SYDNEY: You can go through Australia’s top order, and most have had a significant focus in the lead-up to two defining months of Test cricket. Whether David Warner has a final hurrah in him has often led the way, and will only ramp up after he mapped his own end point; Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne have been visible in county cricket, which has provided plenty of fodder; the story of Usman Khawaja’s stunning return to Test cricket is never far away, and Cameron Green, with the IPL now among his successes, continues to be billed as greatness in the making.
In all that, it feels like Travis Head is going a little under the radar. But he shapes as a key part of the top six, back at his regular No. 5 position after finding himself opening in India following a difficult start to that tour when he was omitted for the opening Test.
And India also comes first for Australia on their tour of England – in vastly different conditions than they experienced in February and March – with the World Test Championship at stake this week at The Oval. But everything also points towards the Ashes. It was the last meeting with England, at home in 2021-22, where Head returned to the Test side a transformed player, or at the very least, a player able to express himself.
In that, there are strong traits of how England have transformed themselves; and while theirs has been a team-wide overhaul of style and conviction, it was notable that Head was a player picked out by Ben Stokes during a pre-summer interview with Nasser Hussain for Sky Sports.
“I think Travis Head is someone who since he came into the team has really taken his opportunity, and gone ‘This is how I’m going to play’,” Stokes had said. “Him being allowed to go out and play the way he has, he’s been so successful. He was so hard to bowl to in Australia when we were there last time because he just threw counterpunches, and those innings he played against us were really hard to bowl to, really hard to set fields to. But we are prepared for that.”
Travball pre-dated Bazball by more than six months. During that last Ashes, Head had a strike rate of 86.02 across the four matches he was able to play – he missed the fourth Test in Sydney with Covid-19 which, it’s worth remembering, opened the door for Khawaja’s return.
When Head had walked to the crease in first Test at the Gabba, Australia were on top, but England threatened a fightback as Ollie Robinson removed Warner and Green in consecutive balls. Head proceeded to flay 152 off 148 balls, the century coming in a session and from only 85 deliveries, in what became a pivotal few hours for Head’s career.
After returning from Covid-19 for the final Test in Hobart, Head did it again – and on a green pitch being exploited by England’s seamers – as he surged to a 112-ball hundred and gave Australia enough runs to ensure their demoralised opponents fell short.
Prior to that – including the 2019 Ashes in England – Head’s Test career had been a mixture of promise, not least his Boxing Day hundred against New Zealand that summer, and some frustrations. Last time in England he made a half-century at Edgbaston and then helped save the Lord’s Test, but two matches later, found himself sidelined when Australia wanted Mitchell Marsh’s bowling at The Oval.
The omission only lasted one match, with Head back for the start of the home summer when that MCG hundred was the highlight; but the following home season against India in 2020-21, he was dropped after two Tests.
Minor technical tweaks followed, after some initial observations by then coach Justin Langer, which played a part in that prolific Ashes campaign. There was another outstanding home summer in 2022-23, where he filled his boots against West Indies before making a brilliant, counterattacking 92 on a spiteful Gabba pitch against South Africa’s strong pace attack.
However, between those two summers, there was a more difficult time on the subcontinent in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which paved the way for his omission from the opening Test against India earlier this year. While there were arguments that could be made to support the decision where Matt Renshaw was preferred in the middle order, it felt odd despite Head’s average of 15.16 the previous winter. It led to “robust” conversations with coach Andrew McDonald.
In the end, Head’s absence lasted one game, although initially his recall in Delhi was talked up as much for his bowling. As it played out, before that second Test was over, he had found a new role, elevated to opening after Warner was subbed out with concussion.
Head played superbly on the second evening, rattling India with his positive strokeplay, and resumed on the third morning 39 off 40 balls. However, he nicked R Ashwin early and Australia conspired to fall in a heap, losing 9 for 48, and a few hours later, finding themselves 2-0 down.
Head was retained as opener for the remainder of the series, and played an important hand in chasing down a small target in Indore to secure a famous victory, and then made the most of more benign conditions in Ahmedabad, closing out with 90 on the final day of the series. It was a strong response to the initial omission.
But the opening role will only be an exception for Head in Test cricket, with a possibility he will do it again in Sri Lanka much later in 2025. Rather, he brings dynamism to Australia’s middle order – either counterattacking from positions of difficulty and changing momentum, or taking advantage of tired attacks when the top four have done their work.
The WTC final and the first part of the Ashes take place relatively early in the English season. Head’s challenge, as with all the batters, will come from the moving Dukes ball – he averaged 18.30 during his stint with Sussex in 2021 – but if Stokes’ order for “fast, flat” pitches is heeded, and the weather allows it, conditions in the Ashes may not be vastly different to what he has enjoyed at home. And even if not, he has shown that if the pace bowlers are dominating, he can wrestle back the initiative.
He may not always be the first name picked out when Australia’s batting is discussed, but Head has it in him to play a decisive hand over the next few weeks.