Khawaja brings fond memories for Basin return

Despite peeling off a typically classy 140 in his last visit to Wellington, Usman Khawaja knows it matters for little ahead of the first Test

Usman Khawaja carries uplifting memories of his previous outing at Wellington's Basin Reserve into Thursday's opening Test, but understands history counts for little when facing the new ball on what's expected to be a seamer-friendly pitch.

Khawaja's maiden overseas Test century came against New Zealand in their national capital on Australia's most recent campaign across the Tasman eight years ago, when he scored a typically elegant 140 in his team's daunting first innings total of 562.

It was a breakthrough moment for the then-29-year-old who was in his third iteration as a Test batter having lost his place in the line-up in 2011 and 2013, and it came in the pivotal number three batting berth.

But reinvented yet again as a Test opener at a time he believed his international playing days were done, Khawaja returns to Wellington as the reigning ICC Test Player of the Year and almost fresh from a hectic 2023 which he described as the busiest 12 months he's endured.

The challenge he faces against a Black Caps new-ball attack, which will fancy their chances on a green-tinged pitch given the fragility of Australia's top-order in their most recent outing against West Indies, won't be overly different to that 2016 Test.

Usman Khawaja brings up a century against New Zealand in Wellington, February 2016 // Getty

On that occasion, he went to the wicket with the ball less than one over old and no runs on the board, and saw his former opening partner and close friend David Warner dismissed soon after at which point Australia were staggering at 2-5.

But he was also buoyed by the confidence of having scored three centuries in his preceding five Test innings leading into that game, two of them against the same NZ bowling attack he would face on the opposite side of the Tasman months later.

Despite the reassurance he can take from his record against NZ – his average of 72.6 is bettered only by Adam Voges (99), Simon Katich (80) and Adam Gilchrist (77) among Australia batters to have played five or more Tests against their nearest neighbour – he won't be watching any archival footage for inspiration.

Brilliant Khawaja makes crucial ton

"Not any more, maybe when I was younger," Khwaja said today when asked if he might revisit vision of that 2016 innings prior to the first Test of the Qantas Tour.

"Now I'll just go out and play, I know the innings eight years ago doesn't really have relevance to what happens in this game.

"It's a new team, couple of new bowlers, different conditions.

"You have good feelings and good things can come from that, but I've played before and scored hundreds at Aussie grounds and come back the next year and haven’t scored any runs.

"It was a very satisfying innings but even more satisfying that we won by a big margin.

"So we've got good memories here."

As lopsided as their respective records in head-to-head battles might be – New Zealand have not beaten Australia in a Test since Hobart in 2011, and not on their home patch since Auckland in 1993 – this two-match series is effectively a heavyweight showdown.

As inaugural winners of the ICC's World Test Championship title in 2021, New Zealand square off for the first time since that success against the team that won the most recent title (last year), with the staunch rivals sitting first and third respectively on the current table.

Both Australia and two-times Test Championship runners-up India (currently involved in a five-Test series against England) could overtake the Black Caps at the top of the ladder if the hosts fail to win a match in this upcoming series at home.

However, Khawaja claimed discussions about the prospect of defending the WTC crown they secured at The Oval last June won't become meaningful within the Australia dressing room until closer to the next decider, which is scheduled for mid-2025.

"It's always in the back of your mind," Khawaja said today.

"We talk about it here and there, but this far out it's a bit hard because we know all we need to do is win games to keep that percentage up.

"You probably don't start to take real notice until maybe the end of this year when India starts (their tour of Australia), you think 'okay, what's the scenario' because the World Test Championship then is quite close.

"But at the moment, it's just about winning as many games as we can and not worrying about the points table because if we're winning, that will literally take care of itself."

The most obvious difference between the successful NZ line-up of 2021 and Australia's championship outfit from last year is the turnover of personnel from those games.

Australia seem set to enter the opening Test at Basin Reserve on Thursday with nine of the starting XI from their 209-run win over India.

'I've got good memories here': Khawaja previews NZ Tests

The only certain absentee will be Warner who called time on his Test tenure last month, while seamer Scott Boland is part of the current touring party in NZ but seems likely to miss out on a berth behind fellow quick Josh Hazlewood.

By contrast, the Black Caps might have just three members of their sole global trophy-winning team to date for the sold-out clash at the Basin – skipper Tim Southee, his captaincy predecessor Kane Williamson and opener Tom Latham – in the starting XI.

Latham's opening partner Devon Conway remains part of the Black Caps squad, but he is in doubt having been struck on the left thumb while wicketkeeping during the preceding T20I series between the teams.

Conway has not hit a ball since sustaining the injury, and while x-rays have been unable to pinpoint the extent of the damage, he was absent from his team's main training session at Basin Reserve today and coach Gary Stead indicated a decision on his availability will be made tomorrow.

Maxwell mic'd up during New Zealand T20I series

"He's had a bat in his hands a few times," Stead said today.

"It's not comfortable at the moment, but we're still investigating exactly what's going on in the thumb.

"We've had a number of different specialists look at it.

"He's going to get more scans later today and more expertise on it.

"We obviously want Devon to play, he's a key person in our batting order and his record speaks for itself, so we want to give him every chance of being available."

With veteran seamer Neil Wagner announcing his retirement from international cricket prior to today's training session, Southee remains the only member of NZ's WTC-winning pace attack available, with Trent Boult now playing limited-overs only and Kyle Jamieson sidelined by another back stress fracture.

Left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner might come into selection calculations for NZ after being left out of the XI for the Black Caps most recent Test against South Africa at Hamilton earlier this month.

However, the Basin Reserve pitch has developed a reputation for being fast and bouncy this summer and is therefore expected to aid the quicks although the forecast for sunny if windy weather on Thursday and Friday might also play a part.

"That wicket looks pretty green out there," Khawaja said before Australia's training session today.

"It's hard to know, sometimes the New Zealand wickets look worse than they play.

"It depends on what the conditions are above – when the sun comes out, even if you have a really green wicket, if you get through the new ball it can be a pretty nice place to bat.

"But overcast conditions, a green wicket it can be quite tough."

Qantas Tour of New Zealand

Watch all the action from the NZvAUS Tour live and exclusive on Foxtel and Kayo Sports. Click Here to subscribe

February 29 – March 4: First Test, Wellington, 9am AEDT

March 8-12: Second Test, Christchurch, 9am AEDT

Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc

New Zealand Test squad: Tim Southee (c), Tom Blundell (wk), Devon Conway, Matt Henry, Scott Kuggeleijn, Tom Latham, Daryl Mitchell, Will O'Rourke, Glenn Phillips, Rachin Ravindra, Mitchell Santner, Neil Wagner, Kane Williamson, Will Young.