Travis Head knew well before the opening day in Brisbane that he had earned the nod for Australia's final batting position, but No. 5 remained the most debatable spot in the XI. That was until today when Head produced the innings of his Test career to halt an England fightback in a thrilling final-session counterattack.
England's attack was on its knees late in the day, two of the bowlers were limping and the ball was old. But this was a brutal momentum-seizing innings of which Adam Gilchrist would have been proud. When Head on-drove Chris Woakes in the first over with the second new ball he brought up his third Test hundred from 85 balls with all the runs coming the final session. It was the third-fastest Ashes century after Gilchrist's 57-ball onslaught at the WACA in 2006-07 and Gilbert Jessop's 76 balls in 1902.
"It's still a pinch-myself sort of thing, still can't quite work out what transpired over the last couple of hours," Head said. "It's an amazing feeling to get a Test hundred. Think I said to Starcy [Mitchell Starc] as it happened, I couldn't believe what was going on. I rode my luck in parts but was able to put Australia in a great position and very privileged to be able to do that."
There was a lot in favour of Usman Khawaja's credentials for this place in the line-up, but Australia's selectors have always felt there is plenty of growth to come from Head. Before this display his record was far-from shabby with two hundreds, including a Boxing Day century against New Zealand, but there hadn't quite been the defining innings.
His first incarnation as a Test cricketer was briefly interrupted when he was left out of the final match against England in 2019 when Mitchell Marsh was preferred to balance the side. He was back for the following summer against New Zealand and Pakistan, but last season against India was dropped after two Tests. He was in the squad again for the postponed tour of South Africa thanks to prolific returns for South Australia.
A disappointing season for Sussex was a speed bump, but he was consistent in the Sheffield Shield this summer including a century in the game before the squad assembled in Queensland. There was a sense, however, that he needed to make the most of this opportunity.
While England ended the day looking broken, that was not the case when Head walked to crease. Steven Smith had fallen in a superb spell from Mark Wood. Head hadn't faced a ball when they walked off for tea, and a few moments after the break he watched David Warner drive to mid-off and Cameron Green shoulder arms at his first ball. At 195 for 5 England had a chance of keeping the lead to manageable proportions, but in the space of two hours they were left in the sort of bedraggled state of many of their predecessors.
Head flashed and missed at his second ball after tea, a 146kph/91mph flyer from Wood, and his first boundary was a squared-up thick edge that evaded the fifth slip of England's packed cordon. Three balls later he wasn't far from guiding one off the face to the catchers. But Joe Root couldn't keep using Wood, Woakes and Ollie Robinson all the time and turned back to a clearly struggling Ben Stokes in the 62nd over. Two half-trackers and a ball on the pads and Head was away.
Still, when the last recognised batter - Alex Carey - fell, he was only on 29. In the next over he took a painful blow on the arm from Wood which for a moment looked like causing significant discomfort but he shook it off swiftly. A full toss from Wood was driven through cover to bring up a fifty off 51 balls - his next half-century took just 34 deliveries.
"I got opportunities to score and I was able to take them today and put pressure back on bowlers," he said. "I took some chances along the way especially into the new ball but with my technique and mentally I feel really composed. To be able to be in that moment is a great feeling. I found the first 20 runs really, really tough. The game opened up and I was able to take opportunity… I put myself in that position which was pleasing."
Like the batters before him he plundered Jack Leach, aided by four overthrows as England became increasingly ragged and forlorn. In many ways it was the type of innings that first made his name when he emerged into Australia's limited-overs set-up in 2016. Sometimes in the early stages of his Test career his eagerness to play shots has proved his downfall; it may now have been the making of him.
He looked keen to reach the milestone before the new ball, but no matter. After leaving the first delivery from Woakes he met the next with a straight bat and sent it rocketing down the ground. The helmet came off, the arms held aloft, team-mates and the crowd were on their feet. There was a scary moment to follow when he was felled by a beamer from Wood, but the glove had taken enough of the sting from the delivery that it ended up being a glancing blow to the chin. He was back on his feet having floored England.