Michael Clarke has expressed his shock over Usman Khawaja’s axing from the Cricket Australia contracts list.
Axing Khawaja was the hardest call that selectors made in compiling the list for 2020-21, with the out-of-favour veteran urged to target a spot at the top of the Test order.
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There were few surprises in the 20-strong group picked to steer Australia through a challenging stretch that includes a Twenty20 World Cup and much-anticipated Test series against India.
Khawaja and Marcus Harris lost their national contracts, having failed to play for Australia since last year's Ashes tour.
Nathan Coulter-Nile, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh and Marcus Stoinis were also dumped from the list, having been overlooked by selectors since featuring in last year's one-day World Cup.
But it was Khawaja’s omission that had everyone talking.
“I find it very hard to believe that someone with the talent and the runs behind him over 10 years isn’t in Australia’s top 20 players,” Clarke said on Big Sports Breakfast on Friday.
Clarke said he hoped Khawaja’s axing didn’t have anything to do with a number of clashes he had with coach Justin Langer, which were captured in the recent documentary ‘The Test’.
“I would like to think it’s nothing personal,” Clarke said. “I don’t think JL is like that.”
Khawaja played an eye-catching role in the recently-released documentary series charting Australia's resurgence after the Cape Town cheating scandal, repeatedly offering forthright feedback to Langer.
Langer said he admired the way Khawaja spoke his mind and wasn’t afraid to question the coaching staff.
Khawaja urged to fight his way back
Test batsmen Marnus Labuschagne, Joe Burns and Matthew Wade were all elevated after being left off the original 2019-20 list, as were allrounder Mitch Marsh, paceman Kane Richardson and spinner Ashton Agar.
Khawaja was Australia's most important and experienced batsman during David Warner and Steve Smith's suspension, but now faces the prospect his international career could be over.
Chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns suggested Thursday's snub does not mean the door is shut on the 33-year-old, saying: “there's no reason Usman couldn't open the batting for Australia down the track.”
“Uzzy was a difficult one for us, probably the hardest one,” Hohns told reporters.
“We know Usman's a fabulous player and I don't have any doubt he'll accept the challenge ... to get back into that Australian side.
“He has been a pretty good player for Australia but unfortunately the last 12 months haven't been his best.
“So a lot will depend on how Usman comes back, where he bats for his state and then it's a matter of really demanding to be chosen again.”
Selectors resisted the urge to promote Khawaja up the order in last year's Ashes, when Harris, Warner and Cameron Bancroft all struggled.
They are yet to seriously contemplate dropping Burns, who backed up an impressive 97 at the Gabba with a string of starts in the previous summer, but Hohns made it clear “there's no doubt Usman could perform that role.”
“We're quite happy with Joe. His form wasn't great but it was OK, he and David Warner seemed to have formed quite a good opening combination,” he said.