

Leadership promotions bode well for Khawaja’s prospects. The national selectors have demonstrated they want to see him grow by giving him a series of appointments, while the Queensland job is resting comfortably on his shoulders. Always a figure of calmness, he has tried to use that in leading his men, and pointedly he will not ask them to do anything he would not do himself.

“I try to be myself whether I’m skipper or not skipper,” he said. “I try to be fairly consistent – it’s enjoyable, I like having a bit more responsibility but at the same time I’m there to win cricket games. I’m very humbled to be Queensland captain and very excited to be captain for the two-dayer in the game starting tomorrow. It just adds a different element to the game.

“It’s something I love doing, I love being out there and I just try to do things the way I expect everyone to, I wouldn’t expect anything from them that I wouldn’t do and vice-versa. I’m a pretty chilled out guy that way – I like to play cricket games, I like to win and I like to have fun.”

Australia’s cricketers will be introduced to another brand of “fun” when they face New Zealand in the first ever day/night Test with a pink ball. The Prime Minister’s XI assembled for Friday’s fixture without so much as a training session between them, and Khawaja said the pink ball was effectively adding a fourth format to cricket. Adaptability will be vital to his chances of succeeding.

“There’s not really enough time to prepare for these games to be honest, so as a batsman you just have to go out there and watch the ball I guess,” he said. “It is a bit different with the pink balls – they play slightly different to the white ball and they play different to the red ball too, so it’s a bit of a challenge.

“It will be nice to get out the pink balls now and have a bit of a go here before we play our first Shield game which will be a day-nighter with the pink balls. It’s a bit of a mix, cricket has so much variety in terms of the three different forms we play, and now we have pink balls and day-night cricket so you can add another format to it.”

As for the brief duel with Johnson, Khawaja predicted he would not be the only batsman made to look uncomfortable this season. “He had a really good first spell,” he said. “I thought he swung the ball pretty well early on a wicket that was pretty slow and dead. I think he’s sometimes harder to face on those wickets cause he just bashes a length and gets a bit of up and down. He’s bowling as well as he ever has, so that’s a great sign for Australia.”

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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