Ever heard of a batsman praising the selectors after being dropped? It’s unlikely.
If Usman Khawaja did not receive the news he wanted from the national selectors earlier this year, the manner of its delivery made for a much more constructive outlook. Khawaja has lauded much improved communication lines with selectors as he embarks upon a season in which he’ll have to have the most prolific returns for Queensland to squeeze back into Australia’s Test team.
Having been passed over in favour of his state teammate Marnus Labuschagne during last year’s Ashes series and then seen the younger man go on a rare scoring spree in home series against Pakistan and New Zealand, Khawaja will bat No. 4 for Queensland in their Sheffield Shield assignments beginning on Saturday in Adelaide.
Though visibly frustrated to see his chances of a quick return to the international arena evaporate over the course of numerous brief innings and more than a few questionable umpiring decisions in the early part of last season, Khawaja was consoled by a right of reply with selectors. Perhaps the most contentious omission from a Cricket Australia contract list since Simon Katich in 2011 – ironically Khawaja’s first year with a CA deal – he was able to talk through the panel’s thinking over several conversations, spaced out to give players time to process emotions.
“Definitely an improvement. That avenue’s a lot better now I think,” Khawaja said. “Looking back five or six years ago, I’ve been dropped a lot, so I’ve seen both sides of it. Initially it was just ‘you’re dropped, seeya later’, it’s a lot better now. Trevor Hohns calls you, you’ll get in contact with JL (Justin Langer), he’s always open for a conversation, even George [Bailey] is open for a conversation, so I think the avenues and lines of communication are definitely better.
“I think they’re leaving it to the players a little bit, which is good, because every player handles it differently, every player wants to ask different questions, some players like to ask them straight away, some like to take a bit more time and think about it. I think it’s definitely an improvement from what it was a few years ago.”
While hesitant to speak for others, Khawaja was hopeful that younger players may find things a little less intimidating in terms of discussing their futures with selectors as time goes on and the system develops further. The entry of the former Australian white ball captain George Bailey onto the panel early in the year was a clear indicator that CA wanted to bring a more contemporary outlook to selection, including more open discussions with players.
“I can’t answer for anyone else. For myself, maybe, so many changes have happened in the last 10 years from when I first played for Australia to now, there’s so many cogs in this sport, selection, you’re not going to make everyone happy,” Khawaja said. “As long as they’re trying to improve it, which they are, that’s all you can ask for. I don’t think there’s any perfect formula to this, you select one guy he’s always going to be happy, you don’t select another guy, he’s always going to be disappointed.
“Personally if I receive good or bad news I don’t really say too much, I just get the phone call, because I don’t want to be too emotional when I’m talking, but I’ve got a pretty good relationship with Justin Langer, Trevor Hohns, George Bailey, so I’ve got no issue if I want to call them, text them, whatever. On and off I’m always texting JL here and there, not necessarily about cricket, just everyday stuff, and he’s really good at that. I think one of his strengths is he’s a very good communicator.
“So for me it’s quite easy, when I’ve known these guys for such a long time. I think for the younger guys coming through it might be a bit more daunting to go out of their way and talk to selectors, but that’s what it’s all about, learning that skill. So I think it’s a good step forward.”
Irrespective of how his fortunes pan out this season, Khawaja said he would have retired from state cricket if he did not still harbour genuine ambitions to return to international ranks. “I’m in the scope. Even talking about contracts at the start of the year, knowing what my rankings were for Test cricket and one day cricket, I’m in the scope. But it doesn’t really matter unless I score runs for Queensland,” he said. I think sometimes when it rains, it pours, and I found that out last year.
I didn’t score as many runs as I wanted in Shield stuff, I thought I started really well in one day stuff, played really well in one day cricket last year. I got a couple of tough decisions, a couple of ‘stinky’ decisions as I like to call them, but that’s a part of the game. We remember the bad ones, but I probably don’t remember the good ones I’ve gotten too. It balances out. The key is not to get too down on yourself. I’m never someone to think the world’s against me, it’s more like ‘let’s keep training’.
“Do the hard work, if you do it enough, you’ll get the line ball calls your way at some point, but that won’t happen if you’re not training and doing the hard work. I was pretty balanced, it sucked last year when it felt like things weren’t going my way, but there were also bigger fish to fry, and we as a team in Queensland were playing some really good cricket. I truly believe we were the second-best team in the competition last year, behind New South Wales. It would’ve been a lot worse if I wasn’t doing well and the team was doing very poorly.”
Though Queensland lost the services of Cameron Gannon between seasons, Khawaja is eager to give a more prominent role to the wrist spin of Mitch Swepson, something far more likely to take place on slow Adelaide surfaces at Glenelg Oval, Karen Rolton Oval and Park 25 than on the grassy early season Gabba pitches so often navigated by the Bulls.
“The guy who’s bowling as well as I’ve seen in a long time is Mitchell Swepson,” Khawaja said. “He’s a pretty cool character, goes about his business, no-one really hears too much about him, but he’s a big part of our team. I talked about it last year, about how he didn’t get much of an opportunity because of the wickets we had at the start of the year, and the Duke balls at the back end of the year. I’m really glad they’ve taken the Duke balls out. I think the fact we’re playing on club grounds here all at once, I think he’ll be a big part of our team this year.
“A bit different, I relied heavily on the fast bowlers last year, I think everyone did. WA didn’t even play a spinner against us the last Shield game. So I think spinners will be a lot more featured, especially in these first four rounds on club wickets, especially when we’re playing on the same wicket, week in week out, there’s probably be a bit more prominence. So it changes the balance of the team a little bit, we’re not as reliant on the fast bowlers anymore.”