Perhaps it has had its time, but a staple of cricket commentary used to be nominating which player you would like to bat for your life. For those of my vintage, it was always Steve Waugh. Chewing gum, trudging, plonking his bundle of baggy green rags on his head, Waugh would rake his flat stare over a pitch and an opposing team like he’d literally rather die than give them his wicket. He kept his average above 50 by sheer force of will. He came across as the ultimate obdurate bastard, the man who broke Jason Gillespie’s leg with his own face.
If you were playing the Bat For Your Life sweepstakes, a player you would be terrified to draw would be Travis Head. One-way ticket out of the Hunger Games for you. If Waugh epitomised obduracy, Head has epitomised looseness, constantly fiddling around off stump like a teenager who has just discovered the habit. He has hopped and chopped and prodded. Even his strike rotation to length balls uses an angled bat, risk where none is needed. He might not be the only player caught twice in a Test match off a top edge at deep third man, but they could probably take one carriage on the Ferris wheel.
That has never meant, curiously, that Head has strings of total failures. He goes after the ball immediately, and so he starts to score. He has a good enough eye that he gets some shots away. So even when his looseness has seen him undone, he has almost always had some runs to his name before that happens.
Only twice in his 32 innings – including his first – has he been out for nought. Only three other times has he been out in single figures. Most players make these sort of scores between a quarter and a third of the time. Head has passed 20, 30, 50, even on the days when he hasn’t gone big.
The upshot of this is that he has been more influential at times than his numbers suggest. He has been half of a number of important partnerships for Australia in matches when things weren’t going well. He has broken up stagnating innings, assisted teammates in getting moving. He has left matches changed, without leaving scorecards crowded. He has played second fiddle where required, without ever becoming too sotto voce.
In this first Ashes Test in Brisbane, he had the chance for a dramatic solo. This time, he held the stage for the entire performance. He played his innings exactly as you would expect. He didn’t put away a single shot for the duration. And it kept working. Every time his tally of balls faced got close to his runs scored, he kicked away again.
It wasn’t that this was an entirely streaky innings. There were slices and edges, and they were interspersed with sound clouts down the ground for six. Airborne drives either side of grounded ones. It was more that Head chose the positive option, the aggressive option, every time it was a possibility, and was willing to take chances. In part, he was lucky. In part he made that luck.
By the time his century arrived on the second evening, it came from 85 balls. Of Australians, only Adam Gilchrist, David Warner, Jack Gregory and Matthew Hayden have managed to do so in fewer. His was the third-fastest Ashes century of all time. Head resumed on 112 on the third morning with the bottom three in the Australian order for company. He carried on, thumping Ben Stokes for a straight six from the bowler’s second ball. He swept Jack Leach for yet another four. His audacious flick for six from the express pace of Mark Wood, walking across the line of the ball, was all the more entertaining given Head had just missed an identical attempt and nearly lost his stumps.
By the time Wood finally did claim his timber, last man out for 154, Head had faced 148 deliveries. A normal Travis Head innings is something like 30 runs from 30-odd deliveries, assembled by not holding back until the final mistake arrives. This century was basically five Travis Head innings stitched together. He had played exactly as he wanted, and he had made it work.
At the time, with 425 on the board and a lead of 278, that innings would have felt to his teammates like the climax at the end of their two-day crescendo. Yet by the end of the third day, with that lead whittled all the way down to a slender 58 and only two English wickets taken, they would have been wishing there had been a couple more partnerships, a couple of 30s or 40s from the players who didn’t provide them. That would have taken Australia past 500, on to a different plane of dominance. In short, Travis Head would have been greatly aided by someone playing the role of Travis Head. Instead, one Travis Head had to do.