There was a time – perhaps as recently as earlier this summer – when the sight of Travis Head bustling in the center on a cloudy, bowler-friendly day with Australia 3-12 and watching the surrender might have seen even his staunchest supporters offer a silent prayer.

While Head’s raw talent and ability to turn the tide of matches in a swashbuckling session or two is rarely disputed, his record in decidedly English conditions and against a ball that swings with the propensity of the rose under big clouds is vexed at best.

But in the space of three hours at Blundstone Arena yesterday, the 28-year-old not only single-handedly swung a test hanging by a thread firmly in favor of his team, he announced himself as the guy you want to see surge through the gate when you’ve lost a handful of quick wickets.

Head wobbles with a great ton of ash

The likeable left-hander’s change – from always on the periphery until the point where he was stripped of his contract with Cricket Australia last summer, to an in-between game as destructive as it is indispensable – has arrived like so many success stories in professional sports.

To the casual observer, it may seem that the ultra-attacking South Australian skipper has simply found his feet at Test level more than three years after arriving amid a period of flux in the national team.

For those who work closely with him, including men’s team coach Justin Langer and SA high performance boss (and former Australia coach) Tim Nielsen, Head’s emergence is the end product. of the batter’s obsessive quest for improvement that belies his freewheeling batting style.

For all his bold talent and the leadership honors bestowed upon him at a young age in recognition of his promise, Head’s Test’s career prior to this season was defined by a failure to perform at his best when it was most necessary.

His return from 191 runs to an average of 27.29 (highest score) in the four Ashes Tests he contested in the UK in 2019 before losing his place raised concerns about his ability to counter the ball in motion, especially with England’s rapids making it lbw or cannonball. in six of those eight shots.

And even in Australia, his returns against the pink ball hinted at a similar shortcoming given that he had averaged just 30 in 11 previous day-night innings in Test and Marsh Sheffield Shield games with a best effort of 84 against the Sri Lanka at the Gabba almost three years ago.

Add to that his return from a hit-and-run stint with Sussex in the UK County Championship last year – 183 runs from 11 rounds at an average of 18.30 without a half-century – and understandably some have questioned his recall to Test XI for the Vodafone Ashes series opener in Brisbane.

He answered those questions with the innings of the summer to date, a daring 152 out of 148 balls that included a historic one-session hundred, followed by an invaluable 51 (out of 54 balls) that helped win. of Australia in the second test in Adelaide. .

It therefore seemed absurd that his return for the final test, having been sent off from the Sydney game last week after returning a positive COVID-19 result in Melbourne, was debated even taking into account the exploits produced by his replacement, Usman Khawaja.

And as Head revealed following his game-changing 101 yesterday, in which he joined Marnus Labuschagne and Cameron Green to take Australia from 3-12 to 5-204 in less than 40 overs of relentless counter-blows, his metamorphosis is as much mental as technical.

Head, Green regains momentum after an initial scare

“I definitely came into the show more relaxed,” he said last night, noting the strong endorsement he received from Langer and new skipper Pat Cummins.

“The fact that Pat and JL (Langer) were pretty supportive of me through the period and asked me to come out and play the way I see the game…I was able to come out and express myself in that way.

“I also feel like I’ve had good Shield seasons to know that my game is in good shape and I have a fair plan on the cricket test and with a good crack over a period of time. “

A “fair plan” is a typical understatement, given that halfway through his 23rd test he is posting an average (44.17) only slightly lower than Steve Smith’s (46.03), as well as more than races (1502) and more centuries (4) than both Mark and Steve Waugh at the same point in their respective careers.

The technical changes Head made to his game following his withdrawal from the Test squad amid last summer’s ultimately failed campaign against India have been previously recounted.

However, what was less well known until he detailed it last night were the steps he implemented in response to Langer’s observation last summer that he might consider “becoming a better net player”.

When this was originally brought up, Head’s rationale was that he was using practice sessions to work on the technical aspects of his stick that he is known to obsess over while paying little attention to the number of times, or even the way he lost his wicket while doing so. .

The tightening up of his training regime began after he was dropped from the Test setup last summer, and has proven key for him averaging nearly 60 in Shield cricket since then and now a return from the ashes of the series (with one inning to go) from 349 tracks to nearly 70.

“It’s been something for a few years now, having discussions with JL and Tim Nielsen at SACA,” Head said of his mission to fulfill Langer’s expectations of becoming a better nets player.

“There’s been a tendency over my career that I haven’t been the best clean hitter, and I’ve put that down to it in the past, I’ve been tough on my technique and I’ve been thinking to what I’m doing at training.

“I do a lot of drills, a lot of work with the ball machine, a lot of strong stuff on the right side and I move into good positions and I felt like I didn’t take the time to do my technical stuff. and then also hit the net like I should hit in training.

“I was just mixing the two together.

“Then if you try to work on technique when you’re up against Starcy (Mitchell Starc) and Hof (Josh Hazlewood) and so on in the net, you’ll never get the results you want.

“I had to really get my technical side across in practice and against the bowlers to make sure I was ready for the game.

“There are times when you have to do both and I think I managed to find that balance.

“I did this technical stuff in Sydney for three days (after joining the isolation team in Melbourne), I had two days off, then the last two days (in Hobart) I faced bowlers around the style of play and I was hard to get out.

“So I tried to hit like I would for my first 20 balls, and I think that was a real change in the way I trained.”

Vodafone Men’s Ashes

Teams

Australia: Pat Cummins (c), Steve Smith (vc), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc , Mitchell Swepson, David Warner

England: Joe Root (c), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Sam Billings, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes , Chris Woakes, Mark Wood

Program

First test: Australia won by nine wickets

Second trial : Australia won by 275 points

Third try: Australia won by one end and 14 runs

Fourth try: Draw

Fifth try: January 14-18, Blundstone Arena