Usman Khwaja can become the first Muslim cricket player to play for Australian national team in upcoming Ashes series. He is a Pakistani by born and grown up in Australia. Micheal Clarke is confident of overcoming a long-standing back injury to play in Thursday’s opening Ashes Test, but Australia have called in Usman Khawaja as cover. Clarke did nothing more than walk some laps at the squad’s opening training session on Monday and he must bat at training on Tuesday to hold his spot.
His injury, and the call-up of Khawaja, provides the hosts with the potential for more disruptions before such a crucial occasion. “I’m still a little bit stiff and sore, hence me not training today,” Clarke said. “Our plan was for me to have a bat tomorrow and then another good hit on Wednesday. The battle is to get as close to a hundred per cent as possible for Thursday. I’m pretty confident that I’ll be right.”
Ricky Ponting said it would be hard for Clarke to prove his fitness without batting but at the same time he wants to give his vice-captain as long as possible to get right. Clarke is one of the few local batsmen who is in form this summer and his record in Ashes Tests is excellent. He averages 55 in 15 games against England and Australia are desperate for him to provide stability in an order that has faltered.
“He’s been in this situation a few times the last couple of years,” said Ponting. “He’s had niggles but been able to come back most times. Alex [Kountouris, the team physio] has made it clear he wants him to bat tomorrow [Tuesday] and Wednesday. If he doesn’t bat tomorrow it’d be hard for him to be considered for the game, but we will definitely give him as long as possible.”
“I’ve played 64 Test matches with it now, I haven’t missed a Test, touch wood,” Clarke said. “It’s not so much batting, it’s more waking up daily. Some days are better than others. I get that feeling when you get out of bed.”
At training he crouched down gingerly to pick up a bat and Kountouris said a decision couldn’t be made until after he went into the nets. “Until he bats tomorrow we can’t be absolute 100% sure that he’s right to go,” Kountouris said.
The back disc injury, which has bothered Clarke regularly throughout his career, resurfaced during his century for New South Wales. He batted again in the second innings, scoring an unbeaten 39 to save the game, but hasn’t been able to do anything at full intensity since.
He said once he starts an innings the adrenaline covered up the pain. “It’s more just discomfort in general than at a certain time,” he said.
Clarke was last floored by the problem in 2009, when it kept him out of a one-day series against India, and it also affected him during his first Ashes tour. “I remember in 2005 it happened the first ball fielding at Old Trafford,” he said. “I didn’t field for the rest of the Test but I batted in the two innings. I’ve played international cricket with discomfort because of my back, but it hasn’t ruled me out of a Test match as of yet.”
The extra significance of the Ashes has contributed to Clarke’s cautious approach. “No doubt it being a big series, I guess that’s probably why we’re taking it a little bit slower and why I didn’t have a bat today,” he said. “It’s a five-Test series as well so there’s a lot of cricket ahead of us. We’re just trying to do everything possible to make sure I’m fit for Thursday and then available for the whole series.”
Steven Smith, the legspinning allrounder, is in the squad but the selectors have looked to Khawaja as specialist batting cover. Khawaja, who will link up with the squad in Brisbane on Monday evening, travelled to England for the Pakistan series in July and was a strong contender to make the slimmed-down version of the squad until his double failure in Australia A’s match against England in Hobart last week. If he plays he will be the first Muslim cricketer to have represented Australia.
“As there is some doubt over Michael Clarke’s fitness for the Brisbane Test match, it was felt prudent to bring a standby player into the squad,” said Andrew Hilditch, Australia’s chairman of selectors. “Usman has been added as a result of his strong recent domestic form and the National Selection Panel’s belief that should the opportunity arise he has the ability to perform well at the international level.
“We intend to give Michael as much time as possible to prove his fitness and a decision on his availability will be made in consultation with the team’s medical staff after the next two days of training.”