Travis Head defies odds in a way no one expected him to

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14 Mar 2023 | 05:11 AM
authorAnirudh Suresh

Travis Head defies odds in a way no one expected him to

If there ever was a series that was tailor-made for Head to specifically fail, this was it. Against all odds, however, he ended the series as Australia’s second-best batter

The unpredictability that comes with sport is beautiful, because it has the ability to make a complete fool out of fans, analysts and pundits.

Like it did when Liverpool, in their worst season in years, handed arch-rivals Manchester United their heaviest ever league defeat at a point in time when United looked like a freight train that was unstoppable. 

Or when India, in 2021, bounced back after getting bowled out for 36 and eventually went on to not just win the series, but conquer the Gabba fortress — that hadn't been breached in 33 years — with effectively their 'C' team when nothing but an Aussie whitewash was deemed possible. 

What we've just witnessed in the 2023 Border-Gavaskar Trophy is remotely not in the same tier or territory as the Gabba heist, but Travis Head has just defied odds in a way no one expected him to.

Consider this: on the day of the commencement of the series, Head's own captain and coach thought that he wasn't good enough to make it to the starting XI in a Test in India on the basis of what they'd seen from him in his previous three visits to Asia, where he'd averaged 21.30 from 7 Tests.

There is, of course, no shame in missing out against a discernibly superior player but this wasn't Brad Hodge sitting out because of the presence of Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds. 

Head was snubbed in favour of Matt Renshaw, someone that had faced just 11 deliveries in Test cricket in the preceding 5 years and someone who only had a marginally better record than him in Asia (308 runs @ 25.66). 

There was little to suggest that Renshaw was the better horse for the course. Particularly given his relative lack of match sharpness. 

This was scathing enough already, but to add insult to injury, Head was left out despite him batting the best he ever has just a month prior, during the home summer, where he struck 525 runs @ 87.50.

The decision spoke volumes about the faith his own management had in his ability to tackle spin.

A harsh call? Certainly yes. A justifiable one? Probably not. 

But still, you could see where the management were coming from. 

Here was a left-hander historically poor against spin tasked with the challenge of conquering not just the best spin attack in the world but arguably the greatest ever bowler vs left-hand batters. And he had to do it on the toughest possible surfaces to bat on that’s ever been seen in India. 

Just like how you wouldn’t bet on a hard-court specialist with a 0-9 record on clay to take two sets off Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, the Australian management refrained from banking on Head.

For if there ever was a scenario that was tailor-made for Head to specifically fail, this was it.

That Head, amidst this backdrop, ended up finishing the series as Australia’s second-best batter behind only Usman Khawaja, having amassed 235 runs at an average of 47.00, should tell you everything about the sheer ridiculousness of what he achieved over the course of the three Tests in which he featured.


Injuries, make no mistake, are a bane. But such has been Australia’s luck in recent times that somehow, players going down at the wrong time has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Four years ago, Steve Smith was brutally floored by a Jofra Archer bouncer but that concussion turned out to be a happy accident; it enabled them to unearth Marnus Labuschagne. 

Last year, Travis Head picked up COVID mid-Ashes and had to miss the SCG Test as a result but it worked out just as well — Usman Khawaja took his place in the XI; the rest is history.

Josh Hazlewood breaking down at the Gabba, meanwhile, facilitated the introduction of Scott Boland.

Would Head have found the same success in the subcontinent if he continued batting in the middle-order? We’ll never know.

But a concussion to David Warner forced Australia to field him as a makeshift opener in the second Test in Delhi and immediately, his fortunes changed.

Speculation, conjecture, guesswork  — call it what you want. But being promoted in the eleventh hour, it felt, brought out the ‘nothing to lose’ attitude in Head and enabled him to bat with a never-seen-before clarity in the subcontinent.

Over the course of a 12-over period in which Australia had nothing to gain but everything to lose, Head, opening for the first time in Test cricket, batted as well as he ever has in Asia and launched a mini-onslaught that dampened Indian spirits. 

