Marsh Sheffield Shield 2020-21
The technical tweak behind Head's recent run glut
Having followed up his Test axing with a century in both the Marsh Sheffield Shield and One-Day Cup, Travis Head has shown further evidence of an ability to learn quickly
5 March 2021, 02:22 PM AEST
Travis Head's transformation from Test discard to run machine has been founded on a couple of key elements.
The first was a seemingly minor technical tweak (illustrated by the image above) suggested by men's team coach Justin Langer and implemented through the network of coaching contacts at state level.
The other emanated from deep within the batter himself, as Head came to terms with losing his Test place - the second time he's been dropped since making his debut in late 2018 – and steeled himself to reclaim it.
The initial problem was born during South Australia's atypical off-season, when COVID-19 robbed the left-hander of a scheduled Test tour to Bangladesh and a planned return to England's county competition.
Instead, he was among the many who relied on innumerable net sessions and the occasional intra-squad match to prepare himself for the Australian summer.
As someone who sweats and frets over every element of his game, Head therefore had almost too much time to tinker with his set-up, his grip, his feet positioning and his back-lift without the immediate pressure of scoring runs in competitive games.
When the Marsh Sheffield Shield season got underway in early October, on sluggish early spring pitches in Adelaide where the 'hub' was held, he seemed in sublime form posting centuries against Tasmania and Victoria while averaging 65 across eight innings.
But when the Vodafone Test Series began, Head's technique was pulled apart by the forensic experts on India's coaching team and exposed by their bowlers, who had him caught twice in the slips cordon from loose drives during the Boxing Day Test as Australia plunged to defeat.
The flaw was also recognised by Langer, a fellow left-hander who had experienced more than his share of lows and highs in the ruthlessly uncompromising Test arena.
"He'd got really, really side on," Langer said during a commentary stint at the Marsh Sheffield Shield game at the WACA Ground last week, when Head pummelled a career-high 223 against Western Australia.
"As a left-hander, that can be a real curse because you've got the blind spot when they bowl short at you, and also it just takes your weight over a little bit.
"And his bat was coming back almost to middle and leg stump."
While Langer oversaw the final two Tests of Australia's ultimately unsuccessful campaign against India, Head returned to the nets armed with the coach's observations and the knowledge he had just weeks to adopt them before the planned Test tour to South Africa began.
As it turned out, the pandemic ultimately put paid to that series.
But as Head prepared for the resumption of Shield cricket, Langer shared his analysis with South Australia's General Manager High Performance Tim Nielsen, who had been Australia men's team supremo when Langer began his post-playing career as batting coach a decade ago.
The pair have remained in regular contact since those days, but changes within the Redbacks set-up meant Nielsen became more directly involved in addressing Head's technical shortcomings than would normally be the case.
Head had previously worked closely with ex-Test opener Greg Blewett, but Blewett's increased radio commitments in Adelaide meant he relinquished the batting coach role earlier this year, and ex-Victoria skipper Cameron White only formally began as SA's interim assistant coach (until season's end) this week.
Consequently, Nielsen effectively found himself 'back on the tools' ahead of the Redbacks’ return to Shield cricket in Perth last week.
"I've had a long history with Travis, so we talk a lot about his batting," Nielsen told cricket.com.au this week.
"And with my relationship with Lang going back to when we worked together, when I was coach and he was batting coach, we chat about the game quite regularly and that talk obviously included Travis's batting.
"It was the way he picks the bat up, and the way he was setting up.
"The bat was pointing almost straight back over middle stump in his stance, rather than him being a bit more relaxed with his bottom hand.
"Then, because of the way he naturally cocks his right wrist, the bat almost flays out or opens out a bit towards first slip.
"So by not picking up the bat so much under his left elbow, and having him raise it more towards first slip, the feeling was he'll get a bit more access to a pull shot, or to balls coming into him from a right-arm bowler towards his leg stump."
Then there was the related matter of Head's grip which, in lifting the bat directly back, had become dominated by his right (top) hand, which further restricted his shot-making options and led him to "throw his hands" at balls outside off-stump as India's bowlers maintained a disciplined line.
By working to ensure he maintains a stronger grip with his bottom hand, Head has greatly enhanced his shot-making range.
