Forget Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head is the batsman England should fear

Travis Head the Oval India - Reuters/Paul Childs
Travis Head the Oval India - Reuters/Paul Childs

David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne withstood India’s seamers with the new ball. Steve Smith is within one blow of registering his seventh Test hundred in England. Yet the opening day of the World Test Championship final at The Oval added to the case that Australia’s most dangerous batter might just be Travis Head.

In 2021 Head was an overseas player for Sussex, as a signed-up member of the ‘Stevo’s gonna get ya’ WhatsApp group for Australian overseas cricketers in county cricketers. Darren Stevens couldn’t get him at The Oval — at 47, his nagging seam has departed the county game — and nor could India’s attack, despite hostile spells of short-pitched bowling from Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj. Indeed, while Head was not always completely comfortable against their bouncers, they allowed him to show off the most spectacular strokes of the day: consecutive ramps off Shami, which went for four and then six.

By the time he walked off in glorious early evening sunshine, after Australia closed on 327 for three, Head had reached an unbroken 146, from just 156 balls. Yet, for all the alacrity with which he scored, there was nothing reckless in Head’s approach. It was simply a continuation of the method that has turned him into one of the most feared counter-attackers in the world game. Head has now scored six Test hundreds; five have come with a strike rate of at least 78. This was his first outside Australia — adding to the sense that, aged 29, he is a cricketer primed for his moment.

Were they watching on, England would have needed no reminder of Head’s worth: he was player of the series in the 2021/22 Ashes, when he slammed 152 in Brisbane and 101 in Hobart. England captain Ben Stokes recently highlighted Head’s impact to Sky Sports. “He was so hard to bowl to in Australia when we were there last time,” Stokes said. “He just threw counterpunches, and those innings he played against us were really hard to bowl to, really hard to set fields to.”

Travis Head and Steve Smith - AFP/Glyn Kirk
Travis Head and Steve Smith - AFP/Glyn Kirk

After Australia had been reduced to 76 for three, when Labuschagne was clean bowled by a ball that moved in from Shami just after lunch, India were also shown Head’s threat. Not that they needed any reminder: Head’s aggression on sharply turning wickets during Australia’s series in India earlier this year illustrated his own improvements against spin.

Despite some forceful drives off Ravindra Jadeja, Head’s repertoire was most evident against the quick bowlers. There were thrashes through the covers, upper cuts and efficient clips whenever India drifted onto his pads.

Head’s poor record in the County Championship — he averaged just 18.3 in six games for Sussex two years ago — arguably says more about the English domestic game than his own qualities. In recent years, the flat, true wickets that are the norm in the Test game have been the perfect showcase for his range of shots and a spirit that sees only run-scoring opportunity in an array of close catchers. Since 2021, Head now averages 58.9 in Test cricket, and all at a strike rate of 82.

For his left-handed pugnacity, penchant for flailing width and capacity to change the whole feel of a five-day game in half an hour — he raced to 27 off his first 18 deliveries — there are distinct shades of Adam Gilchrist in Head. And, as with Gilchrist, the rare chances that are offered tend to be hit ferociously hard: so it was with the lone opportunity that Head offered, on 82, when his cut raced through Ajinkya Rahane’s hands at gully.

For vast swathes of their unbroken alliance of 251 runs, Smith, unusually, was relatively unobtrusive. But after he reached his half-century in 144 balls, Smith became increasingly fluent, light on his feet against Jadeja and with his cover drive in fine fettle too. And so, just like in the only previous World Test Championship final, in 2021, the game now threatens to end in an India defeat; the decisions to bowl first, and to omit Ravichandran Ashwin, are already being keenly debated.

The day ended with Smith caressing a four through the covers, to move to 95; his captain, Pat Cummins, sported a grin in the changing rooms. Australia are well-placed to make good on their twin aims for this week: lifting the World Test Championship — a priority in its own right, with the side furious to miss out on qualifying for the 2021 final -and completing their Ashes preparations.