Nineteen ninety-three is a year an Englishman can still break into a cold sweat thinking about, and one that will cause an Australian to unveil a grin. For it was the year of Shane Warne, starting with "the Gatting ball" at Old Trafford and rolling along until the Ashes had been meekly surrendered to Australia, the peroxide blond legspinner plucking 34 wickets along the way. Warne cast a spell that year that would never truly be broken until his retirement, 14 years later.
No one knew it at the time, but there would be another significant event in 1993 that could possibly have a major say in the outcome of England v Australia contests. Halfway around the world from Warne's exploits, Pat Cummins was born in Sydney. As he grew into a strongly built youth with a taste for cricket, Cummins followed Warne closely, admiring his style and his ability to turn a match with the flick of his wrist. Though Cummins chose to bowl pace instead of spin, he aspired to having Warne's influence, his command of the ball and the contest.
"Once he got thrown the ball you knew something was going to happen," Cummins said last summer of his idol. "Even if they'd put on a hundred partnership, you knew a wicket wasn't too far away. He was always in the contest and he was just awesome to watch. I think for all bowlers, that's their aim."
As quantified by the speed of his rise into the Australian team, and the awed assessments that have surrounded his development, Cummins has shown a gift almost as prodigious as Warne's had been. He has the ideal physique for bowling fast - tall, strong and wiry - and an action that extracts sharp bounce and late swing at the kind of pace reached by only the very swiftest of bowlers.
Yet Cummins' ability extends well beyond the parameters of his physique. He is smart, almost spookily so for a 19-year-old fast bowler, and knows instinctively where a batsman would least like the ball, whether it be full at the stumps, short at the ribcage or somewhere in between. His control, too, is startling. In his junior days Warne wowed his coaches by spinning the ball enormously while remaining accurate. Cummins floors them by hurling it down at terminal velocity but with command of its line and length.
He demonstrated all this last year against South Africa in Johannesburg, so far his only Test match. He was its most outstanding player. Six second-innings wickets opened the way for Australia to record a thrilling victory. Cummins' sustained burst to defeat Jacques Kallis in the second innings was brutish but highly thoughtful and disciplined, culminating in an outswinger and an edge. Shane Watson watched it all unfold from the Australian slips cordon.
"Just to see the maturity he had in Johannesburg, for such a young guy, to see the execution of his skill was something I've never seen from a bowler of that age really," he said. "To be able to swing the ball both ways at good pace, having the innate ability of knowing when to bowl a bouncer, when to bowl a change-up, that's something that's not learned, that's just inside of you, so to see that, even in the first innings, was very special.
"It is very exciting to see someone like him coming through, because just with being able to stay fit and stay on the ground for a period of time, he is certainly going to shake a few sides up with the quality of his bowling."
The quality Watson speaks of was spotted early. Cummins was playing for New South Wales at 17, turning heads in the domestic T20 competition. Even at that early stage it was evident that he was ready for international cricket, as Ed Cowan's diary of the 2010-11 season confirms: "Let's pray he is well looked after both on and off the field by the powers that be in the coming years; part of me wants him to be left alone to slowly mature, the other part, knowing bowlers only have a certain number of balls in them, feels that with good workload management he may as well be thrown in the deep end of international cricket sooner rather than later. There is no need to be wasting good balls on players like me…"
"Simon Katich threw me the ball and said 'give them a few bouncers'. So I just ran in and tried to knock Marcus North's head off every ball"
Soon Cummins was playing in the Sheffield Shield and being used as a battering ram by his state captain, Simon Katich. At the SCG against Western Australia, he caused Marcus North's life to flash past his eyes with a spell of short-pitched fury on a dull surface. "Simon Katich threw me the ball and said, 'We can give them a few bouncers if we can't get them out any other way,'" Cummins recalled. "So I just ran in and tried to knock his head off every ball, which in hindsight was pretty mean..."
