Australia are second on the World Cup points table at the moment with three wins from four games. Despite difficult encounters with England and New Zealand coming up, they look good to qualify for the semi-finals. Having said that, the defending champions’ performances so far haven’t been as promising as it may initially seem.

After a comfortable victory in their opening match against Afghanistan, Australia have been scrappy for the most part. They edged West Indies thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime rescue act by Nathan Coulter-Nile, were beaten comprehensively by India, before being left off the hook by a Pakistani team that did its best to avoid a win.

While the form of Mitchell Starc and Adam Zampa is surely a cause of concern, Australia’s batting has been out of order, quite literally, since the victory against Afghanistan. And at the center of this predicament is Usman Khawaja.

In One-Day Internationals this year, Khawaja, with 857 runs from 17 innings, is the highest run-scorer in the world. Even so, his place in the team for Australia’s next game against Sri Lanka is anything but certain.

Highest run-scorers in ODIs in 2019

Player Innings Runs Average / Strike-rate
Usman Khawaja 17 857 50.41 / 84.51
Aaron Finch 17 824 51.50 / 86.10
Rohit Sharma 15 735 52.50 / 80.32
Ross Taylor 13 723 72.30 / 94.14
Virat Kohli 13 711 54.69 / 93.67

The left-hander is yet to make an impact in this 12th edition of the 50-over event. In the four innings he has played so far, he has failed to register a single half-century. In comparison, David Warner has two fifties and a hundred to his name, while Aaron Finch and Steve Smith have two 50-plus scores each. But Khawaja’s spot in the XI isn’t in danger for the lack of runs, it has more to do with his inefficiency in the middle-order.

The 32-year-old has the game of a quintessential top-order batsman. He likes the ball to come on to the bat when he walks in and uses hand-eye coordination to pierce the infield. The return of Warner and Smith, though, has left him in an uncharted territory.

In Australia’s last two ODI series before the World Cup – five matches each against India and Pakistan – Khawaja got a total of 655 runs with two centuries. All of it as an opener. But Warner and Smith’s comeback into the XI has forced him out of the top three. Not only has this taken away his rhythm, it has also left the batting order in disarray.

The 36-run defeat to India is something the five-time champions could’ve avoided. Walking in to bat at No 4 in the 25th over, Khawaja scored 42 at a strike-rate of 107.69. He was dismissed in the 37th over with Australia needing 151 from 80 balls, 62 of which were going to be bowled by Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah. Although Glenn Maxwell and Alex Carey tried to pull their team through, they were left with simply too much to do. Khawaja should’ve attacked the likes of Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav and scored some more in his 39-ball stay.

Against Pakistan on Wednesday, the Aussies decided to rectify the mistake of holding Maxwell back against India. They promoted the hard-hitting right-hander to No 4 after the 146-run opening stand between Warner and captain Finch. But the move didn’t work as Maxwell fell early.

Then, came in Shaun Marsh, who was included in the team as a replacement for the injured Marcus Stoinis. This decision showed Australia’s distrust of Khawaja’s ability to keep the runs flowing in the middle overs. Unfortunately for five-time winners, Warner fell soon after and they were left with Marsh and Khawaja at the crease at the start of the final ten overs. A far-from-ideal scenario. From 242/3 in the 38th over, Australia were bowled out for 307 in 49 overs.

They managed the two points against Pakistan but Australia will surely be worried by their stunning batting collapse. Of course, it’s unfair to pin the blame for the last two matches entirely on Khawaja, but the Islamabad-born cricketer hasn’t helped his cause.

The problem for him, as well as the team, is that his game is quite similar to that of Smith’s. Both of them aren’t known to accelerate at will and tend to take their time to get going. It’s almost as if they aren’t meant to play together in the middle-order. And the class and experience that Smith possesses make it impossible for him to be ignored.

Australia would’ve been glad to have Khawaja open the batting and continue piling on the runs. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that Warner and Finch form their best opening combination, especially with them being a lefty-righty pair. And with Smith coming in next, they are left struggling to find a place for their highest run-getter in ODIs this year.

One possible way of making the best use of Khawaja’s abilities is to allow him to open, send Warner at No 3 and Smith after him. But are Australia audacious enough to do that? Because one thing is getting increasingly clear, Khawaja doesn’t add much to the batting unless he’s in early.

At the start of the World Cup, it looked like the level of Australia’s already powerful batting line-up would go a few notches higher with the return of Smith and Warner. But now, one can’t help but wonder whether their presence has proved to be a disruptive force.