As a school teacher, I would write the following summation on the batting section of Alex Carey’s report card at the completion of his first semester in Test cricket, which was the recent Ashes series.
While Travis Head is confident he’s ‘in a great space’ ahead of his return to the Test team for the first Ashes Test, the Australian number five batter has admitted that the heat of cricket’s oldest rivalry means he has precious little time to find his feet at the highest level.
Speaking to media on Monday afternoon, the South Australia, who pipped Usman Khawaja for one of the final spots in the XI, also discussed the technical change’s he’s made to his game since being dropped from the team midway through last summer’s Tests against India, combatting England quick Stuart’s Broad’s stranglehold over left-handers, and his excitement at playing with close friend, fellow Redback and debutant Alex Carey.
Here is everything Head said at the Gabba.
On getting the nod for the first Test
While there has been plenty of speculation over the Head versus Khawaja battle for the number five spot throughout the summer, the 27-year old has praised the selectors for their clarity throughout the process – even after a planned intra-squad practice match had to be scrapped due to the Brisbane rain.
“They’ve been really clear,” Head said of the selectors’ decision.
“When we got into Brisbane, [the selectors] gave it a few days. I think without the internal game, it would have been clear when we had played that one, was the feedback.
“It was nice that even though we didn’t play that, they were pretty clear with everyone.”
Head has also paid tribute to Khawaja, whose selfless decision to enforce the follow-on in Queensland’s final Sheffield Shield clash with SA allowed the Redback to score the hundred that sealed his spot for the Ashes.
“It’s disappointing for ‘Uz’… obviously we’ve played a lot of cricket together, we get along really well, so it’s obviously hard,” Head said.
“We’re both in the same position, we both would have loved to play, so it’s nice that it’s fallen my way.
“We’ll support ‘Uz’, and there may be a role for him to play throughout this series. He’s got to be ready, he’s in good form, training hard.”
Head said the added pressure of knowing others, including Khawaja and in-form Victorian Nic Maddinson, were also gunning for the number five spot benefitted him throughout the start of the domestic summer. Alongside a whirlwind 230 in a Marsh Cup match against Queensland, he has scored 394 runs at an average of 49.25 in the Sheffield Shield, including two centuries.
“I think that’s the beauty of Australian cricket… there were six or seven guys’ names in the mix, and you were one innings away from being in or one innings away from being out,” Head admitted.
“I don’t think that’s any different in Test cricket, for any guy, I think you go in there each game to try and compete, trying to score runs, you try and contribute to wins for Australia, that’s what we’re all here to do.
“The top six batters, that’s what our role is. If we’re not doing that, then that comes with pressure with everything. I feel like I’m in good form, but there’s always pressure.”
Head also opened up on his delight at returning to the Test squad to add to his 19 caps, and reuniting with plenty of old friends along the way.
“Coming into this group, we’ve played so much cricket together; it’s great to be back,” he said.
“We haven’t played a lot in the last little period.
“That 2019 series was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing cricket. I think just we’re all relaxed being around the environment, being around familiar faces, around the same sort of banter and the enjoyment that we have as a group.
“I’m just really enjoying the camp so far, and [want to] take that enjoyment and the way we play as a group into the next two months.”
On remodelling his game
Despite a more than respectable Test average of 39.75, Head’s penchant for looseness, and for throwing away starts, has prevented him from ever locking away his spot in the Test team. He has converted just two of nine half-centuries into three figure scores; by comparison, the great Steve Smith has done it 27 times from 58.
Head admitted his consistency at the highest level has been a concern, and one he has tried to address in his time out of the Test team.
“Runs is the currency, but there’s been a few things technically that hadn’t really changed over two or three seasons for me,” he said.
“It’s just about making sure that I’m really consistent in that. You’re always going to go in and out of form, but trying to find ways of being as consistent as possible, that was the feedback.
“I get my opportunity in a couple days’ time to hopefully contribute to a win. I feel like I’m in a good space, the last couple of years have been really solid in Shield cricket.
“It’s now being able to learn from that, and take those learnings into Test cricket.”
Having been occasionally troubled by short-pitched bowling in the past, Head also opened up on a slight technical tweak he has developed to attempt to solve the problem.
“With a range of coaches, it [the fix] was just a little bit to do with my backlift, to give me a bit more room to move on the leg side,” he said.
“I’ve had series where they target my armpit, that leg-side field… getting caught out.
“We’re talking tiny bits- not that I worked on it, it was more just to pick up where I’ve been from, what had changed with my pre-movements. Sometimes it’s just looking at a bit of footage and getting back to parts of my career where I’ve moved really well.
“It was a minor adjustment: if I’ve made it or not, who knows, but I’ve got some nice runs with it.”
On the Ashes challenge
Having been a part of Australia’s defence of the urn in the drama-filled 2019 series in England, Head is no stranger to the heat of the game’s oldest rivalry.
He said the experience of having an Ashes series under his belt already has held him in good stead in the lead-in to the 2021-22 series, his first Ashes on home soil.
“Having played an Ashes series, I know how big the atmosphere is, the build-up. I’ve definitely come into this camp a lot more relaxed,” Head said.
“I feel like I’m ready to go. It’s about enjoying what comes now, it’s great that it’s around the corner, and once we get started it’s going to be even better.”
While the 2019 series was characterised by the dominance of bowling over batting, with only Smith and England star Ben Stokes able to score runs with any consistency, Head expects Australian conditions to allow the batters more of an influence.
“Traditionally in Australia scores go up,” Head said.
