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Head suffers Starc Ashes reality check

Travis Head's nemesis hurts Ashes push but teammate Callum Ferguson backs left-hander for Test cricket

In the days before he led South Australia into battle against an international-standard New South Wales outfit to begin the first-class summer, Travis Head was asked which contemporary bowler he found the most compelling to watch.

"Starcy at full pace, I think," Head replied, nominating his ODI teammate and citing Mitchell Starc's game-changing spells during last year's limited-overs campaign in Sri Lanka where he swung the ball early and late and routinely scattered opponents' stumps along the way.

"Hopefully he can do it again during the summer.

"But facing him, I didn't have much luck against him."

Mitchell Starc continues his hold over Travis Head

Those words might well have been rattling around amid Head's thoughts when he walked out to the centre of Adelaide Oval just after 9pm last Saturday night, under the harsh glare of floodlights and Ashes expectations to see Starc at the top of his run-up gently tossing a pink cricket ball from hand to hand.

No matter how much he enjoyed watching Starc demolish rival batters when playing alongside him in national colours, there was no pleasure to be gained from facing him in the moments after the destructive quick had just taken a wicket and was unashamedly hunting another.

Within a whirr of Starc's powerful left-arm and a blur of pink that began its half-second journey safely outside the line of the stumps before tailing violently back towards them and past the bat that Head's mind and muscles tried frantically to place in its path, the confrontation was over.

The fourth time in four matches (four innings out of six) against Starc across all formats that Head has fallen to the left-armer, with those four dismissals coming at a cost of just a solitary run.

Starc removed Head with a beauty in Adelaide // Getty
Starc removed Head with a beauty in Adelaide // Getty

The thrill that the SA skipper had felt watching Starc perform his party trick against helpless batters of all calibres from other teams was once again replaced, in an instant, by the sickening pain of defeat and the familiar feeling of sympathy for those many who have suffered the same fate in recent years.

Not only did Head's first-ball duck rob him of a chance to parade his Test credentials against a bowling attack that also featured Ashes-bound Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon, of greater immediate impact was that it compounded a top-order batting capitulation from which the Redbacks failed to recover.

But it also brought with it broader implications for the 23-year-old South Australian.

As one of Australia's foremost young batting talents at a rare time when the national selectors have confirmed that a genuine vacancy exists in the Test line-up to be filled on a merit basis by someone who can perform strongly at the start of the JLT Sheffield Shield season, Head had not hidden his aspirations.

"I would love to play Test cricket," he told cricket.com.au in the same interview that he articulated his admiration for Starc.

"We'll see how the first three Shield games go, I think that’s been the common theme if you speak to any batter in Australia, they want to hit the ground running in the first three Shield games.

"I feel in good form, I feel like I played really well in Australia last year.

"I had an okay Shield season, I think I've definitely matured in that form. So I feel like in the first three Shield games, we get a crack at New South (Wales) at full strength, so hopefully I can put my name forward and at least put my hand up and give myself a chance.

"If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen but if I get some runs there's no harm in putting my hand up for that."

Head's chances of getting the runs required to state an early case for a Test call-up – with national selector and Bupa Support Team men's coach Darren Lehmann watching from the grandstand – diminished when he battled to make eight from 29 balls in SA's paltry first innings.

And then vapourised in the wake of Starc's searing first-up delivery in the second.

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Head's next chance to push his claim comes at the MCG from next Saturday when he leads SA against Victoria – for whom incumbent Test batsman Glenn Maxwell is also looking to shore up the No.6 position – in a re-match of the past two Sheffield Shield finals.

Callum Ferguson, who briefly filled the vexed Test batting berth during a single appearance against South Africa a year ago, yesterday threw his support behind his SA captain, claiming Head was the sort of aggressive, competitive player that Australia will need in the upcoming Magellan Ashes series.

"I'd love to see him in there, he's the type of cricketer that we love in Australia," Ferguson said in the wake of NSW's six-wicket Shield victory.

"He takes the game on and hits the ball as hard as anyone, he's a real pure striker of the ball and he's a guy that could certainly get the game moving forward for that Test team, so I'm backing him to have a big couple of (Shield) games.

"He'll be disappointed, but he's a guy who I don't think will be too fazed by the fact that he's missed out in the first game.

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"He'll just go out and play the way he plays every time he goes out there, and I think that's a really good characteristic in a cricketer.

"He's ready for Test cricket."

Head, whose career first-class batting average of 33.83 is marginally inferior to Maxwell's average of 38.70 over a similar span (55 matches compared to the Victorian's 52), knows his path to proving he's worth a Test role will be impeded by some of the best bowlers in Australia.

Having copped Starc and Cummins in the season opener, he will encounter another all-international attack with Victoria likely to field Peter Siddle, Chris Tremain, Scott Boland, Dan Christian and Fawad Ahmed.

Then, before the squad for the first Ashes Test in Brisbane beginning November 23 is announced, SA travel to Perth to tackle a five-pronged pace attack (including all-rounder Marcus Stoinis) that's led by Nathan Coulter-Nile, who ripped through Tasmania's top-order on Sunday to claim 3-18 as the Tigers were humbled for 63.

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"I haven't played in a season where every cricketer in Australia is going to be (available) for the first three Shield games, so that’s also exciting," Head said.

"We (SA) play against three of probably the strongest teams in the comp at full strength, which is also very exciting, not just for myself but for the SACA and for the guys who are aspiring to be the best cricketers that we want to be.

"It’s going to be an unbelievable three rounds, and I think it will show how strong cricket in Australia actually is."

The two reassurances Head can take from a disappointing individual Shield season start against NSW is that none of the other players in the reckoning for the open Test job mounted a compelling case to selectors in the opening round.

And it's unlikely he will be forced to face up to Starc other than in the practice nets any time soon.

2017-18 International Fixtures:

Magellan Ashes Series

First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets

Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets

Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets

Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets

Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets

Gillette ODI Series v England

First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets

Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets

Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets

Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets

Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF

Prime Minister's XI

PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets

Gillette T20 INTL Series

First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets

Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets

Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets

Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 13

Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16

Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18

Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21