"I said Hobart, but what is the availability of Travis Head?"
Not much could sum up Travis Head's contribution to Adelaide Strikers' last-ball win over Melbourne Renegades, or his potential influence over the Big Bash League final against Hobart Hurricanes on Sunday, than the vanquished Cameron White's blunt question in response to his opinion about who would win the tournament decider.
So far in his international career, Head has promised more than delivered, but at Adelaide Oval for the Strikers he bats with the confidence of a man who has won games on his own before, and leads with the maturity of a captain far more seasoned than his 24 years. To a degree, Head's standing as a BBL batsman and captain was underlined by the reaction to the national team decision that released him to play in this match. But it was embossed on the story of this tournament by the way the second semi-final played out.
In the hours before the game, the selector Mark Waugh had remarked on radio that "you only need one or two players to come off to win in T20", but Head's dominance of this contest was complete. Coming to the crease in the second over of the Strikers' innings, he batted through the remainder for a punchy 85 from 57 balls, bowled four overs for 27 and the critical wicket of Marcus Harris, and marshalled his men in the field with a level of calmness that he maintained even when a nervy Jake Lehmann spilled one straightforward chance and then overran another.
If Hobart played the perfect game to beat Perth Scorchers, Head put together a complete captain's performance, lacking only a St Crispin's Day speech before the balls, rather than arrows, began to fly.
One of the first leadership decisions Head had to make upon returning from the Australia team camp in Sydney was where to bat. The Strikers had lost opener/wicketkeeper Alex Carey to Australia duty and had little success with Jono Dean in the final qualifying game in Perth. But in the knowledge that Tom Cooper commonly tries to sneak the first over in for the Renegades, Head stuck with the right-handed Dean, and was rewarded with a 13-run opening over that meant the scoreboard was ticking and the Adelaide Oval crowd humming when he walked to the crease.
Adelaide's typical plan has been to keep wickets in hand early rather than batting with complete shotmaking abandon, the better for Head and others to capitalise later. So it was that he and Jake Weatherald measured their progress with a combination of placement, hustle between the wickets and the occasional boundary, before accelerating from 68 after nine with 47 from the next four overs. Alongside another left-hander, Head then caused White's Renegades to second-guess their own selection, opting not to use the left-arm spin of Jon Holland for even a single over out of fear that the short square boundaries might be peppered. In this, Head's reputation actually outstripped his performance: Holland possesses a handsome record against him, Weatherald and Lehmann in the Sheffield Shield, despite their left-handedness.
"Travis is an amazing player but he's also an amazing captain, he's really matured in that this year, which has been awesome" Ben Laughlin
Either way, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard excelled at taking pace off the ball in the closing overs, frustrating Head in his efforts to clear the boundary despite having wickets in hand. In the final over he resorted to sprinting twos with Michael Neser at the other end, doing so four times and reacting to his first six, from the 55th ball he had faced, with more exasperation than accomplishment.
"Duck [Holland] has bowled extremely well against us in the past, but that's for Whitey," Head said. "He manipulated his bowlers really well and on that wicket it was difficult with pace off and the ball spinning away. I think we probably missed a few runs, I was disappointed with the way I finished my innings. I accelerated through the middle and slowed up at the back end. I was disappointed not to get a couple over the fence and push that score for another 10 or 15 runs."
The missing runs were keenly felt in the early overs of the Renegades' pursuit, as Harris glided into his innings with the level of stroke-playing class he has intermittently shown throughout his career, and made the target of 179 for victory look decidedly inadequate in the company of a similarly free-hitting Tim Ludeman after White's early exit.
At 1 for 80 after eight overs, the Renegades looked to be galloping to a home final in Melbourne, even if they still had to contend with Head's trump - the wrist spin of Rashid Khan. Though the anxiety of 36,310 spectators was as vivid as the Adelaide sunset, Head remained calm, brought himself back on to deprive Harris of pace on the ball and hoped for a mental error of the kind that has kept the former West Australian from higher honours. He obliged.
