The method behind Head’s madness and the gameplan to stop him

Head smashed the fourth fastest IPL hundred. (Source: X)

The year was 2022 and England were on the verge of completing another disastrous Ashes campaign Down Under. But there was a small window for the visitors to end their barren run in Australia. The final Test of that series was played on a green seamer in Hobart, and England had the hosts  reeling at 12 for 3. 

What transpired next was something that England wouldn’t exactly have envisaged. Travis Head essayed a game-breaking hundred to steal the match away from England’s grasp. Although Head had already accrued a hundred in that series, this was the knock which proved to be the framework for his sparkling efforts in the years to come. Let’s unearth more details from that knock to understand why it was a game-changing moment for the South Australian cricketer. 

It was somewhere in the 16th over when Head decided to play an array of shots. He was helped by the fact that Chris Woakes bowled some juicy half-volleys. The left-hand batter pounced on any kind of width on offer or deliveries that were straying down the leg-side. Head backed his strengths and harvested the rewards that came his way. That knock would have also immeasurably boosted his confidence as the track assisted the pace bowlers right through the match. Meanwhile, the bewildered England bowlers were at a loss. 

Even though England went on to suffer another humiliating defeat, they seemed to have opened up a small fissure in Head’s game in the second innings. He was caught down the leg side while facing a pacy short ball from Mark Wood. By then, the word going around in cricketing circles was that Head had a chink while facing the short ball. A point to note here was that Wood ushered in the short ball from the over-the-wicket angle. 

India were the next side to be at the receiving end of Head’s aggressive mindset, as he compiled a quintessential back-to-the-wall hundred in the World Test Championship final in 2023. Every single time the Indian pacers offered width, he took advantage of it. And he was equally adept at essaying shots of his pads. 

The hypothesis drawn from that innings was that India didn’t try enough short deliveries at Head during the initial phase of his innings. To an extent, it was a valid point as Head looked unsettled when the likes of Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj used the short-ball strategy. Eventually, the plan worked too. 

In the subsequent Ashes series, Head initially showed that he has the required nuts and bolts to negate the short-ball threat. In the second innings of the Leeds Test, Head was up against his old nemesis, Wood, but this time around he had a blueprint in mind. Whenever Wood banged it short, Head cleared his front leg and heaved it across the line. It was jaw-dropping skill on display from Head. Yes, there was some premeditation involved in his strategy but to smack one of the fastest bowlers going around in that fashion required bountiful skills.

It was now time for the hosts to debunk the old plan and draft a new one. And to their credit, they discovered one, which also proved to be more successful. For a few minutes, just pause and zoom in on Head’s initial trigger and you would spot that his back foot hardly moves across towards the off stump. He depends more on hand-eye co-ordination to play a volley of shots. So, the round-the-wicket angle and cramping Head for room would be one of the strategies availed against him. 

In the fourth Test at Old Trafford, the same Wood shifted to a round-the-wicket angle and dismissed him with a brute of a short delivery that was angled in. The direction of the bouncer was perfect, and more importantly England had found an answer to the Head-batting puzzle. Stuart Broad, Wood’s teammate, also employed the same angle to pick up Head’s wicket at The Oval.

Even though Broad’s length was fuller, it was quite evident that a different angle troubled Head. In Test cricket, the moving ball also comes into play. So, the pace bowler can test Head in the one-square foot window outside the off-stump a little more.

So, has Head chiseled out a route against that angle? Yes, he has, and that too on the biggest stage – the World Cup final in 2023. The first 10 overs of Australia’s innings in that summit clash were action-packed – runs, wickets and the batters getting beaten mainly on the outside edge. So, what went wrong for India during that phase? After all, both Shami and Jasprit Bumrah did whistle past Head’s edge from round the wicket. A couple of times, Head also found himself in a tangle via the inside-half of the bat.

Perhaps Shami tried too hard with a new ball in hand and couldn’t always get his line right. Maybe, just maybe Bumrah and Shami could have zeroed in more on beating the inside edge. To his credit, Shami did tweak his line and preyed on the stumps no less than four times in the sixth over and almost got his man. Just that Shami’s tendency to pound the pitch just short of a length might have acted as a hurdle for him to prise out his opponent LBW. 

India also hardly engaged Head in a short-ball duel. In the bowlers’ defence, the track was on the slower side. Simply put, barring a few minor pointers, that was Head’s day. He was mentally tough, and for the umpteenth time, took a severe toll on any loose delivery bowled in his hitting zone. 

Since that World Cup, New Zealand, Pakistan and the West Indies have largely executed their plans while bowling to Head. The inexperienced Aamer Jamal was the one who consistently charted out a way against Head, dislodging him twice from round the wicket. The manner in which he removed Head LBW in the Sydney Test turns out to be the best illustration of Jamal’s wicket-taking sense. The ball was pitched on an in-between length and he nipped it back into Head to trap him in front. 

In the ongoing IPL, however, most of the pace bowlers seem to have bowled from round the wicket as an afterthought. Only after Mumbai Indians were smashed around the park did Gerald Coetzee decided to try that angle. It was more of Plan B, where the bowler would tempt Head to back his strengths, with fielders at third man/deep-backward point and deep cover in place. 

Head did succumb to that trap, but by then, he had put Sunrisers Hyderabad on course for a gargantuan total. Incidentally, Coetzee could have also picked up the prized scalp of Head with the same tactic in the 50-over World Cup semifinal. On that occasion, Coetzee had banged it short and intentionally provided Head a bit of width, but Reeza Hendricks at deep cover fluffed a tricky chance. This particular plan can also be tried from over the wicket.

Returning to the IPL, Head has continued to explore every nook and corner of the ground, exemplified by his blistering hundred against Royal Challengers Bengaluru. Ultimately, from round the wicket, Lockie Fergsuon outsmarted Head with the knuckle ball. The crux of that wicket once more came down to the bowler not giving him room when he cleared the front leg to slog across the line.

Head has loads of belief in his ability. So, from time to time, he is set to make the bowlers pay. More so if you bowl to his strengths. There are certain batters who could earn 8 out of 10 marks in relation to utilising his or her strengths. Hypothetically, Head would be 10/10 or even 11/10 in that regard.