Usman Khawaja was Australia’s most dependable batsman in the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner when the duo and Cameron Bancroft were banned by Cricket Australia for ball-tampering in South Africa two years back. He had also begun 2019 well and was expected to be among the prime batsmen for the Australians in the ICC World Cup in England and the Test series against England after the World Cup. An injury during the World Cup didn’t help and by the time he recovered he seemed to have lost the fluency and rhythm he had earlier. This is something that can happen even during a game if a batsman who has been batting and stroking well suddenly finds himself deprived of the strike for some time. Suddenly, the ball doesn’t quite come off the middle of the bat, the foot which was going to the pitch of the ball is just a few inches short and unless he has a run of luck he gets out when just a few minutes earlier he was looking as if he was set to bat the whole day. Khawaja thus struggled in the first couple of Ashes’ Tests and another injury meant he had to sit out of the team.
Travis Head, who had done precious little till then, got a half-century in the final Test match and that was it for Khawaja. Head kept his place for the home series against a weak Pakistan team and got his first Test century and retained his spot. Khawaja now finds himself dropped from the 20 players whom Cricket Australia gave a contract for the season. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be selected for the team, but for every professional cricketer a contract is a safety net against the vagaries of form. It didn’t help that the chairman of the Australian selectors termed Khawaja a fabulous player, who was just unlucky to miss out. Khawaja said after the snub that he still feels he is among the top six Australian batsmen and his record backs him too.
Interestingly, Michael Clarke, the former Australian captain, said after Khawaja didn’t get a contract that he hoped there was nothing personal in that decision. And Clarke was clearly referring to the disagreement that the left-handed Khawaja had with the team coach Justin Langer.
In a film on Australia’s last year in international cricket where the makers got unprecedented access to the team, including team meetings and change rooms and bus travel on the World Cup and Ashes series, there is a shot where Khawaja says to Langer in a team meeting that the players are scared of him. Khawaja has not played for Australia since and now finds himself without a contract. Clarke, while saying he didn’t think it was personal, actually gave rise to the impression that it was so. Now, unless Cricket Australia specifically gave 20 as the maximum number of players to be given a contract, there is no reason why a player who the chairman of the selection panel thinks is fabulous could not have been the 21st player to be given a contract.
Be that as it may, it perhaps shows once again that if a player doesn’t toe the management line then he could be out sooner than later. In team meetings it won’t do to have a contrary opinion to that of the captain and the coach.
That also brings to the fore the question whether the captain and coach should be a part of the selection panel. For years Australia didn’t have the captain in the selection panel. He was only asked by the selectors as to what and not who he wanted. Did he want a batsman or a fast bowler or an all-rounder or a spinner? The panel then would select what the captain preferred. He was given the squad and he could pick the final XI. This way nobody could complain later that he was dropped by the captain. For, the captain was not a part of the panel, and had to do well with the team given to him by the panel. Now, the Aussie coach is a part of the selection panel. That must make it extremely tough for a player to go to him with concerns about his own form leave aside telling him what the rest of the players think about him.
Khawaja seems to have paid the price for telling the coach what the players felt about him. He can of course score heaps of runs and get back into the team whenever the season starts after COVID-19. But don’t bet on it.