Khawaja added to squad as Australia fret over Ponting's broken finger

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The Independent Online

Australia yesterday prompted suspicion about Ricky Ponting's fitness for the fourth Test by calling for reinforcements. In summoning the uncapped Usman Khawaja to the squad as cover the selectors immediately cast doubt on their captain's availability because of a broken finger.

Whatever Khawaja's credentials, Ponting's absence would be deeply felt. He might not have made a run to speak of in the Ashes series so far but his team revere him in a way that they would not his stand-in Michael Clarke, who is also badly out of form. It might bring a sudden halt to the impetus gained by Australia's comeback victory by 267 runs in the third Test.

The panel's chairman, Andrew Hilditch, attempted to quash worries that Ponting would not play but they were not entirely convincing. "While the NSP are confident Ricky Ponting will be available for the Boxing Day Test, through an abundance of caution we have named Usman Khawaja as the standby player," he said. "Usman richly deserves this opportunity following his excellent form at domestic level last season and continuing on this season."

That is selector speak for being desperately worried about the state of an injury and not really having a clear-cut replacement in mind. Ponting broke his finger fielding at second slip on the third evening of the third Test, attempting to take a catch off Mitchell Johnson. The ball rebounded to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin but Ponting left the field immediately and did not play any further part in the match.

This was supposed to be precautionary. Ponting would do almost anything to play, short perhaps of amputation, but he will not compromise his team if he cannot hold a bat properly. He played in the Boxing Day Test against West Indies last year with an elbow injury but now thinks that he might have been wrong to do so, although Australia won the match.

Khawaja, who would be the first Pakistan-born player to represent Australia, has been in the selectors' minds for a year. He batted prodigiously in the Sheffield Shield last year when he scored nearly 700 runs with three hundreds and subsequently came to England for Australia's neutral series with Pakistan.

After starting this season with a sparkling 214, Khawaja, 24, has been steady rather than spectacular since with four more Shield fifties. England came across him only briefly when he appeared for Australia A in the four-day match in Hobart immediately before the series began. He made 13 and 0, both times edging balls holding their own to the wicketkeeper. If he plays in Melbourne he could be one of two debutants should Australia also pick the novice spinner Michael Beer in their final XI.