Adam Collins explains that there is no substitute for sheer pace as a young quick returns
All signs pointed to it being the bleakest of days at the cricket. Australia had been routed at Trent Bridge the week before, the famous urn had been returned.
Yet here the Australians were, at Northants, for a tour game ahead of the final rubber of the 2015 Ashes, reduced to two days alone due to rain.
Then Pat Cummins showed up. Called into the squad after Josh Hazlewood’s body had given way, the nondescript weekend suddenly had meaning.
It invariably does when Cummins is involved, after spending so much more time in rehabilitation than wreaking havoc since his extraordinary Test debut in November 2011 as a smiling 18-year-old.
He bowled so fast, and with such venom, it inspired local jeering. Three wickets were his lot, but it was the only talking point for the visitors who were otherwise utterly done.
He enjoyed being back in a baggy green so much that the next day he made a blistering unbeaten 82. Cummins wasn’t in the XI for the final Test, but it was enough to remember that with this guy, the future had already well and truly arrived.
The novelty every time Cummins appears on a team sheet should grow less so by the year if the sports scientists have it right. He returns to the Test side at age 23, a couple of birthdays shy of when growing pains and strains and fractures are meant to allow the cotton wool to be shelved for good.
Returning first to the Australian pyjamas in November, after another 14-month lay off, Cummins tallied 18 ODI wickets in ten starts. It remains the same as it ever was: when he plays, he takes wickets.
It made the case for it to be him to replace Mitchell Starc in India irresistible, even if only coming off the back of one four-day game this summer.
That was a Sheffield Shield fixture for New South Wales concluding last weekend. There, he took four wickets in each innings, earning edges early then hitting stumps late.
It had been six years since his last outing in this form of the game for his State, but he was still every bit the matchwinner.
So when the opportunity arose to get him over here, it was inevitable that Cricket Australia bosses wouldn’t resist. For his next trick, he will lead Australia’s attack in the third Test at Ranchi’s JSCA Stadium in one of the most anticipated fixtures in a generation.
Only nine first-class starts in his entire journey to date isn’t a body of work typically given to reflexive support at the selection table. But it’s that wondrous Wanderers debut that is never far from consciousness.
Coming the week after Australia were decimated for 47, Cummins claimed Hashim Amla’s scalp in the first innings then put together a rampaging 6-79 in the second to give Australia a sniff.
To seal the fairytale, a boundary with the bat secured Australia the most unlikely of victories to square the series. Arrivals don’t come more emphatic.
But, just as soon, the theme of a half a decade would begin: injury. After making a name for himself for being the kid at 17 who was able to bowl 48 overs in an innings for New South Wales, this wasn’t in the script. Then it became his whole story. A serious side strain then ended Cummins’ first comeback the very day he did Alastair Cook for pace at Lord’s in an ODI in 2012. A stress fracture to the back was next. Two and a half years it took between then and his Northampton frolic.
In the ODI tour of England that followed, Cummins led all-comers for wickets across the five matches, claiming 12 at 20 apiece including a couple of four-wicket hauls. But again the postscript was soured: stress fractures to his tender back.
Speaking before his return to the Test side this week, he says he “always thought” he would get back to the pinnacle of the sport, albeit earlier than he anticipated with November’s Ashes at the front of his mind until the call came last week. But it was that stint in England that had provided him with belief that he would eventually belong.
“I had really mixed feelings after that tour,” Cummins said. “It was probably the lowest in terms of feeling it was the closest I had been since my Test debut to play in a Test match. At the same time, I also felt really relaxed in knowing how well I had done, and that I had a spot in the side as long as I could get back to where I was.”
And now that he is finally back, Cummins acknowledges that it “in some ways” does feel like his debut all over again. “It’s not very fresh,” he concedes of his memories of his joyous week in Johannesburg. “It feels like so much has happened in those five or six years.”
With Brett Lee his proverbial pin-up as a kid, pace has always been what sets him apart, even in the dream pace generation he has progressed alongside, including Starc, Hazlewood and James Pattinson.
On the evidence of Cummins white-ball outings, there is no doubt he is just as quick as ever.
“Anyone who bowls those speeds,” he says in response to a question of whether he can consistently hit the high notes of 145-150kph, “is going to get a batsman hopping around.”
The bigger question again will be whether his body can pass the test about to be placed upon it. Where Pattinson actively requested that he not be considered for this tour while he makes his own recovery from persistent injuries, Cummins says it is “easily the most prepared” he has been to play another Test.
“I feel like I have played a lot, bowled a lot of overs, a lot of times had to back up day after day and the body’s been recovering really well and the summer went as well as it could have,” he said. “I feel as ready as I ever have.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, March 17 2017
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