Herculean Head worthy of Gilchrist comparisons… but don’t count out South Africa just yet

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Cricket is a funny game. As we saw with the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash, it’s a bizarre game that can leave you shaking your head at times, and can flip in an instant.

With 20 minutes to go on Day 1 in Brisbane, it looked like Travis Head had taken the game away from South Africa, and set up Australia to get a big lead that the visitors wouldn’t be able to chase down. Then Anrich Nortje sent down the Bowlology Ball of the DayTM to bowl Steve Smith through the gate.

That was an absolute peach, and a reminder that the Proteas certainly have the pace attack to keep themselves in the game.

They’ve still got to get Travis Head out, though. He continued on from what I saw during his century in Adelaide, when he was far more assured than I’ve ever seen him at the crease. His 99 in Perth was an attacking innings that the team and the game needed, but in the second Test against the West Indies he just looked like he was a Test match number five intent on playing naturally and with more poise.

This innings at the Gabba is already another mini-classic: on a bowler-dominated day, scoring 78 off 77 balls against a high-class pace attack is unbelievable.

This is what he did in the Ashes last summer with two match-winning hundreds to be a much-deserved player of the series. People are throwing up names like ‘Adam Gilchrist without the gloves’ and he’s certainly batting like that.

If he faces 77 balls and only scores 38 runs instead of 78, Australia would really be up against it by now. He just accelerates the game every time he comes in.

Travis Head of Australia bats.

Travis Head of Australia bats. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

He played some unbelievable shots: cover drives when everyone was nicking them, then if the bowlers got too straight he was happy to whip the ball away off his pads. I was interested to see how he’d go against a short-ball barrage, but he played one absolutely cracking pull shot off Kagiso Rabada. If you’re going to go short to him, then you’d better bowl a good bumper!

Hopefully he turns this into a century and then into a big one, but Head is already looking like a banker at number five for a long time, and a unique player in Australian cricket. He’s different to Steve Smith and Marnus Labuschagne, who look to just bat and bat and wear bowlers down. If he can keep striking at a run a ball, he’s a massive trump card for the Aussies.

At the opposite end of the form line is David Warner after a golden duck off the first ball of the innings: if he was a cricket ball, he’d be well and truly into the reverse swing stage of his career. He’s going to be replaced sooner rather than later, it’s just when that is.

I’d still be giving him the rest of this series; he plays his 100th Test on Boxing Day, and it allows him to play at least one or two more Tests at home. If he gets a lot of runs, then he’s off to India, but if he misses out, there will be big questions.

He averages 24 in India and 26 in England, so without a big score this summer it may be time to move on.

The South Africans bowled exceptionally well, especially Nortje and Marco Jansen. Jansen’s first ball to Labuschagne was nearly perfect: it committed Marnus to the shot and he was probably thinking it was going to swing in, but it just tailed away to take the edge.

Nortje’s got a really good seam position: he hits it constantly and at serious pace. You can see he’s the real Dale Steyn-esque aggressor in that attack. Rabada is obviously a gun as well.

I thought Lungi Ngidi was the only letdown in that attack: with a weak batting line-up they can’t afford to have someone in the pace attack who’s below par.

Those two wickets late keep them in the game, but they can’t afford to let Australia get much more than 250 on Day 2 to feel like they can bat themselves back into it.

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Earlier on, we got a bit of a Head-like innings from Kyle Verreynne, who played really well with Temba Bavuma to get South Africa to lunch after losing four early wickets. When they got going after lunch, you started to think if they could get to 250, they’d be ahead of the game on a bowler-friendly wicket. That’s when the Australians just put their foot down again.

I thought Verreynne in particular was awesome for his 64: he’s a keeper-batsman who will be a really good player for South Africa for years to come. To be able to score like that in those conditions against a quality attack was outstanding.

He does average over 50 in first-class cricket, and I can see how he’s been that prolific. He’s had to bat in England early in his Test, where it seamed around, as well as here and on some spicy tracks in South Africa, so I think he’ll be a prolific run-scorer when they get on flatter tracks.

They almost need him to be this good every time, though because they go with Jansen at number seven, so their tail is quite long. That may be the difference between the two sides in this series if they stick with five frontline bowlers.

Jansen’s shot to get out was predictable: he got dried up so much he was always going to play a big shot at some stage, and he just ended up skying a big slog off Nathan Lyon.

Speaking of Lyon, it was another excellent day’s cricket for him with 3/14. It’s underrated how many outside edges he gets, where batters play for the spin and inside the line and either nick behind or to Steve Smith at slip.

The wicket to remove Verreynne was the perfect example: Smithy took the catch and broke the record for catches off a single bowler by an Australian, so that was brilliant.

Those four early wickets, though, really left the Proteas well behind the game fro the start. It’s not surprising to lose two or three quicks ones when you get sent in, because the opposition have won the toss and bowled for a reason – it’s a green top. I reckon if they could have even been three down instead of four, it would have bought them a bit of extra time.

As for the Aussie quicks, particularly after lunch I thought Scott Boland was really the one making things happen. Straight away he bowled fuller than Mitch Starc and Pat Cummins, trapped Khaya Zondo in front, and then Starc and Cummins got better as the session went on.

It was great to see all the bowlers getting some help from the pitch: I love when we produce wickets with a bit in them, and they’re far better than the batting paradises we used to get a few years ago. Australia would generally win those because we could wear the opposition down gradually with our pace attack and Lyon: but the benefit of bowler-dominated days like this are that you can properly rate hundreds.

I’d rather, if curators are going to err, they err towards favouring the bowlers: then you can really judge the quality of runs runs. Verreynne’s 64 is worth over a hundred on a flat pitch; Head, is already on his way to another man-of-the-match performance on a green seamer.

We’ve seen the MCG has improved a lot in the last few years and become more bowler-friendly, which leaves it up to Sydney to ensure they give something in it for them as well. If they don’t feel like they can get enough grass on to make it pacy and bouncy, I’d rather them go the other way and make it a raging turner. Then at least the spinners will have time to shine, which is great, but also the quicks will be able to get some reverse swing as the game goes on.

When in doubt, always favour the bowlers with the pitches!

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