Travis Head put Australia in charge on day one of their World Test Championship final against India and laid down a marker for the forthcoming Ashes with an sizzling century at the Kia Oval.
Head was the standout performer as the Baggy Greens racked up 327 for three, reeling off 146 not out from just 156 deliveries to put his side in charge of the International Cricket Council’s long-form showpiece.
He arrived at the crease early in the afternoon session with Australia wobbling at 76 for three, India in the ascendancy after picking off David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne either side of lunch.
But he played a gem of an innings, racing out of the blocks and flipping the game on its head as he reached three figures in just 106 deliveries – an innings of daring fluency that left the rest of the top order looking pedestrian by comparison.
Stumps on Day 1
Indian bowlers were made to toil as Travis Head and Steve Smith put Australia in control
— ICC (@ICC) June 7, 2023
Steve Smith did his share of the heavy lifting, but his unbeaten 95 from 227 balls was an anchoring effort in support of Head’s agenda-setting knock.
For Australia, nudging his side one step closer to becoming global champions is a main event in itself, but for watching England fans it was a reminder of just how dangerous the 29-year-old can be.
Head was the breakout star of Australia’s 4-0 Ashes win in 2021/22, taking the Compton-Miller Medal for player of the series after scoring 357 runs at an average of nearly 60.
If there were legitimate questions over whether he could touch similar heights in English conditions, where he averaged just 27 in 2019 and endured a lean spell with Sussex two summers ago, he appeared to answer them in emphatic fashion.
Head finished the day with 22 fours and a six, an effortless uppercut off Mohammed Shami, and reached his first overseas hundred – and sixth overall – shortly after taking a glancing blow to the helmet.
By stumps, India may have been harbouring a couple of distinct regrets, first about winning the toss and choosing to field and second over their omission of spinner Ravichandran Ashwin.
The world’s number one bowler was left out in favour of an extra seam option in Shardul Thakur and, although there was no appreciable turn on offer from a first-day pitch, the decision to leave the 36-year-old and his 474 wickets on the sidelines looked misguided after 85 overs of toil.
India started promisingly with the new ball, challenging Australia’s top order during a tough first hour.
Shami kept Warner honest during a fine opening burst with the new ball, working over the left-hander from round the wicket in a way that will not have escaped the attention of his old nemesis Stuart Broad.
Warner survived the examination, with a couple of fortuitous moments along the way, but Usman Khawaja banked a 10-ball duck when he nicked the quicker Mohammed Siraj to Srikar Bharat.
There was an early scare for Labuschagne, who dramatically dropped the bat in pain when Umesh Yadav rapped him on the left thumb with a sharp, lifting delivery.
Day one belongs to Australia!
Travis Head and Steve Smith unbeaten at the close #WTCFinal
— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) June 7, 2023
England fans would be forgiven for having the Ashes on their minds as Labuschagne received treatment and popped a couple of painkillers, but he resumed his innings and even wore another blow to the hand.
Warner, who has set his sights on a January retirement, began to warm up as he clubbed Umesh Yadav for four boundaries in a single over but he departed tamely before lunch when he gloved a leg-side ball from Thakur to the diving Bharat.
An unconvincing stay from Labuschagne ended on 26 early in the afternoon when Shami forced a full delivery through a wayward drive and uprooted off stump. The majority Indian crowd roared their approval but their rising momentum dissipated in the face of Head’s counter-attack.
He scored 28 off his first 20 balls, instantly putting India back on the defensive, and continued to dictate terms as the attack tired.
With Smith grinding his way towards a gentler hundred at the other end, India will need a sharp change of fortune on day two.