On the first afternoon of Hobart’s Ashes debut, the knives were out for Bellerive Oval. Australia had lost David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith for a combined six runs, while Australia as a team had scored 12. The pitch looked like it belonged to the Emerald City. Accordingly, people online started getting stuck into the surface as no good, a lottery, a disgrace, or anything else they could think of, proclaiming that Hobart had blown its entree to big-league Test cricket and that the city should never get a Test again.
Except that over the next hour or so, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne produced a passage that featured 71 runs in 69 balls, repeatedly taking on the bowling to great effect. Stuart Broad and Ollie Robinson had been difficult to face at the start of the innings with jagging seam movement, but as soon as Mark Wood came on, his extra pace disappeared to the fence with corresponding speed. Chris Woakes got battered in conditions that should have suited him. The life went out of the pink ball, and began to leak out of England too.
After Travis Head’s rapid 152 in the Brisbane Ashes Test, you could wonder how much it had been an innings smiled on by fortune. His attacking range and run-a-ball pace created plenty of close calls, but ones that he survived to produce a surge of runs. Repeating the dose in Hobart made the strong suggestion that Brisbane was not a fluke. There was method to the approach, as Head produced an innings of such counterpunching potency that it reversed a tide.
It bears repeating that the score was 12 for 3 when Head walked in. A No 5, returning after a Test out with Covid, walking on within the first 10 overs. Cloudy skies and a moving ball. So he clipped his second ball for three, and laced his ninth through cover for four. Two balls later, another to the fence with a square drive. There was a tactical point to this, recognising that England’s bowling had been so accurate that defensive play was likely to make him an easier target. Hitting back could disrupt the bowlers, and his best chance to score was to do it before receiving a ball he couldn’t play.
But there were no more unplayables. The first batting partnership barrage ended when Labuschagne bizarrely went wandering outside off stump, leaving Broad an untended set of stumps to knock over. Those bloody green pitches, hey? Undeterred, Head carried on playing a shot a ball. His only defensive response was to those full and straight. Anything outside off stump, he punched off the back foot or drove off the front depending on length. Sometimes he found the field, mostly he did not. By the time it was over he had made 101 from 113 balls, chipping a catch right after raising his hundred.
It was a telling intervention from a player whose approach to the game has changed. Always regarded domestically as an attacking type, Head’s batting strike rate in Test cricket before this series was 49. Through the current series he has scored at 87. He looked liberated in doing so at the Gabba, which flowed into a fast fifty in Adelaide and now this hundred.
In Hobart, Head played attacking shots to almost half of the deliveries he faced, a rate he has never exceeded before. Across the series he now leads the run scoring on both sides with 349 from 399 balls. In all of Ashes history, only Ian Botham in his famous 1981 effort has made as many runs in a series at a faster strike rate, with 399 from 428 balls at 93. With an innings to play, Head could yet go past him.
There is individual brilliance to appreciate there, but also the fact that a pitch on which he could play that innings was a good one for playing cricket. Teams are allowed to take wickets. Batting is allowed to be hard. Test matches can go for five days, but nothing in the Laws says that they must. Plenty of dull matches go the distance, plenty of interesting ones are over in shorter time. All of those things are OK.
Hobart’s lively start made this an exciting contest, which will make people want to tune in on the second day to see where the game has gone. In all those respects, Hobart’s Ashes beginning has gone exactly to plan.