Statistically, the 46-ball 43 in the second innings of Delhi did little to bolster his subcontinent numbers. 

But it did something far more significant — it provided him with the confidence, assurance and self-belief that tackling spin on raging turners was not beyond his reach. The knock also saw him dispatch Ashwin for 25 runs off just 24 balls and though he eventually perished to the off-spinner, it completely helped shatter mental blocks against Ashwin, if there were any.

In Delhi, Head had his own Roger Bannister moment and it ultimately spurred him on to finish the series with 180 more runs in the following four innings, the highlight being a match-winning 49* in a tricky chase in Indore. 

How he batted in the series against Ashwin, though, requires a chapter of its own.

Head vs Ashwin — the battle no one thought Head would win

If you know Test cricket, you know this: Ravichandran Ashwin eats left-handers for breakfast. Particularly in India.

Ashwin, in his career, has sent down 1,882 overs against lefties and in that, he’s picked up 241 wickets at an average of 19.2. 

Calling him the greatest ever bowler against lefties will be no exaggeration — for context, Muttiah Muralitharan, the greatest spinner cricket has ever witnessed, averages 7 more than Ashwin against the lefties.

So it was only normal that, prior to the series, nearly everyone thought that Ashwin would toy with and humiliate Head.

It wasn’t an unreasonable or disrespectful assumption by any means. 

For a start, Head averaged 14.2 against off-spinners in Asia heading into the series. 

And considering batters like Dean Elgar, Ben Stokes, Tom Latham and David Warner had been humiliated in the past by the Tamil Nadu man, Head seemed pre-destined to endure a tragic end.

But there’s a reason why battles are seldom won on paper. 

Across the three Tests in which he played, Head faced 147 balls of Ashwin. He remarkably not only averaged 47.00, he also struck at a SR of 64. 

These numbers may not seem stupendous but they actually are — since Ashwin’s debut in 2011, among batters who have faced 145+ balls of him in India, only Moeen Ali and Dimuth Karunaratne have boasted a better average.

In the aforementioned list of batters, only Shivnarine Chanderpaul has a better strike rate against Ashwin in India than Head but he averages only 27.5 having been dismissed 4 times.

Playing Ashwin in India is as much a test of your mental fortitude as it is of your technique and Head was unflustered by the reputation of the off-spinner. 

He played the ball, not the bowler, and ultimately reaped rewards for the same.

Batters, historically, have tended to get stuck against Ashwin in India but not Head. He not only ensured to put the bad balls away, he was also proactive. In the 147 balls he faced off Ashwin in the series, Head smashed 5 sixes.

It is already a record — no overseas batter has ever taken Ashwin for more sixes on Indian soil. In fact, in all Tests, Ashwin has conceded 5 or more sixes overall against only one other batter, Steve Smith.

Talk about being in elite company.


Eight months ago, there was genuine disappointment amongst Australian fans when Head recovered and passed a late fitness Test to deny Glenn Maxwell a Test return.

And the disappointment soon turned into anger and frustration after he averaged 7.66 in a fateful series that saw him get humiliated by the Sri Lankan spinners.

But even as Head was singled-out and scapegoated in the aftermath of the embarrassing innings defeat in Galle, he was backed unequivocally by head coach Andrew McDonald.

"He's been working incredibly hard on his game. Sometimes, you make one small error and you are not there to actually see if your method works or not,” McDonald said.

"There's definitely been a shift in his game in terms of how he wants to play in these conditions. So we are optimistic that across the journey, if given more time, that that can no doubt work."

Ironically, when the time came, McDonald backtracked on his words and made Head sit out the series opener in Nagpur, but thankfully for Australia, in the end, it ended up working out well.

Years down the line, Australia will tour India again. And when the time arrives, there'll once again inevitably be discourse surrounding Travis Head. Only this time, he'll be hyped as the player to watch out for.

And maybe, just maybe, it'll be him and not Cummins that will be sporting the blazer at the toss.

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India vs AustraliaAustralia tour of India, 2023AustraliaIndiaTravis HeadMatt RenshawRavichandran AshwinDavid Warner

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