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Opinion

Head is improving, even if his critics won't admit it

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Expert
27th December, 2019
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Travis Head is the anti-James Vince. While the Englishman flatters to deceive due to his pretty batting style, Head attracts excessive criticism because of the common obsession with technique.

You would have thought Steve Smith’s extraordinary dominance with a curious approach would have reduced the fixation on technique. Yet Head still cops a remarkable amount of flak for a young batsman who has made 1053 runs at 44 in his brief Test career.

As a comparison, after the same number of Tests, Steve Waugh averaged 30, Steve Smith 34, Justin Langer 35, Ricky Ponting 38, Michael Clarke 39, Matthew Hayden 40, and Allan Border 42.

If 25-year-old Head was averaging 44 with a Vince-like technique he would be inundated with praise, widely hailed as one of the future pillars of the Test team.

Vince still has a lot of supporters in the UK, despite averaging just 25 from a similar number of Tests as Head. That must be mainly because he looks the part.

Meanwhile, Head’s detractors harp on about his ugly technique and poor shot selection. They’re not entirely wrong – the South Australian’s shot selection is his biggest weakness.

The aesthetic value of his technique is irrelevant, and the fact he’s made such a fine start to his Test career in spite of his questionable shot selection shows he still has enormous upside.

Among the many shortcomings a batsman can possess, shot selection is one of the easiest to correct. Fixing faults in a batsman’s mechanics is typically a much more complicated task.

With all the focus on Head’s technique and shot selection, what is often overlooked is his grittiness. Head is not a front-runner. He is not a batsman who does most of his best work in favourable circumstances.

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Travis Head.

(Photo by William West/AFP/Getty Images)

Look no further than these past two Tests. In the first innings of both of these matches against New Zealand, Australia were in a vulnerable state when Head arrived at the crease. In Perth, the second new ball had just been taken and was swinging and seaming wildly under lights. Matt Wade had just been bowled by a Tim Southee delivery that moved a mile.

Those final eight overs before stumps represented NZ’s path back into the Test. So often before Australia have collapsed in such conditions, undone by generous lateral movement. Instead, Head made it through to stumps, pushed on to 56 the next day and helped put Australia on the road to a match-winning total of 416.

Then on Boxing Day, the Kiwis again had a sniff when Head arrived in the middle. Australia were 4-216 on a pitch with variable bounce and the second new ball was looming. Just like in Perth, that new ball period shaped as the visitor’s chance to roar back into the contest.

Once more, Head helped blunt the shiny Kookaburra and steer Australia to a strong position at stumps. Then yesterday he overcame an up-and-down pitch to bat NZ out of this Test with a crucial 114. It wasn’t a classical ton – they never will be with Head.

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He is not a stylist like Marnus Labuschagne or Kane Williamson, and he never appears impregnable like Steve Smith or Virat Kohli.

He is more similar to Chris Rogers or Simon Katich – ugly but effective.

Granted, Head is far from the finished article, as we saw in Perth where he twice gifted his wicket with loose shots. But I’m confident his shot selection will improve given Head has already showed he can learn from his mistakes.

Early in his Test career he was regularly caught square of the wicket while slash-cutting at wide deliveries. Yet not once in his past seven Tests has he been dismissed in this fashion. Since last summer, when this issue was prominent, Head has clearly made an effort to address this flaw.

Now, when he cuts, he typically gets his back foot further across the crease so he is closer to the ball, and stands taller at the point of contact so he can hit down on the stroke.

He still scores heavily square of the wicket on the off side but with less risk. That, too, can be improved upon further, but very few 25-year-old Test batsmen do not possess multiple elements of their game that require honing.

If Head can become more judicious in his stroke play then he could grow into an elite Test batsman. His upside is enormous.