Four years ago, Travis Head sat in the stands at the Adelaide Oval and watched Nathan Lyon spin Australia to a famous victory against India on the fifth day. At the time, Head was touted as one of the best young batsmen coming up through the ranks. He had already played two years of First-Class cricket and represented Australia at the U-19 World Cup.
Now 24, Head is the youngest member of the current squad. He has played 76 First-class matches, scored 4972 runs, captained his state and also donned the baggy green for two Tests. Head's average of 36.82 might seem mediocre, but no other player under age of 30 has scored more runs than him in the last three years on the domestic circuit.
When Australian cricket was at its strongest in the '90s their success was built on picking batsmen that had played five years of Sheffield Shield cricket, scored around 5000 FC runs and warranted a spot in the national team. The likes of Greg Blewett, Michael Slater, Simon Katich, and Matthew Elliott were all around Head's age when they represented Australia. At 24, Head can be deemed to prosper at the Test level. He knows his game inside out and has an opportunity to lock down a middle order spot for a long time with a decent series against India.
Importantly, the coach, Justin Langer is a huge admirer of the South Australian batsman. In the UAE, Langer compared his physical fitness to an AFL player and importantly praised his batting ability to an extent of saying his late cut was Bradmanesque. The most promising part of Head's batting has been the way it has evolved in the past two seasons.
"What I liked about Travis Head is his development. He's working hard on his game. The way everyone used to say he can't play spin, well he's worked hard on that," Langer had said about Head after the Test series against Pakistan last month.
Head might not be at his cricketing peak, but he has the understanding of what is required to excel at the highest level. No Australian batsman in last three years, apart from Steve Smith, has managed to hold down a spot in the middle order for 10 consecutive Tests. As many as six different batsmen have batted at No 5 for Australia in the past 17 Tests. This upcoming Test series against India presents Head that opportunity to cement a spot and eliminate the instability.
Head will benefit from the fact that the first Test will be at the Adelaide Oval, a place that has been home for him for the last six years. He has scored four hundred at the venue and knows the conditions like the back of his palm. A week ago, he stroked a masterful 87 against Western Australia, on a pitch that was aiding seam bowing.
One area of his game Head has worked on meticulously in the past year is playing the ball straight. In his early days, he had the habit of either square driving or flicking the ball towards square leg, but in recent times he has learned to play with a vertical bat and drive the ball in the ‘V'. Importantly, he has now realised that the first 20-25 balls need to be handled with caution and patience.
During his tenure with Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, Head had the chance to pick the brains of AB De Villiers and also managed to observe Virat Kohli from close quarters. Add to that, Head is in the third year of his captaincy at South Australia. He has taken all the lessons and is at a stage where he is ready to take his game to the next level.
Given the way Langer has praised Head since taking over as the coach, one senses that the coach believes he is a type of character and a cricketer that a team can be built around. But for that to eventuate, Head needs to churn out the big scores. With Smith missing from this line-up, Head should be setting himself up to score at least 400 runs in the series and give the middle order the stability they desperately need.
Head should consider himself lucky to be born in an era when an average of 37 in FC still warrants a berth in the Test team. His coach and mentor at South Australia, Jamie Siddons belted out 11,587 runs at 45 and still missed the boat.
With the Ashes only nine months away and not much Test cricket before that, Head has a chance to be the backbone of the Australian batting for a long time. But for that to happen, he has to start making giant strides and showcase to the Australia supporters, selectors and prove to himself that he belongs to Test cricket. The series against India could be the start of a remarkable journey.
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