It has also helped to lighten his footwork as he no longer wrestles the bat with his top hand, as Langer noted while watching his masterly double-hundred at the WACA Ground.
"He was so much more relaxed in his hands, his bat was going out to about first slip which means he can then access both sides of the wicket," Langer said.
"Often, you could say he mainly hits the ball through the off-side, throws his hands at it because he’s got great hand-eye co-ordination.
"But he played all around the wicket – he cut well, he pulled, he played through the leg-side off the front and back foot.
"I thought it was a magnificent innings."
But while the technical tweaks might sound relatively minor, to introduce them in such a short time frame amid the pressure of a home summer in which players must oscillate between the unique demands of first-class, T20 and one-day cricket requires another form of talent.
And that's where Head has shown a rare aptitude.
Langer notes that in addition to being "a really nice young bloke", the 27-year-old carries a steely determination underpinned by an unstinting work ethic.
It's a trait that Nielsen has observed since the former Australia under-19 representative graduated to senior cricket as a teenager in 2012.
"He's a cricket nuffie," Nielsen said of the Redbacks and Adelaide Strikers skipper.
"He watches it, he thinks about it, he loves it.
"He talks to people about it, he tries it out, he messes around with different things trying to get better but probably the biggest thing about him is, if he makes a decision that he wants to do something, he's got a really quick learning curve.
"He can try some new technical aspect for a week and then bring it into his game and have success if he believes in it, so he can turn things around really quickly.
"Some players take a lot longer to make changes to the basic structure of their game, whereas Travis can make those little adjustments and it doesn't seem to have a huge impact on him.
"If he feels good, then he's happy and away he goes.
"Obviously he's had some success in the last week or so since making those changes, and the great thing about that is whether he believed it or not beforehand, he's certainly got a lot more faith in it now."
That preparedness to take on board the observations of others was revealed by Langer, who noted during the Test summer that Head was also prone to being dismissed when batting in the nets.
It prompted the Australia coach to recall one of his earliest experiences of first-class cricket with WA when he lost his wicket to one of his teammates at training, and was immediately confronted by ex-Test opener and WA legend Graeme Wood demanding that Langer place a higher price on his wicket, even in the practice nets.
When Langer mentioned to Head he seemed to put little importance on getting out at training, he was told matter-of-factly by the South Australian that it was a result of him simply not being a very good net player.
"I said 'maybe what you can do is become a better net player and that might help you be a more consistent player in the middle," Langer recounted.
"He’s taken that on board … so he doesn’t get out in what looks like loose ways."
Nielsen maintains Head's attitude to batting in the nets does not reflect a cavalier approach to practice, but rather the former Test vice-captain's pre-occupation with elements of his batting that might sometimes supersede protection of his wicket.
"Travis will talk about the fact he probably uses the nets for some specific training purposes, rather than sometimes being worried about whether he gets out a lot or not," Nielsen said.
"It might be thinking about how he picks his bat up, or what his feet are doing and Lang probably challenged him at the time and said one of the most important things about batting, whatever technique you use, is not to get out and that needs practice as well.
"So they probably agree on that, and it’s become a bit of a focus for Travis now as well.
"He certainly puts in the effort in with his batting.
"He thinks about it a lot, and he's watched himself on video and tries to compare what he's doing when he's playing well to what's happening when he's not doing so well."
The acid test for Head's slightly re-engineered technique arrives in coming days.
He's been scrutinised for the disparity in his Test returns against the top-ranked nations such as New Zealand, India and England (against whom he averages 42.60, 27.29 and 29.90 respectively) compared to the likes of Sri Lanka (152).
Head has similarly struggled against the historically strong New South Wales bowling attack, scoring 509 runs from 11 innings against the Blues (with a solitary century) at an average of 25.45, well below his career Shield average to date of 39.26.
From Saturday, he will be pitted against a NSW line-up likely to include Test-capped bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Trent Copeland, Moises Henriques and Nathan Lyon as well as recent Test squad member Sean Abbott in a Marsh Sheffield Shield match at Adelaide Oval.
"There's no Cummins in that line-up," Nielsen noted, after it was confirmed the current Test vice-captain will be rested from the Shield fixture.
"But Hazlewood and Starc and those other guys, it will be a good challenge for him as it will be for all of our guys."