Khawaja is step in right direction as old foes rebuild

The Australian angle
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The Independent Online

Australian cricket has appreciated all the sage advice offered by its friends in the Old Dart! By way of riposte, a notably literate country cannot expect to compete with a sport-crazed nation like England – the only colonial power to export its games and take them into pubs, where darts, skittles and shove ha'penny belong. England won fair and square and that's the end of it.

Driven by ambition, Andrew Strauss's men will challenge for first place in the Test rankings and press for World Cup victory. It's been a superb turnaround. Money has been wisely spent, good appointments have been made and the team has been shrewdly selected. Not that the victors are without headaches. That four of the top seven batsmen were born in Africa is either an astonishing coincidence, as most apologists insist, or else instructive.

Contrastingly, Australia have more headaches than a rugby team on tour. After dominating both formats for 15 years, the green-cappers have sunk to the middle of a lop-sided table. Nor is there any immediate prospect of a rally. Indeed, the malaise runs deep. The trouble goes from top to bottom.

Australia can't find a spinner worth backing. Fast bowlers keep breaking down, opening batsmen are as few and far between as cyclists in Venice, and Shield and grade cricket are shadows of their recent selves. The craving for youth endures but the production line has been compromised.

Nor do the leaders pass muster. Ricky Ponting, the country's only remaining great player, is in decline and Michael Clarke, his deputy, is regarded as a nark. Both alternative leaders are wicketkeepers, while the coach is honest but limited. Attendances and ratings have been falling, a setback hidden by the heightened interest created by the Ashes. The situation was so bad that, in August, Cricket Australia called the cricket community together for a crisis meeting. Not that CA have impressed. They could not find an internal candidate capable of taking a senior role at the ICC, over-police their cricket grounds, deny players proper preparation and employ flapping media men.

Four years ago, England were so paranoid that they sent security men to inspect every nook and cranny a player might consider visiting. Now the Poms are relaxed and full of beans. They are a grown-up side with a strong work ethic and a high sense of fun.

All things considered, Australia appear doomed to a long period of poor results. It ain't necessarily so. Dropping Marcus North and Nathan Hauritz might have seemed reckless but it told of a community aware that ordinary players can be a bigger encumbrance than poor players because they last longer. The message was clear. Australia were prepared to risk losing in order to start building a team that might stir a nation. As Andy Flower is telling his charges, the Ashes are not everything. It's a mistake to measure success by performances against one opponent. Not that Australians expected to be mauled. England were underestimated. Now the selectors have taken another crucial step by promoting the country's first Muslim cricketer. Usman Khawaja is witty, popular, bright and skilful, and that is not true of all his colleagues. He is also brown, tee-total and unavoidably the representative of large settler communities hitherto inclined to support visiting sides.

Waleed Aly, a writer, cricketer and Melbourne Muslim, says the excitement is palpable and the sense of belonging is suddenly stronger. Every sport needs to utilise the entire population – rich and poor, black and white, male and female. In that regard, English cricket has succeeded better than its Antipodean counterpart. A glance at the Yorkshire cricket team settles the issue.

Khawaja might not solve every problem on the field but his inclusion is a fillip. The next phase has begun. Australia will take a young team to England in 2013. It would be a mistake to discount their chances.