Twist in Warner’s fight with teammate
USMAN Khawaja's latest knock brought a smile to his face but it did nothing to ease the headache Australian selectors are dealing with ahead of the opening match of the World Cup.
Khawaja opened the batting alongside Aaron Finch and top scored with a classy 89 in the Aussies' five-wicket win over Sri Lanka on Monday night (AEST) in their final warm-up match before their campaign kicks off against Afghanistan on Saturday.
It was another reminder to those picking the starting XI just how valuable he's become since establishing himself at the top of the order in one-day cricket while David Warner's been on the sidelines.
In recent warm-up games against New Zealand, West Indies, England and now Sri Lanka, Australia has tinkered with their batting order to find the right balance. Sometimes Khawaja has opened and Warner has come in at first drop and vice versa.
Against England on Saturday Warner opened, Shaun Marsh batted No. 3 and Khawaja was at No. 5.
In the Sri Lanka game, Marsh was again at three while Warner was rested. With no more games before the World Cup starts, it seems Australia still isn't sure what their best line-up is.
One thing that is certain is Warner is fighting Khawaja for that second opening spot and Australian cricket journalist Robert Craddock believes it's a fight Warner has already won.
"He (Warner) will open with Aaron Finch - two guys who have known each other since their mid-teens," Craddock tsaid before the Sri Lanka game.
"When Warner was out in his one-year ban, they did text each other, they like each other.
"I saw it myself when they landed in Brisbane for the World Cup camp, the first person Warner went up to was Finch and you could just tell … they just get each other.
"Usman Khawaja would much rather open, but he will be demoted I think to No. 3."
But any plan to snub Khawaja's opening ambitions will have been hurt by Monday's impressive innings. Dropping him down a spot after yet another vital contribution will be difficult to justify to the man himself, who's been in sparkling touch in recent months.
Opening in all 10 matches against India and Pakistan in pre-World Cup series wins, Khawaja slayed 655 runs at an average of 65.5. In that runfest he registered two tons and five half centuries, including scores of 88, 91 and 98.
His blistering form has coincided with Australia's resurgence in the 50-over format. Six months ago Finch and Co. couldn't win a game in the coloured clothing, now their odds of winning the World Cup are shortening by the day.
If you follow the old adage of not changing a winning team, Khawaja is well within his rights to assume he'll walk out with Finch at the start of the innings against Afghanistan in Bristol this weekend.
If Warner opens and puts on a decent partnership with Finch, the chances increase of Khawaja coming in at No. 3 against a softer ball with the spinners operating.
He's long been criticised for failing to handle slow bowlers well in his international career, and the innings risks being stalled if he takes too long to find his feet in the middle overs - another question selectors need to ponder and one that points to Khawaja being best suited to opening.
Despite Khawaja's outstanding form, demoting Warner is far from a simple choice. He's one of Australia's two best batsmen - in all formats - with Steve Smith and has essentially played his entire one-day career as an opener.
He can take the game away from the opposition in the first 10 overs with his rapid scoring rate and has the ability to bat deep and score hundreds.
Opening for Sunrisers Hyderabad, Warner was the leading runscorer in this year's IPL so arrives in England in terrific nick.
Dropping him to No. 3 forces him to adjust to a new role he's rarely performed and risks blunting the most effective weapon in Australia's batting order.
Further complicating matters for the Australian brains trust is what to do with Marsh. During Australia's woeful ODI run in 2018, Marsh was head and shoulders above the rest of his batting peers.
Two centuries in an embarrassing 5-0 series loss in England was backed up with two more centuries against South Africa and India in the Australian summer.
The left-hander had a relatively lean run against Pakistan and India, though still managed scores of 91 not out and 61. If long-term form counts for something, he'll very much be in the mix for a spot in the starting side and adding weight to his case is his versatility - he's shown can bat anywhere in the top or middle order.
There's a belief he's challenging Khawaja for a spot in the first XI - a perception alluded to by former Aussie skipper Michael Clarke, who interviewed Khawaja after the match against Sri Lanka, when he asked how the competitiveness between the two lefties was affecting the pair.
"This is no competitiveness between me and SOS, we're really good friends," Khawaja said. "I love SOS. We've been playing cricket together for a long time."