‘Batting on another plane’: how Travis Head’s hitting broke the spell – and India’s heart

When Australia lost their first wicket to the second ball of the day, things looked grim. Then Travis Head slammed the door on defeat in style

When you read back over the scorecard in years to come, it will look easy. A run chase of 76 is a formality. Done in little more than an hour, purring along at 4.14 runs per over? Standard. Except it wasn’t. Not when the first ball of the third morning exploded in a dust cloud like a Dakar rally jeep jumping a dune. Not when Ravichandran Ashwin dialled back the turn on the next delivery, just enough of it to flick the bat so softly that even Usman Khawaja didn’t know he was out.

For the next 10 overs, Ashwin laid siege. Spin partner Ravindra Jadeja was his support. There was one Marnus Labuschagne boundary from a short ball, nine singles that were varyingly unconvincing, and a parade of deliveries that beat edges, leapt sharply, kept low, ragged on sharp angles, skidded straight, evaded gloves, drew appeals and reviews for leg before or for close catches. Australia were 13 for 1 and ripe to raise that second number.

All out in Nagpur for 91, all out in Delhi for 113, and having bowled out India here in Indore for 109 on a pitch that was falling apart, you had better believe that the danger was on some Australian minds. Sitting near the boundary line, as stand-in captain and next in to bat, Steve Smith was nervous. You could tell as much after the game from the grin and the exhale of breath as he recalled it. “Nice to finish off the way we did today, just the the one wicket down, [but] happening in the first over, we thought gee, it could go any way here.”

One person, though, did not seem to be nervous at all. You could read that from his work in the middle, or you could take his word for it once that work was done. “I like to stay pretty positive, I’m pretty confident about things,” said Travis Head to ABC radio. “I don’t think it came as any surprise that there was a wicket early on, we’ve seen that throughout the series. We’ve seen that in both innings that we’re under pressure with the new ball until that 30, 35 over mark where the ball gets a bit softer.”

It was in that 11th over when Head’s innate confidence took over. With midwicket in close and mid-on set straight, there was a sizeable gap. There was also an overly full ball from Ashwin, up into Head’s swinging arc. He saw it and sent it bouncing away. Some T20 running followed to get two runs through point, then the next straight delivery was not as full but close enough. Again Head got his front leg out of the way and this time lifted it straight for six. He kept the strike with a drive, then rasped Jadeja back over his head for four to start the next over. Five balls, 17 runs, 26 for one.

The spell was broken. Labuschagne was able to join the ride, playing a straight sweep and a reverse to balls safely outside the line, and driving through the gap that India left at cover to encourage the shot. Head carried on scoring as freely as he has for months. The only shot he wasn’t happy with was a late cut facing Jadeja, a bowler whose arm ball and skid imperils your stumps. “It was a bad shot, mate. I got in position and I went, ‘Urghhhh!’ If I’d got out like that then there’s disappointment about going away from my plan.” Head jammed the bat down in dismay and middled the shot for four regardless.

This innings was another example of what has become his speciality. When a team has a foot in the door, Head slams it shut so hard that it shatters metatarsals. Last December South Africa’s pace was rocking Australia during the two-day Test in Brisbane before Head ransacked 92 from 96 balls, batting on another plane of existence. The Hobart Ashes Test the season before saw Australia three wickets down for 12 before Head made 101 from 113. To start that series, 189 for 3 was not as dire but Head’s 152 from 148 balls irrevocably set the match’s course.

Even before he started this recent incarnation, Head had a resumé of influential innings at the speed of a normal player. Two vital partnerships while Smith was in God mode in Birmingham in 2019. His unbeaten 42 ensuring the draw at Lord’s that followed. Adelaide in 2018 against India, Brisbane later that season against Sri Lanka. Even his debut in Dubai, after Pakistan took three wickets with the score stuck on 87, when Head made 72 to bat past the lunch break on the final day and support Khawaja’s epic in what would become the Great Escape.

This win, though, might be the rarest of them all. In the nearly two decades since one of the great Australian teams last won a series on these shores, Indian teams have played 87 home Tests and lost nine. Out of 31 series in that time they have lost one. They have already avoided defeat in the current series, but have not won it yet. Nor have they entirely locked in their place in the World Test Championship final. The Australians now have, and come June, Travis Head will have his part to play.

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