Adam Collins discovers that Australia’s injury prone spearhead is easing back to his best and enjoying life at Notts
He’s lean, mean and – if he can stay on the park – coming this November to your Ashes screen. It’s always a bit Hollywood with James Pattinson. It was destined to be so the way he sprinted onto the stage at age 21, with thunderbolts in excess of 150kph that still gracefully tail away from right handers. A five-wicket bag on debut included a triple-wicket maiden as he ravaged New Zealand’s top order. “A star is born!” roared Mark Nicholas, and nobody doubted it. It was altogether dreamy.
But that was six years, and just as many long-term injury lay-offs, ago. Pattinson is now on the cusp of his 27th birthday having added a further 16 Tests, for a healthy 70 wickets. But it is now 14 months since his last cap, with only five since the middle of 2013. Those who also received Baggy Greens on the same morning were David Warner, who has turned out 64 times, and Mitchell Starc 36 – junior to Pattinson then, now the world’s most potent quick.
Due to the stop/start nature of his journey, Pattinson is executing a careful plan to ensure this return is the one that counts. And so far, it’s been picture perfect. Speaking to The Cricket Paper from his new club Nottinghamshire, he has faith in his body, is at peace with his highly-scrutinised action and confident he is doing this right. Most importantly: he’s relaxed.
“It’s been a good time for me,” Pattinson says about his comeback, totaling seven first-class games since February. Some understatement, having collected 37 wickets at 17 apiece. In two starts for Notts that’s 13 at 13, breaking Keaton Jennings’ bat along the way while 392 runs have flowed as well at 49, with four half-centuries.
“I’m feeling really relaxed,” he says. “As a bowler it takes a month or two to get into rhythm, when you find a groove and aren’t trying too hard.” And here’s the ominous bit for England fans: “The only time I’ve felt this good was leading into my Test debut.”
One player who watched Pattinson says he is bowling at speeds considerably quicker than England’s comeback speedster Mark Wood. “My pace is up there,” agrees Pattinson. “Where I’ve cranked it up it has been really good. Bowlers are at their fastest when they are not trying too hard and I’m finding that consistently now.”
Getting Pattinson to this point is a product of choice, not chance. To now, when fit enough to bowl he was invariably flung into national calculations. In 2014 he was rushed into the XI for the final Test of the colossal series against South Africa. He broke down. In 2016 he went immediately into a Test in Christchurch. History repeated.
It drove Pattinson to despair, and away from the game abroad. “The most recent time in New Zealand,” Pattinson says was his lowest moment. “It was the third time I’d done a stress fracture in the same area and I wasn’t enjoying my cricket. I was finding it really hard. I already wasn’t in a great place, so I just got away completely.”
A plan was devised to build his base over an extended period. That included ruling himself out of contention for Australia’s tour of India. It was to be the Sheffield Shield then the County Championship, and no matter what, he would follow the course.
“I came in for important games where there was the chance to become No.1 and managed to bowl 40-plus overs off not much cricket,” he recalls. “That’s been the killer for me the last couple of times I got injured. I wanted to prove I can get through a lot of cricket so when it comes time to play Tests I am at the top of my game.”
Part of his previous Australian stint was a concession he had at times junked his remodeled action. Looking back, he doesn’t place emphasis on the mechanics but the mindset. “When you change your action it is all you think about,” he explains. “It’s hard enough playing Test cricket and worrying about where your foot is going and where your shoulder is going. I just run in to bowl and try to get people out.”
Now, he is “somewhere in between” the front-on action he started with and the more side-on approach he was coached. But his lethal stock ball remains. “I am still an outswing bowler,” he confirms. “But I’ve developed, especially playing over here, the ability to swing the ball back in as well.” Ominous.
Also alluring, that he, Starc, Josh Hazlewood – oh, and Pat Cummins – could be Australia’s Ashes attack. Four attack leaders, three who’ve been clocked above 95mph. Darren Lehmann hinted as much; that if they’re fit simultaneously, selecting them together will be hard to deny. That they have been all picked for the Champions Trophy further points to that.
Pattinson understands the hype, even if he’s unwilling to buy into it. He knows this isn’t something to tempt fate with. A long way to go, he says. Taking it one game at a time, he adds.
But is it exciting? The prospect of being part of the most anticipated pace quartet since the Windies’ Fab Four combinations? “Absolutely,” Pattinson says. “It is an aspiration to try and get back there knowing there are three other blokes who are quality pace bowlers. Hopefully it happens and the boys are pretty excited about that chance of that happening in the near future. To line up with them would be pretty exciting.”
Pattinson’s batting is now also considerable, investing in his secondary craft in club cricket as his body healed. “One of my goals is to develop into an all-rounder,” he says. On the available evidence – tallying 89 not out and 59 in his first two starts for Notts, after two half-centuries in March for Victoria – that isn’t far fetched. And may help in squeezing him in.
A place higher up the list would take Pattinson back to where he began in junior cricket in the working class suburb of Doveton in Melbourne’s south-east. There, with his brother Darren, he learned the game. In the past he’s expressed anger at the way his sibling was treated by England cricket after his unlikely Test appearance in 2008.
But legacy of that adventure, and the older-Pattinson’s five-year stint at Notts, is that James is leading the attack of the club. And loving it. “It’s been brilliant,” he says. “There are a lot of games so it is relaxed. It’ll put me in good stead if I do ever get the chance to come over here again for an Ashes tour.”
Not so relaxed that he hasn’t got himself in strife, issued a ‘please explain’ over excessive appealing. When he dismissed Durham captain Paul Collingwood shortly thereafter, he gave him a spray. “I just said ‘come on’ as I went past him,” he says with a laugh. “It might have looked a bit worse on video than it actually was.” He added later on radio that in county cricket you don’t get away with as much as a fiery quick as he does at home. “I better pull my head in!”
Where that attitude will be welcome again: Test cricket. An arena he looked born for from the moment he stepped in. And now, with body and mind in sync, fully prepared, too.
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, April 21 2017
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