Form of Finch and Khawaja opens test­ing de­bate for Aus­tralia se­lec­tors

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Ge­off Le­mon in Dubai

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.

Pho­to­graph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Im­ages

Us­man Khawaja (left) and Aaron Finch have sur­passed ex­pec­ta­tions for Aus­tralia in the first Test against Pak­istan at Dubai In­ter­na­tional Sta­dium.

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