Shubh Aggarwal
20 Nov 2023 | 04:10 AM

The 'Head-shots' that gunned down a billion hearts

Around two and a half years back, Travis Head didn’t have a central contract but now, he is one of the most clutch players in Australia

Player of the Match in the World Test Championship Final

Player of the Match in the World Cup Semi-final

Player of the Match in the World Cup Final

All this within a span of six months

Around two-and-a-half years ago, Travis Head didn’t have a central contract. Now, he is one of the most clutch players in Australia, with three of the most memorable performances with the stakes at their highest. Only last month, he was healing from a broken hand. Now, with his cathartic hand-eye coordination, he has broken the hearts of 1.4 billion people, eluding them of their most significant chance at glory in over a decade. 

Every boundary that Head struck during his 120-ball 137 further reduced the decibel levels in the jampacked Narendra Modi Stadium. On the eve of the match, Australia skipper Pat Cummins spoke about the joys of silencing the opponent’s home crowd. After Australia’s flawless bowling plans, execution and the scorching sun in the first innings, Head’s punishing strokeplay during the run chase kept the sea of blue searching for its voice. No matter that wickets were falling at the other end, or Virat Kohli was urging the crowd to make more noise when Australia were 3/47 in seven overs chasing 241, or the fact that India have been the best bowling line-up of the tournament.

At the start of his innings, the left-hander was constantly shuffling away from the stumps, confusing the viewers if he was being apprehensive or was a sign of intent to open up the off side. In either case, it seemed a recipe for disaster, especially against a bowler like Mohammed Shami, who has been in a love affair with bowling in line with the stumps. 

Luck is a pre-requisite for batters who fight the fire of new ball seamers with the fire of their swashbuckling strokeplay. Head had a bit of it going his way. He was beaten on both the inside and the outside edge. However, to his credit, the shuffle away allowed him to block deliveries in line with the stump, as Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, both in rampaging mode, couldn’t ball that perfect delivery to hit the stumps. In addition, the shuffle also permitted him to score boundaries off deliveries close to the stumps. 

In overs 1 to 10, Head scored only 2 off 11 deliveries in line with the stumps but 9 off 12 balls marginally outside. 

Overall, the South Australian had only 19 off 26 balls in the powerplay - the only occasion of him going at a strike rate of under 100 in this phase in this World Cup - showing he is not a one-trick pony.

If the first powerplay was about keeping Australia in the game, on both the deficit and the wickets-at-hand front, Head bludgeoned his way through in the middle overs. In his first boundary with the field spread, the opener clobbered Kuldeep Yadav for a six in the wrist-spinner’s third over. He had a strike rate of 106.8 against the spinners. Against pacers, however, he struck at 158.6 in overs 11 to 40 after batting at 73.1 in the first powerplay. 

While sitting on his couch in Adelaide, Head must have watched Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja snap 5/70 in Australia’s campaign opener against India. They didn’t let them settle this time, scoring three fours and three sixes against the pair. The dew played a part, but Head was shoulders above the task. 

When he deposited Mohammed Siraj for an imposing six over deep mid-wicket in the 37th over, with the chase almost done, he had crossed India’s tally of 16 boundaries (13 fours, 3 sixes) in the match. Head finished with 19 boundaries by himself (15 fours, 4 sixes), surpassing India on the boundary count in both metrics.

The hosts managed only two fours in overs 11 to 40. Head batted at a strike rate of 123.9 in this phase overall, creating a big gulf. 

With his middle overs madness, Head also played the knock that India missed during their innings. In a resurrecting stand, the left-hander added 192 runs for the fourth wicket with Marnus Labuschagne. The Queenslander took 110 balls for his unbeaten 58. 

For India, KL Rahul played the Labuschagne knock, scoring 66 off 107 balls. But he didn’t have a Travis Head. Every Indian batter struggled to score against spin except Rohit Sharma

The Indian skipper mastered a slow and turning track against England in Match 29, scoring 87 (101) in a team total of 229. Just as spin was introduced, Rohit was out for 47. Guess who took his catch?

Travis Head. Running back with the ball coming over his head. 

It was a massive moment in the game. India’s chances of a win only reduced after that catch. And you are left to wonder how can one man be so influential in a fixture like the World Cup final.

Prior to the World Cup, the Australian selectors were in a pickle regarding Head’s position in the team. A short delivery from Gerald Coetzee fractured his left hand during the fourth ODI against South Africa. It ruled him out for six weeks, eventually limiting his availability in the October leg of the World Cup. 

Instead of pulling him out of the squad, Australia started the tournament with 14 players. It could have cost them to play the World Cup with only one specialist spinner. While Glenn Maxwell responded sharply to the supporting spinner’s role, Head has vindicated the trust shown in him. 

"The selectors have backed him even when he had a broken hand and the medical team to get him back. It was a big risk that we took, and it paid off," said Cummins after the final.

After missing the first five games, he began with a hundred that bamboozled the New Zealand bowlers. In the semi-final, the 29-year-old first hurt South Africa with the ball. He pouched successive wickets of Heinrich Klaasen and Marco Jansen in his first over. Later, he gave Australia the upper hand in a tricky run chase, scoring 52 off 48 balls in a match with an average run rate of 4.5. 

Australia upped their game in the knockouts and Head was the central figure around it. Shane Warne is the only other Australian to win the player-of-the-match award in both semi-final and final of a World Cup edition. 

Coincidentally enough, Warne had tweeted in favour of Head in the latter’s debut year. Seven years later, Head has scored one of the greatest hundreds in a World Cup final and emulated one of Warne’s most freakish feats. 

In addition to his white-ball brilliance, Head was the player-of-the-series in Australia’s Ashes 2021/22 victory, his comeback series after losing his central contract. He smashed 163 in the first innings of the WTC final in another knockout game for Australia. 

With this series of performances, Head can now be elevated to the pantheon of great left-handed Australian openers. And with his style, the first name that comes to mind is Adam Gilchrist, in terms of similar batting styles, being a left-hander, opener in white-ball cricket and middle-order in Test cricket. 

"In some ways. Obviously, he's playing very aggressively and that was my role,” Gilchrist himself told ESPNCricinfo, confirming the same a fortnight before the final.

Head is more than 7000 runs behind Gilchrist in the ODI format. But these performances at the 2023 World Cup have already established his name up there. And this innings of 137 (120) will be remembered in the same breath as Ricky Ponting’s 140* (121) in 2003 and Gilchrist’s 149 (104) in 2007. 

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