That meanness extended to the Sheffield Shield final, where an injury-laiden Blues team had to rely on Cummins to bowl an enormous amount. In the first innings he sent down a scarcely believable 48 overs, returning 3 for 118, and it was no surprise when he was diagnosed with a back stress injury soon after Tasmania had completed their seven-wicket victory. What stood out about Cummins in that match was his accuracy and his stamina; he asked questions ball upon ball and proved every bit as precise as Trent Copeland's seaming mediums at the other end. Katich said of Cummins: "For a kid who is only 18 years of age, he has an amazing brain on him already."
What followed was a mild wrestle between NSW and Cricket Australia to manage Cummins' future. He became the youngest CA-contracted player in the history of the system, but missed an A tour of Zimbabwe because of the back trouble spawned by his Shield exertions. Andrew Hilditch's selection panel, soon to be disbanded in the wake of the Argus review, wanted to choose him for the Sri Lanka tour but ultimately waited until South Africa. Cummins promotion here had an unintended side-effect, for it held back the similarly fast and confident James Pattinson.
A tourist in Sri Lanka, Pattinson lost his place to Cummins for the ODI and Test legs of the South Africa tour, and went home to develop into the bowler who would nab 26 wickets in his first five Tests. "I watched him on TV [in Johannesburg] and thought, 'That could've been me', but I knew that one day it would come," Pattinson said.
Johannesburg was a moment in time, as Cummins helped Australia rebound from the humiliation of being bowled out for 47 to lose a Test match in Cape Town that they should have dominated. The captain, Michael Clarke, considers the match a turning point in the development of his team, and it could not have been accomplished without Cummins, who made a final contribution to the drama by swiping Imran Tahir's googly for the winning runs. The Age correspondent Greg Baum wrote: "On this tour, he has graduated from a project to a plan. There is a sense of knowing about his bowling that is not always apparent in Australia's more senior bowlers. Hereby he is dubbed postman Pat: he delivers."
Injury again curtailed Cummins on his return home, a nagging pain in his heel turning out to be stress hot spots. He was one of the most marketable faces of the Sydney Sixers' inaugural season in the Big Bash League, but made his appearances for the team in a business suit rather than his playing kit. When Cummins finally returned to competitive bowling in the new year it was, in a reminder of how young he remains, for Australia's Under-19s team.
Now, a little less than 12 months into his time as an international cricketer, Cummins has the chance to emulate Warne by tormenting England. There have been plenty of winces in the nets so far on tour as Cummins and James Pattinson have warmed into their work, but plenty of smiles too. For if it's difficult for the Australian batsmen in the nets, how fiendish might it be for their England counterparts in the middle? Whatever the trite lines about this tour having nothing to do with the Ashes, retaliation is on Australian minds. Much as the West Indies did over their extended period of pace dominance, Clarke's new model team is intent on raining blows with the bowlers now at their disposal. And England, the team that so humbled them down under, are next on the programme.
So far, the hosts have performed the English trick of saying one thing while meaning quite another. After facing Cummins for Essex, Ravi Bopara said he had nothing to say about Australia's players. Tim Bresnan was similarly lacking in insight, offering only "We've not looked at any videos yet. I don't really watch much cricket." Instead, it has been the team's video analyst, Gemma Broad, doing all the research, collecting footage of Pattinson against Leicestershire at Grace Road, and Cummins against Essex at Chelmsford. England know this attack will not be brushed off with the ease of the last Ashes series.
Broad's camera captured Cummins sending back three Essex batsman at little cost, demonstrating the control and thought that has been his calling card. But there was also the sense that Cummins was not letting himself go completely, that there were more gears left to shift through. Warne, it should be remembered, foxed England in 1993 by offering up only his stock ball to a greedy Graeme Hick at Worcester, then spinning the ball a metre at Old Trafford. Nineteen years on, Cummins will be hoping for a similarly dramatic start to his meetings with England. His talent is that rare.