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The rise and rise of Travis Head

Last updated on 14 Jan 2022 | 02:24 PM
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The rise and rise of Travis Head

A player who a month ago was on the fringes, Travis Head is now a vital cog in Australia’s middle-order

From the moment Australia retained the urn in Melbourne, there have been debates about who should be named the Player of the Series. The primary contender, in most people’s eyes, is Mitchell Starc, who has taken 15 wickets with the ball to go along with 151 valuable runs with the bat at an astonishing average of 75.50. 

Starc set the tone for the Aussies on the very first ball of the series and he’s done everything the captain has asked of him. 

Cummins, despite missing a Test, is a fair shout too, as is Marnus Labuschagne. It wouldn’t even be outrageous to include Scott Boland in the discussion. 14 wickets at 8.64 a piece. Those are outrageous numbers.

But after what he did today, how can anyone look beyond Travis Head? 

Forget that he’s the highest run-getter in the series despite having played three fewer innings than the other contenders. Forget that he’s striking at 87.46 when no other specialist batter has managed to strike at over 60. 

Thrice now, Head has single-handedly tilted a contest in favour of Australia with the match either in the balance, or seemingly not fully out of England’s sight.

And in Hobart today, the southpaw played what arguably can be described as his best ever international innings. 

In both Brisbane and Adelaide, Head played vital, match-defining hands. At the Gabba his final-session ton on Day 2, which came when Australia were in a spot of bother with the game still in the balance, completely busted England’s hopes of staying in the contest, while in Adelaide his quickfire second-innings fifty enabled a quick declaration that ultimately proved pivotal. 

His 51 in Adelaide is barely spoken of, but with Australia 55/4 in the second innings, with the lead still under 300, the momentum Head injected turned out to be a huge point of difference. Should he not have played the kind-of swashbuckling, counter-attacking innings he did, England might very well have ended up salvaging a draw like they did in Sydney, considering the game dragged till the final session of Day 5.

How this Hobart wicket will behave in the days to come remains to be seen, but 59 overs in, there exists a strong feeling that Head might already have ended up making the single-most telling contribution of the game. A contribution that, down the line, could very well be considered the most stupendous individual performance in a series where there has been no paucity of heroic efforts.

As good as Head’s Gabba and Adelaide knocks were, on both occasions it was England who were playing catch-up. He entered both matches knowing that failure on his part will not be the end of the world for the team. To add to this, he also knew that he was up against a bowling unit that, despite having a spring in its step, already had plenty of overs under its belt.

The scenario couldn’t have been more different when he strode out to bat at the Blundstone Arena today. 

Inside the first 60 balls England had sent Warner, Khawaja and Smith back to the hut, and on a green wicket that looked like a minefield, Australia were 12/3. It was a situation in which Head simply couldn’t have afforded to fail.

It is one thing digging the team out of a hole from such a ghastly situation with the odds stacked against you. But Head did not just score the runs that was required to take Australia out of harm’s way - against a brand new ball, on a green top, under cloudy skies, in conditions tailor-made for the English bowlers, he launched the most scathing counter-attack of the series to put Australia firmly in the driver’s seat by the time Twilight started kicking-in.

The key to Head’s success on the day was how he managed to unsettle the English bowlers’ lengths very early on. Within moments of him walking out to bat, the English seamers stopped being metronomic.

Integral to the same was his intent, with him looking to score and not simply survive. Getting off the blocks quickly, by taking calculated risks, is something Head has done all series, and today was no different: he raced to 26 off his first 20 balls, chancing his arm at anything he felt was in his zone.  

But it wasn’t just Head who was responsible for the visitors erring on the discipline front. Marnus Labuschagne was cautious in his first 14 balls, but, as soon as Smith perished, he too went on the offensive: after scoring just 5 of his first 14 balls, Labuschagne scored 21 off his next 20. The six overs after Smith’s dismissal cost 38 runs and this mini counter-attack completely upset England’s plans.

This opening was enough for Head to pounce. He put his foot down the moment he realized that the English bowlers had been unsettled, and did not look back. He went after the bowling relentlessly, fully aware of the risks that came with the approach, and eventually reaped the benefits. Just like he did in Brisbane, he successfully rattled the English bowlers - only this time in far tougher conditions with the odds stacked against him. 

What stood out the most, though, was his ability to access and pierce even the tiniest of gaps through the off-side, particularly off the back-foot. 64 of his 101 runs were scored through the off-side, with 36 of them coming between third man and deep-point. There were genuinely good deliveries bowled by Broad and Wood that were dispatched to the boundary, something that particularly left the English captain stunned. 

This - accessing free areas through the off-side by rocking back - is something that has been a feature of Head’s batting all series. More than 53% of his runs in this Ashes has come off the back foot, 147 runs through the aforementioned region between third man and deep point. He has played quite a few audacious drives throughout the series, but it has been the cuts and punches off the back-foot that have really enabled the southpaw to take his game to a whole new level. 

Ironically, on a wicket indistinguishable from the outfield, it was the off-spin of Joe Root that, if anything, seemed to keep Head on his toes. Head scored just 11 off the 23 balls he faced versus Root - SR of 47.8; in comparison he had a SR over 80 against all the other bowlers - and the southpaw, in particular, was troubled by the quicker one that the English skipper bowled that seemed to skid on. Twice he came agonizingly close to playing on. 

Getting out to Root after doing all the hard work versus the pacers would have been tame. But, looking back, Head would still be pretty disappointed with the eventual manner of his dismissal, which was also tame by nature. He would be kicking himself knowing very well that there was another 150-plus score which was there for the taking. 

But that Head missing out on a daddy ton is being spoken of as a missed opportunity itself serves as a good indicator as to how far he’s come. It is worth remembering that this was the same player who, not too long ago, was guilty of consistently scoring pretty 30s and 40s, deemed as someone who does not have the ‘right temperament’ to succeed at the highest level.

In the aftermath of the SCG Test, when Usman Khawaja scored twin tons, Head claimed that he will have to ‘wait and see’ if he’ll slot straight back into the starting XI. 

Post this Hobart Test too, the South Australian will have to wait. Only this time to find out if he wins the ‘Player of the Series’ award that he seems deserving of. 

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