Form of Finch and Khawaja opens testing debate for Australia selectors
In a Test where plenty of strange things have happened, during an era for Australian cricket when plenty of strange things have happened, the men’s national team may have solved a problem that they didn’t realise they had. Or created a problem they didn’t realise would arise.
Where Australia’s batting in Dubai has largely been notable for its absence, the opening partnership is the one thing that has stood out. In fact, both times its success has mostly served to emphasise the lack of success to follow.
In their first innings Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja put on 142 before all 10 Australian wickets fell for another 60. In the second innings the opening stand was 87 in increasingly difficult conditions, after which three wickets fell without adding to the score.
Second time round, Khawaja managed to stick it out with Travis Head until stumps. A score of 136 for three left Australia 325 runs to win, or realistically three sessions to survive for a draw, after Pakistan declared after lunch on day four on 181 for six.
Given the opening union is the only good-news story for Australia’s batting, what stands out even more is its makeshift nature. Khawaja was not supposed to open until Matthew Renshaw was struck on the head in the warm-up match. Finch was never near Test selection until a month ago, and while he opens for Australia in white-ball cricket, he has batted in the middle order for most of his state career.
But then again, Finch is statistically one of Australia’s most successful oneday openers, with 11 centuries, the fifthmost for his country. And Khawaja’s record as a makeshift Test opener is almost flawless. Four times he has been asked to do the job: once when David Warner was off the field when South Africa declared and so was not allowed to bat first, once when Renshaw was injured during a match against Pakistan in Sydney, and these two innings in Dubai.
Across those four innings Khawaja has made 145, 79 not out, 85 and now is 50 not out overnight. Finch, meanwhile, made 62 from 161 during his first innings on debut in Dubai, followed by 49 from 99. Both times he was patient and circumspect in difficult conditions, while still attacking when the opportunities arose.
So the question of whether this combination should persist for the home summer also arises One of the less-discussed ramifications to the balltampering affair was losing both openers to suspension. All the focus was on the absence of Steve Smith and Warner, but Cameron Bancroft was Australia’s leading runscorer in the South Africa series, even though he got punted before the final match.
You can bet Bancroft will get every chance to mount a comeback. His suspension is over by the end of this year, meaning he could be playing for Western Australia by the second half of the Sheffield Shield season.
And with the former WA coach Justin Langer, a huge Bancroft fan, now running the national side you can bet he would be welcomed back as soon as he assembles some half-decent numbers. A national recall would probably be seen as the fastest route to public resolution and rehabilitation.
But the home Test season will come too soon, and the team will need a way forward. At the moment, albeit in very different conditions, the current one looks good. A contrast in styles, a good understanding, and a left-right combination – bearing in mind that the Test team has had at least one left-handed opener since Greg Blewett and Michael Slater opened in March 2000.
Then again, Australia might need Finch and Khawaja elsewhere. In this Test Shaun Marsh was elevated to bat at No 3 and Mitchell Marsh at No 4. Both made ducks in their second innings, and faced one over between them. That was after Mitchell had been dropped on nought. He was dropped on nought in his first innings as well, and was out for 12, while his brother was out for seven.
So the coaching setup probably would not want to waste Khawaja as an opener in a home summer: there are others in the wings, like Renshaw and Joe Burns, but options for a genuine first drop are decidedly thinner on the ground.
And given what we have seen in this match, the team might benefit from Finch’s composure and decision-making in the middle order, where he has played so often.
There’s an old saying about not weakening a strength to strengthen a weakness. But at the moment, when weaknesses are by far the more numerous, it is certainly tempting to find a way to stretch those strengths. Right now the success of what was supposed to be a temporary opening pairing has created just that sort of conundrum.
Usman Khawaja (left) and Aaron Finch have surpassed expectations for Australia in the first Test against Pakistan at Dubai International Stadium.