Ashes 2021-22: Travis Head‘s century less than two weeks after a Covid-19 diagnosis could win him player-of-the-series
In an incredible turn of events, a player who missed the last Test due to Covid-19 is well placed to win the Compton-Miller Medal, writes DANIEL CHERNY.
For some Test series, there is a clear standout player. Take Steve Smith in 2019 or Mitchell Johnson in 2013-14. This summer, however, is not as easy. While no England player can realistically be considered for the honour, there are a handful of Australians in the frame to take the Compton-Miller Medal, a prize first awarded in the classic 2005 duel in England.
Winning teams don’t tend to switch things up much, but the Aussies have made at least one change ahead of every Test despite being 3-0 up. Partly this has been down to the quick turnaround between Tests, some of the instability can be attributed to injury, but more than anything it has been the tedium of Covid-19 which has forced the selectors’ hand, most notably in the case of Pat Cummins and Travis Head.
As of Friday night, only two players had made multiple centuries in this series: Head, who reached his second ton of the campaign on night one at Bellerive, and Usman Khawaja, the man who replaced Head when the South Australian tested positive in the wake of the MCG Test, and whose twin tons in Sydney led to the omission of Marcus Harris.
It is a remarkable turn of events, not least because Head and Khawaja were fighting for one spot in the Australian XI ahead of the series.
Even after his failure in the first dig at Blundstone Arena, Khawaja is still averaging 244 runs at 122 for the series. He was an easy choice for player-of-the-match at the SCG. But surely, even in a series as unusual as this one, it would be too much of a stretch to give the medal to a man who only played once the destination of the urn was certain.
Head did nothing to diminish his claim on Friday, arriving at the crease with the Australians in strife at 3-12 and departing 113 deliveries later with his side in a position of strength at 5-204. He is a batter whose fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach can make those in his corner a bit nervous and causes grumbles from traditionalists. But his pair of counterattacking innings in Brisbane and Hobart dramatically changed the complexion of both matches. He has moved to the top of the series runs tally with 349 at 69.8. He is certainly in the conversation, too.
What about a man who only played three Tests and came in at 2-0 up? Scott Boland would have been 1000/1 to be player-of-the-series ahead of time, primarily because he wasn’t even in the Australian squad. But Boland’s form, either side of the turn of the year, has been quite frankly ridiculous. He could very well yet finish the series as leading wicket-taker, having taken 14 wickets already at the silly average of 8.64. His 6-7 in the second innings at the ‘G will forever be the stuff of legend. But while his performance was spectacular, it was in truth only the last rites. The Ashes were notionally on the line when Boland took six of the last eight English wickets to fall in Melbourne, but barely. The tourists had been 2-7, still trailing by 75 runs, before Boland made a sizeable contribution.
Under pressure to hold his spot ahead of the series, Mitchell Starc has been the sole pace mainstay on either side, stunningly setting the tone with his late swing to remove Rory Burns with the first ball of the series and then making telling contributions thereafter in Adelaide and Melbourne.
He bowled middlingly in Sydney, but by then the series was over. Heading into the fifth Test he had 15 wickets at 26.60, as well as 151 runs at 75.50, enough to bring him a batting order promotion ahead of his skipper for the final Test. His body of work is a compelling argument.
Two men who made the early running, Marnus Labuschagne (330 runs at 47.14) and David Warner (273 runs at 39), have both faded as the series has worn on. Having batted thrillingly with Head on Friday, Labuschagne was bowled comically by Stuart Broad. He is still an outside chance if he makes a second innings century, but as it stands he is arguably not even on the podium.
Cummins (14 wickets at 20.85, 57 runs at 19) and Cameron Green (188 runs at 37.60, nine wickets at 15.44) have both had very good series but it’d be hard at this stage to make an argument for either ahead of Head, Starc or perhaps even Boland.
Nathan Lyon (16 wickets at 23.56) actually headed into the Hobart Test with more poles than anyone on either side. His numbers have been good, but he hasn’t really played a match-turning hand, albeit he helped settle the score quickly on day four at the Gabba.
Of course there is still plenty of cricket left in this match. And with the series long ago decided, and a whitewash out of the question, this is one storyline worth looking at.