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Composed Head upstages impatient teammates

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4 days ago
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Travis Head yesterday showed up his senior batting colleagues by playing the kind of patient, grinding innings demanded by the slow Adelaide pitch in the first Test against India.

The low totals in this Test so far are deceptive, giving the impression the pitch is very tough for batting when in fact it is not offering major support to the bowlers.

There has not been disconcerting seam movement or extravagant turn; the only aspect of the conditions which has tested the batsmen has been the way the ball has held up off the pitch.

Batsmen prepared to take the time to come to terms with the sluggish pace of the deck have found batting then becomes drastically easier.

But in this era of cricket most batsmen like to dictate terms, playing big shots from the start of their innings. So it is no surprise both batting line-ups have faltered, with many wickets the result of impatience.

The Australian batsmen had no excuses yesterday – Indian first drop Cheteshwar Pujara had handed them the blueprint to taming this pitch with his resolute century on Day 1.

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The remainder of India’s top six had perished attempting to force the pace. Yet that is just what new opener Aaron Finch tried to do in the first over of the Australian innings.

Indian pacemen Ishant Sharma is renowned for his sharp in-swing, but Finch ignored that threat and tried to hammer him through cover from his third ball.

Predictably this premature aggression backfired. Two of Finch’s stumps were removed from the ground after his attempt at an extravagant drive missed the middle of his bat and instead found the inside edge.

An inside edge later also accounted for Australia’s oldest batsman, Shaun Marsh, who was sucked into aiming a powerful drive at a wide tempter from off spinner Ravi Ashwin.

It is clear why such deliveries are called sucker balls.

Had Marcus Harris been coaxed into thrashing at such a delivery, it would have been more understandable given his inexperience. But the reason selectors invest in veterans like Marsh is that they believe, or at least hope, they can avoid making themselves suckers.

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Marsh, though, has a history of lurching into such traps. He and Finch have been described by the Australian team management as adding crucial steel and experience to an otherwise green batting line-up.

Yet there was considerably more gumption displayed yesterday by the much younger Head, Harris and Peter Handscomb. In his debut Test innings Harris showed some encouraging signs by resisting the urge to flash at the persistently wide offerings of the Indian quicks.

But apart from two times he successfully came down the wicket, Harris was too defensive-minded against Ashwin. He was so focused on keeping out the Indian spinner that he did not capitalise on several over-pitched deliveries.

That included the half volley from which he was dismissed. Harris easily could have reached forward and driven that Ashwin delivery straight down the ground. Instead he played a tentative defensive prod and gave a catch to silly mid-off.

That was one of three wasted starts for Australia, with Usman Khawaja (28) and Peter Handscomb (34) also failing to kick on.

Australian batsman Usman Khawaja.

(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

Khawaja and Tim Paine were the only Australians yesterday to be undone by genuinely good deliveries, with Khawaja defeated by a lovely piece of flight by Ashwin and Paine caught behind from a beautiful Ishant leg cutter.

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Handscomb, meanwhile, grafted his way to 34 in fine fashion, using his feet well against Ashwin and playing the ball late and under his eyes against the Indian seamers.

Having batted for more than two hours, Handscomb looked rooted to the crease until he tried to glide the ball to third man, an ODI-style shot, and feathered the ball to the keeper. While that was a loose stroke, it was the result of some disciplined bowling.

The Indian quicks were very straight to Handscomb, denying him the room upon which he thrives. Then Bumrah finally threw out a wider delivery and Handscomb succumbed.

The only home batsman who managed to retain his composure was Head who, ironically, many Australian fans and pundits consider to have an awful temperament. The prevailing opinion on Head prior to his Test debut was that he was too impetuous in attitude and too loose in technique.

Yet just five innings into his Test career he has already played two mature, composed innings of great value in challenging circumstances.

First he ground his way to 72 from 175 balls on debut in Dubai, helping Australia bat to a rousing draw. Then yesterday he single-handedly kept Australia in this Test by eking out an unbeaten 61 from 149 balls.

Neither of those innings was the type most cricket fans expected of Head when he entered Test cricket. He was, according to popular perception, a man for a flashy 30 or 40 when the going was easy but who would subside under pressure.

Not so, it seems. While it’s far too early to be making any firm judgments on Head the Test batsman, there is a lot to like so far.

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Travis Head bats

(AP Photo/James Elsby)

More than any other batsman yesterday, the 24-year-old put into practice the teachings of Pujara. From his first 70 balls Head made just 22 runs.

He refused to chase the wide stuff from the Indian quicks and, against Ashwin, he either stretched far forward or got deep in his crease. Head all but shelved the cross bat shots until he was set, despite the cut being his most prolific stroke across all formats.

Then, once he had spent close to 90 minutes at the crease and adjusted to the idiosyncrasies of the surface, he expanded his game, just as Pujara had done on Day 1. A series of sweetly timed cuts and off drives followed as Head began to exert some pressure on an Indian attack which had bossed the day.

The South Australian this morning will walk out to the middle with outside chances of not only making his first Test ton but also of putting Australia back on level terms with the world’s number one ranked Test team.