Pat Cummins was menacing with the short ball © Associated Press
Pat Cummins is flying through a dust cloud. The ball is close enough that he can reach it but high enough he has to reach out. Legs and arms go in all directions as his body jumps towards where he thinks the ball will be. But he miscalculates and now has to change his position in mid-air.
Cummins launches himself so far that when he finally lands – chest first, face in the dirt – he is on the adjacent pitch. He is a bit dazed as he gets up but makes sure to ask about the lbw. The appeal is unsuccessful, but it is all thrilling.
Few in the world fly like Cummins.
R Ashwin stands at the other end, safe for now. He had been set up brilliantly and the ball that was meant to trap him had everything. It had reverse swing, it was fast – as Cummins has been all day – and the events that followed showed off Cummins’ athleticism. Few bowlers in world cricket could react as well in their follow-throughs as he did.
There was the pointless appeal, which has been the soundtrack of the day. It showed desperation, which Cummins has never had problems showing. When he hit the ground, he was disappointed he could not take the catch.
The rest of Australia just hoped he got up again.
Cummins knew he was getting quick when his older brothers weren’t keen to play him in the backyard. But as rapid they thought he was, his rise as a professional cricketer was faster. In March 2010, Cummins was a second grade player for Penrith. By October 2011, he was in an Australian team.
In between, he had only played three first-class matches, the last of which was the Sheffield Shield final when he was tormented by Ed Cowan. The Tasmania opener kept telling the tearaway quick he was getting slower with each spell and mocked him for being unable to take the wicket his New South Wales team needed. So Cummins, playing the most important match of his career, growing ever more desperate to dismiss Cowan, pushed himself as hard as he could.
He bowled like the wind for 65 overs in the match. He was 17 years old.
An 18-year old Pat Cummins was tough even for a Test legend like Jacques Kallis © AFP
In the second half of Cummins’ 2009-10 grade season, he bowled 89 overs in three months. He spent the off season nursing hot spots in his back. In those three Shield games alone, he bowled 816 deliveries. But between that final six years ago and this Ranchi Test, he only managed 976 more.
Nevertheless, it was the lion-hearted performance and the scary pace and not the wickets – Cummins only had nine of them – that convinced the selectors to pick him for the tour of South Africa in 2011.
Ryan Harris was injured for the last of two Tests and Cummins was called in for Johannesburg. It was barely a month since he had turned 18. And he was preparing to play the most difficult format of the game with his team 0-1 down and in danger of losing the series.
Amid the nerves, the only thing Cummins cared about was making sure his first ball in Test cricket was not like his first ball in T20Is – a half-tracker. He really needn’t have worried so much.
With pace, swing and some decent bounce, Cummins became the youngest Australian to pick up a five-wicket haul. And though he struggled in the second innings with a foot injury, he still came back to hit the winning runs. After the game he was sitting and chatting to Dale Steyn for hours. It was a plot straight out of a Teen Wolf film.
“It’s one of those things that you’re never going to say,” Cummins said of his debut efforts. “‘I’ve got a sore heel, I’m not going to not bowl just because it’s sore’. I guess it didn’t really affect me too much until that last day. And there it was almost frustrating because I was trying to bowl as fast as I can, and you look up on the screen and it was about, you know, 120k. And you just go, ‘Oh no, what am I doing here?’ And it’s one of those things that’s just frustrating for a bowler to have, but it’s something that you just want to keep bowling through.”
But Cummins couldn’t just keep bowling anymore. He had mangled up the bones and tendons in his foot. He was making loads of money. He had a contract with Cricket Australia. He had the best medical care the board could afford. But he was an infrequent player because that one injury became many.
A side strain, a back stress-fracture, another back stress-fracture, and then finally a third back-stress fracture. And that was just the greatest hits.
Cummins wasn’t 25 yet and he was already in the ‘whatever happened to that guy’ bracket of Test players.
Pat Cummins is a natural athlete © Getty Images
If he could show enough fitness to last a day in the field, Australia would rush him back, throw him in, and then immediately send him to the medical centre to keep him safe. Cummins was never fully fit; he was always just pre-injured.
When he did come back to international cricket in 2012, despite the hype of his teenage years and spending half his life in an MRI machine, he still excited people. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay saw a Cummins spell in an ODI he wasn’t covering and felt moved to write almost as many words on him as Cummins had bowled balls in an Australian shirt.
That was Cummins, an occasional spark in cricket fans’ eyes.
Before he took 5 for 7 to destroy Queensland, James Pattinson had asked the Australian selectors not to pick him as Mitchell Starc’s replacement for this India tour. If Pattinson, Starc, Cummins and Josh Hazlewood were all one man, they would have taken 346 wickets at 26. Of course, if that was one man, he wouldn’t be able to walk with all the injuries.
New South Wales captain Moises Henriques was concerned about Cummins being thrown into Test cricket without proper preparation. The fast bowler had played one Shield game, where he picked up eight wickets and was Man of the Match, but could that really make him ready to play international cricket? The jet lag alone would have been troublesome.
Even if unlike Pattinson, Cummins felt ready, unlike Starc he was fit, and despite Henriques’ fears, he could get through the game, this was India. His team-mates had trained specifically and thought about little other than this tour for months. Cummins did not have that luxury. The SCG might be the one Australian venue that best mimics Asian conditions but it was still in the wrong country. And he was in the wrong head space.
When Cummins finally arrived in India, he went straight to the nets and started working on fast offcutters. The history of fast cutter bowlers in Tests is pretty limited. Some quicks have tried them in India and at best they have had mixed results. Sydney Barnes, the England quick from the 1900s, was probably the last one to be truly brilliant with them (and he called himself a spinner) and Mustafizur Rahman is the latest to try them consistently. But those two practiced every day to get control of it. Almost everyone else who has bowled cutters in Asia – Michael Kasprowicz, Lance Klusener – had time to think and work on them.
Cummins arrived on site, toyed with the idea at practice and was trying them in a Test. Predictably some of them went horribly wrong. But then there were those that ripped off the pitch like the spawn of Satan.
It was a cutter that gave Pat Cummins his first Test wicket in five years © Associated Press
Cummins’ pace and accuracy, which was better than Starc’s, meant India could never get on top of him. He had already almost clipped KL Rahul with a very quick bouncer but it took a cutter to dismiss the batsman, a cutter that was like a heat-seeking missile with a personal grudge against its target.
In the first session on Saturday, it seemed like India were just trying to keep Cummins out. He had not even been in the squad a week ago. Now he had become the main threat. As the day wore on, it seemed like the entire Australian bowling was his support staff. Their job was to keep things tidy so he could rip the batsmen out at the other end. And if one of his team-mates took a wicket, he was recalled into the attack to greet the new man in.
Cummins took out Virat Kohli with one that swung away a bit and bounced more than expected. It was the sort of delivery that real fast bowlers get wickets with: it didn’t look unplayable, but if you were facing it wasn’t easy. Ajinkya Rahane’s wicket was pure pace. A bouncer gone wrong, a batsman making a rash decision to try and reach it and a keeper finishing the catch.
Those might not have looked like great balls, but he had bowled plenty of them to make India feel like they had to play such wild shots. He deserved his four wickets, simply for putting all that time in the gym and in rehab, and now in the middle making quality batsmen feel uncomfortable.
Cummins was flying. His slower deliveries were faster than most bowlers’ fastest deliveries and by the time he dropped that caught-and-bowled chance off Ashwin, he had taken wickets with cutters, new-ball swing and sheer pace. Eventually he added reverse to his armoury.
Ashwin had to face all of that – Australia had forced him to with canny leg-side fields to Pujara – and all he could do was hope for the best. In total Ashwin faced 22 balls, 20 of which had come from Cummins. When the last one came it was similar to the Rahul ball, a cutter that leapt up and at him, and his only reprieve was from the umpire.
Cummins got a small crack at Wriddhiman Saha before a bye let Cheteshwar Pujara take the strike back. He tried one full over at Pujara, ending it with an ordinary offcutter, and when he made his way back to his fielding position he looked broken. He was bent over at the waist, taking deep breaths. When he had to change positions, he moved slowly, like there was something not quite right. If it wasn’t a limp, it was a very sore walk.
Cummins barely came in with the bowler when the last few balls of the day were bowled. He should have come off the field, but that’s not his way. As he did for New South Wales in the Shield final and Australia in his first Test, he gave every single part of himself for his team. Hopefully this time, there is something left.
Five years ago, Cummins’ dream was “to be part of a winning Australian side consistently.” All Australian cricket has ever wanted is to have him play consistently.
On Saturday, in conditions not made for him, on a tour he was not supposed to be on, in only his tenth first-class match, he was flying. The problem for him has never been the flying; it’s been the frequent crash landing at the end.
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo