Time for Cummins to slow down
Breaking into prominence in Australian cricket as a 17-year-old schoolboy in 2010-11, Pat Cummins seemed too good to be true. Fast as any in the country, he was also tall, sported a late outswinger, and possessed an instinct for how to bowl that is usually the exclusive preserve of only the best and most seasoned of fast men.
Two years on, with Cummins facing his second consecutive home summer on the treatment table, it turns out that this story was indeed too much of a fairytale to be sustained in the cluttered reality of 21st century cricket. Cummins' bowling skills, natural attributes and intelligence have not diminished, but while he is still a teenager, his body cannot be expected to stand up to the demands that have been placed on it by New South Wales, Sydney Sixers and Cricket Australia.
A back stress fracture has offered time for Cummins and those around him to think seriously about how the past year since his Test debut in South Africa has unfolded. It has been punctuated by injuries to his foot, side and back, a lot of T20 matches, a great deal of travel, and by his own admission a departure from the bowling fundamentals that put him in the Australian side in the first place.
The most recent episode in South Africa does not reflect a great deal of credit on the Sixers. While CA had sent their bowling coach, Ali de Winter, to the T20 Champions League to monitor the workloads of the national team representatives taking part in the event, Cummins' admission that he was starting to feel sore towards the back end of the event did not reach de Winter, the physio Alex Kountouris, or the team performance manager, Pat Howard, as early as possible.
This lapse between Cummins confessing to some minor discomfort and CA's staff knowing of it may have prevented them from calling him home early. As it was, he bowled in the semi-final and final without feeling too inconvenienced, but no one will now know whether the current stress fracture might have stayed merely a less serious stress reaction without those matches.
CA is known to be disappointed at being kept out of the loop, though the Sixers' reasons for keeping the matter to themselves are unclear. It is plausible that they feared the loss of another key part of their team after already being stripped of the services of Shane Watson as part of a pre-planned move to give the Australian vice-captain more time at home to prepare for the Test summer.
Irrespective of when or how it first became clear that Cummins was sore again, the fact of his recurring injuries endorses the view that he has risen too far, too fast. Many were seduced by the possibility that a bowler so young might be ready to win matches for Australia, and his performance in Johannesburg a year ago brought that excitement to a feverish pitch.
It must be remembered that not only has Cummins barely played for his state, he has barely played for his club. NSW selectors first chose Cummins at a time when a glut of other injuries had limited their bowling stocks, but they kept picking him because of how impressive he seemed, or more accurately, how impressive he was. Similarly Australia's selectors - first the panel of Andrew Hilditch and latterly that of John Inverarity - have returned to Cummins several times as soon as he was fit after injury because of how beguiled they were by his combination of speed, skill and intelligence.
Now all must acknowledge and accept that Cummins' path cannot be any different to that of most fast bowlers before him, who have generally endured periods of injury and pain before entering serious national team calculations later in life. Cummins noted the stories of Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Mitchell Johnson as examples of this.
"There's other people like Jason Gillespie, Mitchell Johnson, there's a whole string of fast bowlers who are were pushing the 140-150kph barrier at 18, 19, 20 years old, and none of them went through unscathed," Cummins said. "They all had a string of injuries over a few years and came out the other side. So I'm not too fussed. I'd love to be playing, but I realise it's not a rare thing to occur."
The revelation that Cummins had been scheduled to visit the Australian Institute of Sport for examination of his action, and its potential to contribute to his injuries, is telling. It confirms that some among Cummins' mentors agree that he is still developing, still finding the correct bowling action and method for his body.
There are pointed parallels here with the careers of Lee and Gillespie, who both underwent drastic changes to their bowling actions in their earliest days. In Lee's case, there were five years of setbacks and experiments between his first-class debut in 1994-95 and his first Test in 1999. Those changes were forced by a string of injuries, but ultimately resulted in a bowling method that was both swifter and more durable than the original. In this Cummins can find some consolation, knowing that the action he used to great effect in Johannesburg a year ago does not have to be the one he carries right through his career.
For now, however, he must cope with the bewilderment and frustration of another major injury. As he put it: "I'm sick of coming home and not playing the summer." His minders for state, T20 club and country must be sick of it too, and it is to be hoped that they will now take a longer view to ensure that the promise Cummins has shown so far is not entirely undermined by impatience to have him bowling again as soon as possible.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here