"I just tried to stay relaxed and think of a way we could get a wicket," Head said. "Tonight it was able to break open with Marcus batting so well, so it was just about taking pace off as much as possible. That's why I bowled Colin [Ingram] late as well and save Rashid, because with pace on the ball the wicket was quite good, and pace off was effective. They showed that with the way they bowled, Bravo and Pollard were quite hard to hit, to go with their spinner, so it was just being calm and working out the wicket and the best way to go about it."
Having got that first wicket, Head departed from Strikers custom and gave Rashid a third over in a row, a move rewarded when Ludeman, he of the "Muffin Man" impression, offered Lehmann a catch at long-on. It was a decision that forced a Renegades reset with two new batsmen at the crease, sapping the run rate and buying Head more time to squeeze his opponents as Bravo and Pollard thought their own way through how to chase down the remaining runs.
"I just wanted to give him the best opportunity we needed to take wickets, he's a wicket-taker and he's proven that in the whole Big Bash," Head said of Rashid, who will not be available for the final due to Afghanistan duty. "We brought a slip back in outside the Powerplay to put some pressure on, try to get a wicket because I thought we needed to try to take seven or eight wickets. We got four in the end, but were able to bowl extremely well in the death to close the game out.
"He [Rashid] is seriously good. I don't think the public knew how good he was, he's someone who can bowl the first over or the 20th, I can use him whenever I want, however I want. He told me he can close innings out, we didn't use him quite as late as that, but he can bowl one to 20, unbelievable skill to do that at such high quality. Credit to him, he's been fantastic."
Due to the aforementioned pace off the ball and perhaps the pressure of the occasion, neither Bravo nor Pollard could swing for the fences as consistently as they would have preferred, leaving the required rate above six an over and allowing the Strikers to close in. However the nerves were evident on both sides, as Lehmann made a hash of two skied chances either side of an excellent albeit more instinctive grab by Dean at gully to remove Bravo. Head's ability to say the right thing at the right time was evident in his quiet word to a clearly anxious Lehmann, who was to respond by ground fielding dependably in the closing overs when even one misfield might have granted the Renegades the two extra runs they would end up needing.
"I had a couple words to him as he ran past here and there," Head said, "just about staying relaxed and calm, because the ball was going to come again. He's in an area where the ball goes quite a lot, his catching has been unbelievable all BBL, I think tonight's the first one that's gone down. So those happen, dropped catches are part of the game, I was just making sure that he stayed calm and relaxed."
When the final two overs arrived with 20 runs required and Pollard well set alongside Cooper, Head placed his faith in Neser, who had been expensive on the night but serviceable throughout the tournament as a Powerplay and death bowler, and his wisecracking closer Ben Laughlin. These two worked in a disciplined tandem, Neser denying the Renegades the big over that would have sewn up the contest and allowing Laughlin the chance to close it out, which he did with the help of a fortuitous last ball swing and miss by Pollard, after the bowler missed his hoped-for yorker. Looking back on the night, Laughlin said Head's presence had been to the Strikers' great advantage, between the ears as much as on the pitch.
"It was a big psychological boost for us," Laughlin said. "Travis is an amazing player but he's also an amazing captain, he's really matured in that this year, which has been awesome. Personally I love having him out there and we work really well together to figure stuff out, which is cool, and a serious player, so whenever they're available you take them."
Match-winner was the term Head used when making his own summing-up remarks, with the satisfaction of ensuring that, whether or not he does play on Sunday, the rest of his club get the best chance. "I came here tonight wanting to get the guys into a final," he said. "We asked for match-winners, I was able to do that tonight, which I'm really pleased to be able to contribute to a win, and hopefully we get the job done on Sunday."
And that brings us back to White, who spoke for common sense ahead of the showpiece match of the tournament, given that after Saturday's first T20I there are another four days before Australia's second match of the triangular series in Hobart. "There's a good chance he'll be playing I reckon - for a final, they'll release him," White said. "I'd say if he can't play, Hobart are clear favourites, but if he can I'm still saying Hobart but it's like going into tonight's game, you gear up without Travis Head playing who's an Australian player, he comes back in and it automatically makes them a better side."