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When Travis Head stopped worrying about his career and turned a corner

And it had to do with Pat Cummins, his man-management skills, and the freedom he gave Head to play the way he wanted to without fear of failure

Shashank Kishore
Shashank Kishore
Travis Head smashed a 41-ball 102, Royal Challengers Bengaluru vs Sunrisers Hyderabad, IPL 2024, Bengaluru, April 15, 2024

Travis Head relaxed at a golf resort in Bengaluru's outskirts before cracking 102 off 41 balls against RCB  •  BCCI

Travis Head remembers the April of 2021 very well. He was at the Flinders Ranges, 450km north of Adelaide, at a camping trip, half-anxious about a decision that would soon change his career trajectory.
He had just been axed from Cricket Australia's central contracts, but was oblivious to the call made in the boardroom because he was in a no-network zone. For two full days, CA's attempts to reach him to convey their decision proved futile. Eventually, with a Wi-Fi network somewhere near the second-highest point at Flinders Range, Head got the information. He bottled his disappointment, not wanting to ruin a vacation with the family of his wife-to-be, but he knew he needed to break out of his pattern of thrilling and frustrating in equal measure.
Three Aprils on, sitting in New Delhi as one of the pace-setters of IPL 2024 for Sunrisers Hyderabad, Head remembers that period as the one that proved to be the catalyst for change and made him a powerplay behemoth.
So far this IPL, he has been able to unlock the genius everyone thought he was capable of when he came into the tournament eight years ago, playing alongside Virat Kohli, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers at Royal Challengers Bengaluru.
Just last week, Head clubbed a hair-raising fourth-fastest IPL hundred, off 39 balls, at the same venue where he failed to make an early first impression at the IPL all those years ago.
"I just look at probably a period of time which was around when I lost my contract," Head says. "I went away for South Australia [his domestic team], played well and found myself back in the team around that Ashes series in [December] 2021."
Prior to that series, a reassuring conversation with Australia's new Test captain Pat Cummins set into motion a series of small but significant events that Head believes have become life-changing. He has already won a World Test Championship title and a 50-over World Cup crown over the past year, and now has his sights set on T20 World Cup glory.
"The change in guard with him [Cummins] being captain - and I guess the confidence he gave me to go out and play the way I do in domestic cricket - I probably look back as the moment [when things turned]," Head says of his second coming. "And again, it's never guaranteed, but I was able to go out and get runs in that Test [in Brisbane, where he made 152] ] and start what has been the last three years."
The crux of that chat with Cummins was that Head should forget that his place was under scrutiny. It was, at its core, Cummins' man-management principle at play. Head went from "playing not to get out" to "playing to score runs", apart from freeing himself mentally.
"I played probably a little bit more aggressively while I still worked hard on my technique and a few things. But I sort of hit a moment in the road where it didn't really matter if I didn't play for Australia again," he says. "I would love to have, but if it wasn't to be, it probably gave me a bit more of that more relaxed, [and] comfortable sort of environment and attitude around things."
Head can't thank Cummins enough for his role in insulating him from the pressures an elite sportsperson could face from time to time.
"In terms of leadership, around that Ashes series, he had a conversation with me around how he wanted to see me play and how he wanted me go about it, which obviously we've seen the progress of and the results from - which has been nice - and then here I think he's been really good," he says. "I think a lot of guys obviously asked [me] about him leading into this IPL. The Indian guys, when I got here, asked about what he's going to be like, and I said he would be really relaxed, be really calm and someone who talks a lot of sense. He's very measured and understands the game, and he's just really, really well-rounded off the field.
"He's really enjoyable to be around; he creates a really good environment. That's very inclusive. That's very enjoyable. That's very relaxed. And I think you're seeing that in the way we're playing that game style about being aggressive and relaxed. But I think you'll also be seeing guys play with a smile on their face and really stepping forward into that pressure. And I think that's what he's asking the guys [to do]."
Head revealed that taking the attack to the bowlers in the powerplay this IPL has been a team decision that came with everyone knowing they will be backed the same way even if it were to fail on the odd occasion, like it did against Punjab Kings when SRH found themselves 39 for 3 after five overs, which left them needing to significantly change their Impact Player strategy.
They eventually made 182 and won by two runs, but it merely reaffirmed their commitment to a brave new approach that has changed the way teams look at them this IPL.
"Being asked to play [in] this style is, I guess, a little bit foreign for some guys," Head says. "Some guys can sometimes be worried about the negative side of things. Like, 'what happens if I don't get runs; could I find myself out of the team?' I think you'll never ever see Pat not back you or not have a smiling face.
"And if one of the guys was to hit the bull's trap in there and walk off - and if it was what we spoke about, and if it was what the captain asked - he'd never be negative around that. And he's been really vocal about that in the last couple of weeks in the batting line-up - like this is how we want to play."
Having this clarity not just around him, but also the team, has allowed Head to revel at the IPL too. Amid the travel and the chaos in general - of doing things beyond just playing cricket, like commercials and sponsor and media commitments - Head has managed to maintain what he calls a "balance" when he prepares for every game.
By that, he means he isn't always overly intense while studying scenarios or match-ups, and simply works on his own pulse, learning by speaking to his team-mates and using his own experience.
"I try to maintain a balance, but the balance is probably skewed a little bit to making sure I just go out refreshed and ready to go," he says. "So I don't deep dive into a lot of stuff. We're lucky that we've played a lot of these guys around the world, and you see a lot of familiar faces.
"If there's someone I don't know, I sort of go to Abhi [Abhishek Sharma] or guys who have faced them. And the Indian guys or these guys that have played against them try and tap into conversational stuff. I don't like to sit around and watch a heap of footage or anything; [rather, I] just try and stay pretty relaxed about things."
Head relaxes by playing a round of golf wherever he can. Prior to knocking the sails out of RCB, against whom he cracked 102 off 41 balls, he spent two full days at a golf resort in Bengaluru's outskirts.
"We have been fortunate to have slightly bigger breaks, which I think can sometimes be good and [sometimes] bad," he says. "Probably one less day would be nice about things. With training - and there's no real heavy structure around things - it's very relaxed. It's very much [about] 'get what you need to get done'.
"But yeah, I chill maybe with a round a golf here and there, have a couple of nice meals at restaurants or in the hotel with some of the guys, and then getting down to training and having two really good training sessions before a game. That has sort of been the process over the last couple of weeks, and it seems to be working. Like I said, the team is in a great mindset at the moment. It obviously helps winning, but the vibe's really, really good [too]."

Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo