'Ugly' Head finds beauty in mix of safety and natural flair
Travis Head's match-saving innings at Lord's saw him combine his natural attacking play with survival instincts to help preserve Australia's edge
Andrew Ramsey in Leeds
20 August 2019, 08:47 PM AEST
Travis Head's Test career might be only 10 matches old, but he acknowledges the conflating challenges he faced on Sunday evening at Lord's – heavy cloud; swinging ball; game in the balance; Jofra Archer – were among the sternest he's encountered.
Yet, in addition to the extra personal safety measures he fitted to his batting helmet, Head took with him to the middle a clear strategy and a similarly uncluttered mindset to play the way he knows best even though circumstances suggested he embrace stonewalling defence.
It was an approach the 25-year-old Test vice-captain admits was aesthetically unattractive at times, but he stood unbowed at day's end having batted more than two hours against Archer's speed and Jack Leach's probing spin on a day five pitch to earn a valuable draw.
That was despite his captain, Tim Paine, airing occasional concerns about the way in which his deputy would occasionally launch himself at the bowling, as if Head somehow felt the team's distant 267-run victory target was still achievable in the fading light.
"At one stage, we thought we were going to have to run some gloves out to him to tell him we were not chasing the total," Paine said in the immediate aftermath of the drawn result that preserved Australia's 1-0 Ashes series lead.
"But that is the beauty of Heady and Marnus (Labuschagne, innings top scorer) and it's something we want them to do, to play the same way regardless of the situation.
"We don't want to take away their courage and natural attacking style of play."
At a casual glance, the sight of Head cover-driving Leach against the spin coming out of the rough, or slashing outside off-stump at Ben Stokes to offer a chance to slip that was ultimately squandered, might indicate a young man with a cavalier approach to his craft.
In truth, however, Head is a deeply conscientious student of batting who can spend as much time analysing his own technique and tactics as he does opposition bowlers in a bid to eliminate his flaws and buttress his strengths.
It's one of the reasons why Australia men's team coach Justin Langer rates the left-hander – who he describes as "very coachable" – so highly, with that esteem only likely to grow on the strength of performances like Sunday evening's.
For Head, however, the quest for Steve Smith-style perfection continues.
"I knew there were going to be some ugly moments," Head said on Monday in a brutal assessment of his match-saving innings.
"There was some stuff I was not so happy about with my batting (on Sunday) but there was some stuff that was really good, so it's just trying to make sure of the good stuff for longer and doing more it more consistently.
"It was probably much easier being out there than watching.
"I knew it wasn't going to be pretty, but (I was) making sure that I did my job – to get through the day.
"I had the faith of JL (Langer) and Painey to keep pushing the game and be positive, and I think that's the way I play best.
"Though we were aiming for a draw, I was still quite positive in moments when maybe I shouldn't have been but, again, my best way to defend is sometimes to attack.
"Sometimes it works, and sometimes not.
"It's about picking the right moments, and making sure I'm doing what's best for the team."
Head admitted he was disappointed by the manner of his dismissal in the first innings at Lord's – pinned on the crease by veteran quick Stuart Broad, who was bowling around the wicket and clearly targeting the left-hander's pads and stumps.
It was a ploy of which Head was acutely aware, and one that he had worked hard to prepare for with the half-century he scored in a crucial second-innings partnership with Smith in the opening Test at Edgbaston suggesting that training had paid off.
But Head felt that he tried too quickly to get back into stride at Lord's, having also peeled off a century in the tour game against Worcestershire between the Tests, and paid a penalty that he was then deeply driven to avoid when he went to the wicket with Australia 3-47 early in Sunday's hectic final session.
He was also mindful to protect himself against the peril posed by short-pitched bowling on the two-paced Lord's pitch, having seen Smith cop an awful blow from Archer the previous day that forced him out of the remainder of the match – and this week's third Test in Leeds – due to delayed concussion.
Up until Sunday's innings, the South Australia skipper had been reluctant to fit the detachable neck guard that can be applied to a protective batting helmet because he found it mildly uncomfortable.
However, in recognising the clear danger that Archer posed on that final-day pitch, and in line with his mission to remain at the crease until the Test match was saved, he took the additional safety precaution.
And in light of events he has witnessed previously in cricket, he is likely to continue using the extra protection – at least for the remainder of the Ashes campaign.
"I didn't usually (wear it)," Head said of the guard that remains, for the time being, an optional accessory to a player's helmet.
"I guess with the conditions in Australia, you can sway out the way (because) the bounce is quite true.
"I think what we have seen at Lord's, with the slope, there was a lot of balls following batters and going down the slope.
"I wore it (the guard) and probably will wear it for the rest of the series.
"The wickets are a little bit slower, and you can get some (deliveries) that do different things so it is not as true bounce.
"I guess as you've seen with Steve getting hit, you can get yourself into tricky positions.
"So, I think it is becoming mandatory next year with CA (Cricket Australia) so I may as well get used to it now and start putting it on.
"I trialled it (some time ago) but it probably wasn't as comfortable (as the latest model).
"I didn't really feel the difference (on Sunday) but it's one of those things, as batters, it is weird with things that are working and not working.
"I might have worn it before and missed out (on runs) a couple of times, so it goes back into the kit.
"There is no team rule, it's each to their own.
"I guess it is like me with my arm guard – there is no real reason why it popped up, but I can save myself a broken arm if I get hit."
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Pat Cummins, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes (vc), Olly Stone, Chris Woakes.
First Test: Australia beat England by 251 runs at Edgbaston
Second Test: Match drawn at Lord's
Third Test: August 22-26, Headingley
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8, Old Trafford
Fifth Test: September 12-16, The Oval