Clever captaincy and superb control: Pat Cummins looks every inch the world-beater

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  • Pat Cummins
    Pat Cummins
    International cricketer
Superb captaincy and even better bowling: Pat Cummins looks like a world-beater - DAVE HUNT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Superb captaincy and even better bowling: Pat Cummins looks like a world-beater - DAVE HUNT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Pat Cummins was once derided as Australia’s best-paid university student. He got his first national contract in 2011 and, even while he did not play another Test, retained one for the next five years.

What appeared Cricket Australia largesse, investing upwards of £500,000 in Cummins before he had played his second Test, was really easy to understand. As an 18-year-old on Test debut in Johannesburg in 2011, Cummins took seven wickets, scored the winning runs and won player of the match: a performance of preternatural calm and poise. With his pace, bounce and zest for the fight, Cummins had the skill and temperament to be an elite fast bowler. His body just wasn’t ready yet.

Since belatedly playing his second Test in 2017, Cummins’s physique has been proved durable enough to cope with the multifarious demands of bowling fast; with the ball, his skills have even transcended those first glimpsed in Johannesburg. But the first day at the Gabba in 2021 perhaps provided the ultimate return on Cricket Australia’s investment: the University of Technology, Sydney student turned Test match captain.

For 65 years, going back to a solitary match when Ray Lindwall did the job, the Australian Test team has not been led by a fast bowler. The paucity of fast bowlers as captain, which is true throughout the Test game, reflects the orthodox view that fast bowlers should be considered "only as a last resort,” as Mike Brearley wrote in The Art of Captaincy.

It is sometimes said that fast bowlers lack the brains to lead — or, at least, that captaincy is too mentally demanding to juggle along with the physical demands of bowling. The notion ignores that the few fast bowlers to do the role in Test cricket, such as Bob Willis, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, have often been successful.

From the fifth over of England’s innings Cummins gave the first hint of the sort of captain he will be. Mitchell Starc had begun the Ashes with a wicket very first ball, yet was whisked out of the attack after only two overs. The reason was Cummins’s fine record in Test cricket against his opposing number Joe Root. Cummins has dismissed Root seven times at a cost of 20 runs apiece, including bowling him first ball at Old Trafford two years ago, setting up the win that took back the urn.

“I feel like I’ve bowled well to him in the past and I was always going to come on early,” Cummins explained. “So thought I’d have a crack.”

It was a move that suggests that, as captain, Cummins will be embrace the growing importance of data-informed decision-making. Modern bowlers naturally size up opposing batsmen with microscopic detail; extending such thinking to who should bowl when, and with what field, could actually make captaincy an easy fit.

Cummins did this to perfection, executing a plan that featured 14 changes of bowler during the 50.1 overs it took to skittle England — many of those changes immediately after wickets had fallen.

But the greatest contribution that Cummins can make as captain is surely to maintain his standing as the number one Test bowler in the world.

In his mind’s eye Cummins may have envisaged Root as his first scalp as Test skipper. But Ben Stokes would surely have come second. Going around the wicket, in keeping with modern trends, Cummins reacted to a Stokes drive for four by dragging his length back. From wide of the crease, Cummins angled the ball into Stokes; he then extracted enough seam movement to square Stokes up. With a smart catch at third slip from Marnus Labuschagne, Cummins’s haul as Test captain was up and away.

During that wonderful debut a decade ago, Cummins was a prodigious swing bowler. Since his Test return, Cummins has pared back on swing; now, he scarcely swings the ball at all. Instead, his excellence is sustained by unerring mastery of line and length. “I feel confident that 99 days out of 100, I can rock up and bowl where I want to bowl,” he has said. “If I get some swing, some movement from there, it's a bonus.”

Even if seam and swing aren’t offering much, Cummins is a master of generating a new challenge for the batsmen through other means: varying his release point. From one delivery to the next, Cummins goes a little narrower or wider on the crease. The genius of this ploy is that it ensures that, even if there is scant movement in the air or off the pitch, the challenge that each ball presents still changes.

The dismissal of Haseeb Hameed was a distillation of Cummins’s craft. From his third ball after lunch, and first to Hameed, Cummins released the ball from close to the stumps, an angle that allowed Hameed to leave the ball alone. But his next delivery was delivered from wider on the crease, creating an angle that compelled Hameed to play at the ball, edging to the slips.

Conditions in Australia mean that collapses like England’s on the opening day are rare. Instead, Cummins has had to depend upon his brain to defy the Kookaburra ball and Australian wickets that are seldom as green-tinged as this one.

This performance was Cummins in excelsis. Together with the chicanery — the subtle variations of angles, and the use of the short ball to dislodge the tail — the greatest hallmark was its simple relentlessness. In all Test cricket, 40 per cent of deliveries from seam bowlers are delivered just outside off stump - a so-called channel line, the fiendish area in which batsmen are not sure whether to play or leave. At the Gabba, 71 per cent of Cummins’s deliveries were in that area.

In isolation each delivery seems unremarkable. But the cumulative effect is the stuff of greatness. Cummins has now taken 169 Test wickets at 21.2 apiece; after marking his maiden day of Test captaincy with a haul of five for 38, he has now snared 57 wickets at 20.6 against England.

Cummins has long showed himself to be a thinking fast bowler. On this evidence, he will prove a thinking captain too.

Listen to Sir Geoffrey Boycott's verdict on day one

"When a series starts we have hope, we have expectation — but when you only score 147 and look poor, it really hurts...Now the bowlers will have to produce an exceptional performance to keep the Ashes alive, because if England lose they'll have to win two of the next four."

Listen to the full audio briefing below

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