Hitman Head on finals, fireworks and the Cummins effect

The lovable larrakin has been part of a record-breaking IPL campaign, the basis of which has a distinctly Australian flavour

For a man who torched India in not one, but two major finals last year, Travis Head's popularity levels in cricket's biggest country are trending in a surprising direction.

First, there was his 163 at The Oval in June that fired Australia to their inaugural World Test Championship crown. The dagger came five months later when he slammed an even better hundred in the World Cup final in Ahmedabad.

Head was player of the match in both games, extending India's wait for a major ICC title (men's or women's) into a 13th year.

Head dominates run chase with classic Cup final hundred

A viral photo of Head, decked out in Bolle sunglasses, celebrating the ODI triumph over a team that had not looked like losing all tournament, only added to his lovable larrikin image in Australia. But in India?

"I think we've won a few people over," Head told at the tail-end of a dominant IPL campaign with Sunrisers Hyderabad alongside franchise captain Pat Cummins.

"I think the Hyderabad crowds like me – maybe not everyone else. Everyone still speaks about (the World Cup final) over here, it's so big for them. Every day that I'm here, someone mentions it."

Travis Head chills with the World Cup trophy // ICC/Getty

It is no coincidence that many aspects of the environment that have brought the best out of Head at international level have been replicated at the Sunrisers, who face Rajasthan Royals tonight (12am Saturday AEST) for a spot in the IPL final against Mitchell Starc's Kolkata Knight Riders.

Those team-environment factors Cummins has made a pillar of his leadership are a major theme of Prime Video's new series of 'The Test' – and are exemplified when Head is shown downing a pint of Guinness at stumps on day one of the WTC final.

"I think I've been the most genuine I've been. That's flowed into in my game. I'm relaxed," Head said. "I still like to work hard, I still ask a lot of questions, still talk heavily about the game, in depth.

"But there's also a different side of me that loves a gag, loves a laugh and loves a good time.

"I feel like in this environment, I probably tiptoed a little bit (in the past). Also, you're younger and you’re trying to find your own feet. Having this team stay together for four or five years, you can express yourself, you can be yourself a bit more.

"I think that's helped me, Mitch Marsh, 'Uz' (Usman Khawaja), a couple of different guys, where we've been able to express ourselves out in the middle.

"It's what's been a strong point of the team. That's what you've seen in the doco, and Pat's been a huge contributor to that."

With that in mind, Cummins was not only purchased by Hyderabad for an eye-popping A$3.67m to bowl fast, but Australia's Test and ODI skipper was also then entrusted with leading the side despite having never captained in T20s.

Head notes the arrival of Hyderabad head coach Daniel Vettori (whose tactical wisdom as an assistant with the Aussie team is also, briefly, on show in the Prime Video documentary) has been beneficial.

Still, Head was unsure whether the approach that has worked so well with the Aussies would necessarily prosper in the IPL.

"Trying to create that is tough, because it's never the same between two different environments," he said.

"Early in the tournament, we had a couple of meetings. I was coming in quite late (to join the squad), and I came in just before Pat did.

"The Indian guys were like, 'What's Pat like?' I said, 'He'll always be smiling, win, lose or draw – it doesn't matter'.

"'Yes, we'd like to win every game. (But) we won't win every game. Don't get down in the dumps, he'll support you – just back yourself in, and he'll back you in 100 per cent'.

"You've seen the way we've played – it's been exciting – but also the way everyone has smiled, everyone has enjoyed it, it just feels like everyone's in a great space. Everyone has loved him.

"From my side of things, it's felt very similar (to the Australian environment). It's been amazing to watch how it's flourished."

Sunrisers finished second on the standings and lost their first playoff match, yet no team has been more emblematic of the IPL’s move towards complete fearlessness.  

In less than a month, Hyderabad notched three of the four highest scores in IPL history. They have passed 200 six times. Against Lucknow Super Giants, they chased down a target of 166 in under 10 overs.

Head has been the single biggest factor in the onslaught, tonking 533 runs (the fourth most in the competition) at a strike-rate of 199.62 (the third highest, minimum 75 balls faced).

It may have felt to many like just a continuation of his inevitable ascent. But that overshadows the fact he was actually something of an unproven commodity in T20 cricket coming into this IPL.

International cricket has limited him to 11 appearances in the past four KFC BBL campaigns. Before this season, he had not played in the IPL since 2017. He had batted only once as an opener for Australia in T20Is before Aaron Finch's retirement last year.

Not only has he proven he is up to snuff, Head has also gone some way to showing his weaknesses are becoming more difficult to exploit.

Only months before his WTC final century last year, his play against spin was enough of a concern heading into the opening Test of Australia's tour of India for him to be dropped.

In this year's IPL, Head's strike-rate against spin stands at a rapid 176.83. Of batters to have faced at least 30 balls of spin in the tournament, only eight have scored faster.

It's not for a lack of teams trying to exploit the perceived shortcoming, either.

Head's most dominant innings of the tournament, in the absurd run chase against Lucknow, came despite Super Giants coach, Justin Langer, having done his homework on his former charge.

"They came heavy on spin," Head said of his 89 off 30 balls, only 11 of which were delivered by fast bowlers. "I was able to do well in that game, put a couple of things to bed hopefully.

"I'll continue to work … on (facing) spin, being able to score 360 degrees around the ground, not just shovelling to the leg side. Everything's moving in the right direction. (The IPL) has been really good for my game."

And it bodes well for Australia's T20 World Cup campaign beginning in less than two weeks in the Caribbean, where spin will be a major part of how bowling teams attempt to slow their opponents.

Some, like Head's Aussie teammate Starc, have suggested this IPL season's sky-high totals can be partially put down to the emboldening effect of the impact player substitution rule.

Head is not so sure.

"I think it will lend itself to being aggressive at the top," he said when asked about Australia's style of play at the World Cup.

"I think the Powerplays for every team are going to be important. Everyone bats deep. This impact player thing is being talked about here, but (the strength of) numbers seven and eight for every international team in the world is like having an impact player anyway.

"I think you'll see us bat the same way. There will be some big scores, I reckon, early in the tournament."

2024 ICC Men's T20 World Cup

Australia's squad: Mitch Marsh (c), Ashton Agar, Pat Cummins, Tim David, Nathan Ellis, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Glenn Maxwell, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa

Australia's Group B fixtures

June 6: v Oman, Kensington Oval, Barbados, 10.30am AEST

June 9: v England, Kensington Oval, Barbados, 3am AEST

June 12: v Namibia, Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Antigua, 10.30am AEST

June 16: v Scotland, Daren Sammy Stadium, St Lucia, 10.30am AEST

Super Eights, finals to follow if Australia qualify

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