Usman Khawaja or David Warner at the World Cup?
Usman Khawaja or David Warner at the World Cup?

How do selectors solve the Khawaja-Warner WC headache?

Australia heads into the World Cup having won its past eight matches and boasting the year's two highest run-scorers, but there remain serious questions that need to be answered.

Following Australia's 5-0 clean sweep of Pakistan, we take a look at five burning questions.

USMAN KHAWAJA TO OPEN, OR DAVID WARNER?

 

This isn't a selection headache. It's a migraine. That much became clear on Sunday night as Usman Khawaja and David Warner made merry either side of the Arabian Sea.

Warner was eligible for national selection for the final two one-dayers against Pakistan, but after undergoing elbow surgery in January the decision was made to allow him to return to cricket via the Indian Premier League.

He has not missed a beat since and sits atop the IPL's run-scoring charts with 254 runs across three innings at an average of 127.00 with a strike rate of 175.17. The deposed Australian opener has passed 50 in every innings and notched his first ton of the season on Sunday - a 55-ball 100 not out that saw him pick up 50 of his runs in ones, twos and threes in 42 degree heat.

It is form that dispels any fear he would have grown rusty in his time out of the spotlight and it would normally dictate a return to the top of Australia's batting order at the World Cup.

However, these are no longer normal times and Warner is looking to break into what has become an Australian opening pair of serious pedigree.

While Warner was enjoying a 185-run stand with Jonny Bairstow in Hyderabad, Khawaja and captain Aaron Finch were putting on 134 runs for Australia's first wicket. It was their third 100-run stand across their past eight matches - eight matches Australia has won too.

Khawaja, who once appeared a placeholder for Warner now looks a lock in the XI. No batsman in the world had scored more ODI runs this year than Khawaja (769 at 59.15), who made 98 in Dubai. From his 13 innings in 2019, he has passed 50 eight times.

Further complicating matters for Warner is Finch's return to form. Finch was never likely to find himself outside of Australia's World Cup XI, but he has put whatever doubts that existed around him to bed this series.

Finch fell just 10 runs short of becoming the first Australian to ever notch three ODI tons in a row in game three against Pakistan, and finished the campaign with 451 runs at 112.75. No Australian has ever scored more in a five-match ODI series.

Having struggled at the start of the year, Finch now sits second globally for runs scored (634 at 81.38).

The easiest solution would be to select all three in the same XI, but that is less elegant a fit than it seems. Warner has played all but one of his 104 ODI innings at the top of the order, while Finch has twice played in the middle order. Neither were particularly successful. While Khawaja has featured 10 times at No.3, it is not a position he has enjoyed, averaging 24.33 one down compared to 53.62 opening.

Given how important the Finch-Khawaja partnership has been to turning things around for Australia, the right call may ultimately be to ask Warner to adjust to life lower down.

 

REINTEGRATING KEY PLAYERS

Of course, it's not just Warner who is set to come back into the equation. Steve Smith also looks a certain pick for the World Cup, while the latest reports suggest star quicks Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood will both be fit in time for the tournament.

That's potentially four players to come into an XI that has been highly successful for the past two months.

We've already touched on the complications of getting Warner back into this XI but if he does come back in it would likely be at the expense of Shaun Marsh, whose form cooled off before making a half-century in the final match against Pakistan.

If so, it's then a question of Smith or Handscomb. A record of 3431 runs at 41.84 with eight centuries sees Smith trump Handscomb (628 at 34.88, one century) but there is more to consider than just their overall careers. After 12 months away from international cricket, Smith has not looked as fluent as Warner in the IPL and had actually had a tough time in ODI cricket in the year before the ban (330 at 30).

Smith's opportunity in T20 cricket has been less given he bats further down the order, although, he is yet to make a half-century since August 22 when he was playing in the Caribbean Premier League.

History suggests Australia - and most teams - will only play the four specialist bowlers. One of those spots will be taken up by a spinner and another by Pat Cummins. That leaves room for Starc and Cummins to fill the other two spots, though the rise of Jhye Richardson - pending fitness - and the success the team has had with duel spinners could leave it a shootout between the pair.

 

 

Steve Smith’s ODI form was on the wane before his ban.
Steve Smith’s ODI form was on the wane before his ban.

 

 

STOINIS OFF COLOUR

While Finch has found form at the perfect time for Australia, Stoinis has done exactly the opposite. Named the country's male ODI player of the year in February, Stoinis scored just 16 runs across his three innings against Pakistan and only reached double digits once. On all three occasions he had his stumps dislodged.

The all-rounder had a quiet series with the ball too, taking two wickets at 57.50 and leaking 6.38 runs an over.

Given Stoinis has built up plenty of credit in the bank after an outstanding 12 months, it is not going to cost him his spot. However, it is imperative that he rediscovers his touch. With Mitchell Marsh's last ODI way back in June, Australia has all its all-rounder eggs in the Stoinis basket.

 

SPIN TWINS FOR THE WORLD CUP?

Having spent much of the past two years reluctant to play a specialist spinner, Australia has toyed with playing two in the same XI for the past month and a half. It's a gamble that has paid dividends, with Adam Zampa and Nathan Lyon looking an excellent pairing.

"Most teams around the world seem to be including one at least and probably two spinners in their World Cup squad," national selector Trevor Hohns said during the tour of India. "We expect them to.

"We can't bury our heads in the sand and just say we're going with fast bowlers when spinners in world cricket, and in one-day cricket in particular, are being very, very successful."

Zampa and Lyon played all five matches of Australia's clean sweep of Pakistan and have played seven of the eight matches in the current winning run. Granted, all eight matches have been in Asia, but given these are the final matches before the World Cup their selections cannot be underestimated. It helps that both men have thrived as well.

No Australian has taken more wickets in ODI cricket this year than Zampa, while only Pat Cummins has been tighter with the ball than Lyon.

 

HOW MUCH CAN WE READ FROM THE SERIES WIN?

Australia could only beat the team that was in front of it in the conditions it was playing in. Still, there are a couple of things worth keeping in mind when considering what this clean sweep says about Australia's World Cup hopes.

Alongside playing on pitches less helpful to spinners in atmospheres nothing like the sterile and spares crowds of the UAE, the Australians will be taking on much tougher opponents.

Tougher opponents that include Pakistan, which rested five of its best players - Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Shaheen Afridi, Hasan Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed - for the series.

Nevertheless, winning is a habit and the Australians will go into the showpiece tournament justifiably confident. Eight wins in a row does that.

News Corp Australia


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