“It’s about being able to put the two world-class bowling attacks under pressure, and I think that’s what 2019 was. It was high quality bowling that put a lot of batters under pressure from both teams, and who could come out on top. And we were able to do that.
“It doesn’t change in this series, it’s now making sure we put two really, really good bowling attacks under pressure, they’ll be trying to do the same for us.
“As a batting group, knowing the conditions really well here is about when we get in, and get an opportunity to get really big scores.”
On Perth trying to steal the second Test from Adelaide
With the fifth Ashes Test in Perth hanging by a thread due to the Western Australian government’s hard-line border closure stance, they have made a bid to poach the second Test from Adelaide, where it is scheduled to be played in the traditional day-night timeslot.
Under WA rules, Queensland’s lack of COVID cases will allow players to travel directly from Brisbane to Perth after the first Test without having to quarantine, which they would need to do after the fourth Test in Sydney. Perth’s Sport and Recreation Minister Tony Buti has told The West Australian that the switch is a ‘no-brainer’.
However, South Australian Head wasn’t having a bar of it, describing the Adelaide Test as ‘one of the best Test matches on the calendar’.
“I’m looking forward to getting in front of my home crowd, so that’s being biased,” Head quipped when asked for his opinion on the WA proposal. However, he was also quick to make it clear it’s not his fight.
“What will be will be, I think backing the powers that be to make the right decisions,” he said.
“At this stage, as a South Australian I’m looking forward to that [the Adelaide Test]. I think the spectacle – full house, Adelaide Oval – is fantastic. We haven’t really spoken about it at all, we’ll let CA determine where that’s going to be.”
On ‘best mate’ Alex Carey’s debut
No one in the Australian team is more excited about Alex Carey’s debut as wicketkeeper at the Gabba than close friend and fellow South Australian Head. The pair have formed a close bond as teammates across all formats, including as captain and vice-captain in the Adelaide Strikers’ BBL07 triumph.
Head said Carey’s international experience – he’s entrenched as keeper in the ODI side and has featured regularly in T20Is in recent years – is the perfect foundation for a fruitful Test career.
“He’s played a lot of international cricket, he’s going to come into this environment knowing what to expect from one-day cricket and T20 cricket,” Head said.
“Obviously Test cricket is a lot different, but I think he’s worked extremely hard over the last six or seven days; he’s come off a beautiful hundred not long ago.
“I think he knows what the expectations are. It’s going to be nice to go out and bat with him.”
Carey’s story is one of the most fascinating in Australian cricket; a star junior footballer, he captained GWS’ TAC Cup side before their entry into the AFL before being brutally cut by then-coach Kevin Sheedy before their inaugural squad was named in 2012, leading to his return to cricket.
Head, who has followed the tale closer than most, knows extending their friendship to Test cricket will be ‘an awesome experience’.
“It’s great to have seen his journey. We live around the corner from each other, we’re best mates, so I can’t wait for it,” Head said.
“I can’t wait for him to nail it. He’s in a great space, he’s worked extremely hard. There’s been a lot of talk about his form running into this series, but with a hundred in that last game in the one-dayers just showed the form he’s in.
“Now he knows he’s in, he can relax, go out and play the way Alex just does. I think he can take a lot of games away from teams over what’s hopefully a long Test career.”
On Pat Cummins as Test captain
Head doesn’t have a bad word to say about Australia’s new Test skipper, saying Cummins is ‘ready to go’ ahead of the first challenge of his time at the helm.
“I think he’s going to be a really consistent leader for us – what you see in his performance is what he is like as a leader,” he said of the star fast bowler.
“He communicates really well, builds really good relationships.”
Cummins is expected to rely on other senior figures in the team more than any other captain in Australian history, to enable him to better manage his bowling workload. As South Australia’s captain, Head says he’ll be more than happy to offer whatever guidance he can to the new captain, but says he’ll likely leave the bulk of the work to others more entrenched in the team.
“He’ll lean on some of the guys throughout the series,” Head said.
“Primarily I’m going to be there to make as many runs as I possibly can, but if I can lend a hand in any way, then that’s great.
“Obviously he’s got Steve [Smith], who’s tactically unbelievable and reads the game really well. When Pat’s bowling, he’ll be able to go to him as much as he needs.
“I’m worrying about batting at this stage.”
On facing the England attack
It’s been over two years since Stuart Broad’s famous takedown of David Warner in the 2019 Ashes, with the veteran Englishman’s dominant series against Australia’s left-handers yielding 23 wickets, and consigning the dynamic opener to one of the worst ever series by a batter.
However, with so much time to devise a solution, Head, another left-hander, is confident his fellow southpaws will be able to curb Broad’s influence this time around.
“I think everyone’s gone away and worked on it, I definitely worked on a little bit of that round the wicket stuff,” Head said.
“Knowing what we’re going to come up against in this series, over the last couple of weeks [I’ve] done the same thing and started preparing for that.
“Each guy would have done that… each guy bats and goes about it in a different way, so each guy will combat that the best way they possibly can. We’ve had that experience, and we’re looking forward to that challenge again.”
Another potential threat on the horizon is new England quick Ollie Robinson, touted by many pundits as the visitors’ Ashes ace in the hole. Head, who has played alongside Robinson at English country side Sussex, admitted his teammate turned foe is ‘a great competitor’.
“He plays aggressive, bowls aggressive, and that’s what we’re expecting from him,” Head said of Robinson.
“I think he’ll suit the conditions really well in Australia, so we’ve got to make sure we’re 100 per cent on our game to combat that.
“Like I said, we as a batting group, for all our bowlers, we’re making sure we can bat long periods of time and put them under pressure. That’s no different for Ollie.”