Head hunts down victory as India fall prey once again

Virat Kohli is chirping away. He implores the crowd to join him. He waves his hands at them and then asks them to up the noise. Right on cue, the crowd responds. Travis Head hasn’t quite middled anything yet, and Australia are three down. A real contest is brewing.

Head’s methods have been to detonate attacks in the powerplay, irrespective of the nature of the surfaces. Here, there’s all the more reason for him to go hard. Australia are mindful of not ceding control to India by the time their spinners come on.

Six weeks ago, Head sat at home in Adelaide, nursing a broken hand, as he watched Australia’s top order collapse against sustained hostility by a skilled pace attack in Chennai. By the time the spinners came on, Australia were properly under the pump. Anything from there on was merely an effort in damage limitation. Here, in the World Cup final, Head wasn’t going to be dictated by a similar modus operandi.

So what does he do? He decides to be brave and takes on India’s frontman, Mohammed Shami. The man who could do no wrong. Match after match, he’s come on, made the ball talk, coaxed and whispered for it to do his bidding. Shami has already dismissed David Warner and is beginning to bowl with fire.

At the other end, Jasprit Bumrah has sent the crowd into a tizzy, having sucker-punched Steven Smith with a deceptive cutter. At his best, Bumrah is capable of getting into the heads of batters, having them second guess his methods. Here, Bumrah doesn’t hide his plans. He means business. He’s going on all-out attack.

As a batter, the situation can throw you in two minds. You know the target isn’t a very big one. Yet having lost three early, there’s the matter of dealing with Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav very soon. It’s at this point that Head decides he needs to take the game head on. It’s risky, no doubt, but because Head trusts his methods and plays a game without half-measures, it seems like a risk worth taking.

Maybe it’s the confidence of form that is speaking, even though at that moment, he has just scrapped to 10 off 23 balls. It’s just the 10th over, and another wicket can really open the floodgates. But Head seems unperturbed. He coolly dabs a nip-backer from Shami between a wide slip and short third man for four. He plays it really late; he’s allowed the ball to do its thing, in moving back in. The bowler has no inkling of the shot until Head brings his bat down very late. It gets him going. Shami now goes fuller and slower. Head bludgeons it down the ground. Suddenly, he’s up and running.

It’s all that is needed to ignite his innings. It frees him up to go on the attack. And because India are attacking, too, their margins for error have diminished to the point that a half-good hit over the ring is almost guaranteed to give full value. Head, though, isn’t interested in half-baked stuff. He’s going after them.

Kuldeep bears the brunt of this when Head clobbers a slog sweep over deep midwicket to stun the crowd that was bubbling with boisterous energy only a while earlier. Head knows a thing or two about silencing crowds. He did it against India at a packed Oval in June in the WTC final, racing away in the afternoon session against an attack that briefly switched off. By the time India woke up and realised going short into the body was the way to go, he’d ransacked a hundred on the opening day to put India under the pump. He’s doing something similar now, after a slow, somewhat iffy start.

Three nights ago in Kolkata, he took the attack to the South African pacers in a small chase, in a manner eerily similar to this. That night, Australia’s start was fuelled by Warner. Here, Head has made the bold move. You didn’t realise how but by the time India thought they needed a better plan against him, he’d raised a fifty. Marnus Labuschagne recognises this and quietly slips into the background, playing risk-free cricket, milking singles and simply ensuring he’s there long enough to frustrate India.

Head isn’t your definition of pleasing on the eye. At the same time, he isn’t crabby either. Somewhere in between the artist and the industrious lies a method unique to him. One of a hunter, preying on loose deliveries, pouncing at the slightest sniff. It’s what he does to Bumrah immediately when Rohit turns back to his trump card after finding that out spin isn’t going to be as profitable as he expected it to, especially under lights.

Head whips Bumrah through midwicket and follows that up with a wallop down the ground. They are fours in the score book but is a crushing blow to a bowler’s ego. Even for a bowler like Bumrah, these are the sort of blows that can hurt. And because the full balls have been dispatched, Bumrah goes short, in an attempt to tuck him up. Only Head is fully aware by now. He stays upright and hammers the pull.

You look at the scorecard and go wow. Here he was, struggling to middle the ball early on, perhaps a tad edgy. And then at the slightest hint of India erring, he has found his gears and is moments away from a hundred in a World Cup final. It can’t get sweeter, considering he nearly didn’t make it here. Until a night prior to Australia’s squad announcement, he didn’t know if he would be ruled out by that broken hand, sustained in South Africa.

Pat Cummins admitted to having a sleepless night at the prospect of having to see Head miss the bus. But his relief knew no bounds when George Bailey, chief selectors, and Andrew McDonald, the head coach, decided to take a punt.

“He had a broken finger, a broken hand for the half of the tournament, but to keep him in the squad was a huge risk,” Cummins said at the post-match press conference. “And the medical team were fantastic, obviously, to get him into a place where he could perform. So that was a big risk. I think we could have been made to look really silly if that didn’t pay off, but you have got to take those risks to win a tournament.

“And Trav, the player we’ve seen in Test cricket, he just epitomised everything I want out of a cricket team. He takes the game on, he plays with a smile, he just puts the pressure right back onto the opposition and he’s just great fun to be around. So, I couldn’t be happier for Trav.”

When the moment arrives, off a scampered single that he’d given up on, you can’t quite be sure if his hand gestures towards the dressing room means he needs a change of gloves or if it’s a message to someone. What you do know is, as he puts his arms aloft and looks up to his joyous team-mates wildly cheering for him from the dugout, there’s realisation of a job well done.

The hunter had hunted down the nemesis, on the grandest stage. The occasion fitting enough to complete a chapter in a memorable year he’s having. As a batter, you dream of playing and winning one world title in your career. Head has won two, within a span of six months. And both times, he was at the front and centre. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.

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