Cummins channels big Merv in spell of heart and skill

Cape Town, March 1994, and Merv Hughes plays the last of his 53 Test matches. Struggling for rhythm and still smarting from fines for abusive language during the previous match at the Wanderers, he goes wicketless in an Australian victory.

This uncharacteristically subdued and ineffective display was the final exception that proved the rule so far as Hughes was concerned: for so long he had been the man to whom Allan Border threw the ball when nothing much was happening. Whether it was with a snarl, a sledge, a bouncer, or even a comical legbreak slower ball, Hughes repeatedly conjured the big and game-changing wickets his captain needed - 212 in all, often on a wonky knee.

Twenty-four years on, there was a fittingness about Hughes being in the crowd at the Kelvin Grove End of Newlands to watch Pat Cummins go to work in a display that turned day one in Cape Town almost as dramatically as Kagiso Rabada had shifted things in Port Elizabeth.

It was his fourth spell, amid the most friendly conditions for batting all series. In the nuggety form of Dean Elgar and the more cultured hands of AB de Villiers, South Africa looked capable of batting on endlessly, and were certainly on track to match Australia's 331 for 3 on day one of the corresponding match at this ground in 2014, aided by Nathan Lyon's drop of Elgar on 53 at backward point.

While 34 runs had been collected in seven overs since tea, the more troubling element for Australia was the manner in which the game was getting away from them. Elgar, so often batting on the edge of his wits and his bat, looked completely at ease; de Villiers was simply maintaining the irrepressible form of his entire series, this time with top-order help. Josh Hazlewood, after a strong start, had faded, Mitchell Starc had been scattergun all day, and Lyon was sparingly used.

Cummins had already captured some attention this day, through television footage that showed him treading on the ball. Whether this contact was "inappropriate" or "deliberate" is a question for the match referee Andy Pycroft, though neither umpire took their chance to penalise the Australians five runs or change the ball. Either way, Cummins' spells had shown a trend towards greater parsimony the older the ball got: five overs for 22, five for 25 and then three for just five in the afternoon.

But it was a wicket the Australians needed, and they were not choosy about how it arrived. Steven Smith's experience with Cummins this season has grown similar to that of Border with Hughes two decades ago, and he has increasingly looked to the 24-year-old to be his game-changer. Two examples stood out during the Ashes: Joe Root lbw on the first evening of the series at the Gabba, and then Dawid Malan bowled from around the wicket under lights at the Adelaide Oval in the fourth innings of the second.

To that can now be added a third, as Cummins coaxed de Villiers into popping a gentle catch to David Warner at mid-off. The moment came as a total surprise to almost everyone at Newlands, and must have felt like manna from heaven for the Australians after their mighty struggle to remove de Villiers during the first two Tests. Certainly Cummins was alert to the opportunity he had created, and proceeded to produce a spell of unrelenting quality and shattering effectiveness, with the help of some reverse swing.

Next to go was Faf du Plessis, worn down by 12 consecutive deliveries from Cummins that nagged away around his off stump and reaped a single boundary. The wicket-taker was a little shorter and a little wider, moving subtly away and tempting du Plessis to follow it, which he did right into the hands of an exultant Smith. Where de Villiers' exit had been greeted by Australian relief, this one started to create a sense of elation.

Temba Bavuma walked to the middle for the first time in this series with injury and a lack of match practice behind him. While the scoreboard still looked favourable for the Proteas, Cummins' greeting for Bavuma underlined the high standard to which this series is being played - it is no easy thing simply to slot into the contest in midstream. Beaten twice in six balls by a hint of bounce and movement away, Bavuma could not avoid edging the seventh, which again flew obligingly to Smith. The Australians at the ground who had sat disconsolately in their seats for much of the day were now well and truly out of them.

By now Cummins' spell had passed the five-over mark, but there was a further echo of Hughes in his ability to keep going for his captain, fuelled by adrenaline and the expectation of further wickets. The reward duly came in Cummins' seventh over, as a vacant square leg and a shortish ball on a tight line tempted Quinton de Kock into a misjudged pull shot and an under-edge, this time through to Tim Paine. Smith gave his weary paceman one more over to test out Vernon Philander, and Cummins beat the bat once more before a pull shot and a boundary finally brought a change.

Nevertheless, Cummins had changed the game. His figures for the spell - 8-3-12-4 - stretched the bounds of credulity in the prevailing conditions, and spoke volumes for his heart, skill and fitness. "I quite like long spells because it normally means you're into a rhythm," Cummins said. "It was probably lucky it cooled down towards the end of the day, it was quite hot through the first two sessions.

"With his beer gut and broad beam, Hughes was remarkably durable through the peak years of his career; after a six-year break between his first Test and his second, Cummins is now a fixture in the team, and gaining a reputation for hardiness in the game's most physically taxing role"

"I don't think [Smith] could have got the ball out of my hand. He just kept asking if I was good for another one ... it felt like I had a bit of a wind behind me and wickets always make the legs feel a bit fresher and I think by my last over I was ready to hand it over. They were two down at tea and we thought we were in for a pretty long day today and maybe into tomorrow.

"It probably crossed most of our minds that the two guys who were in and had a really good partnership looked really set and the wicket wasn't doing too much, so I felt like I could've been in for a long day. To get the AB breakthrough, that's the big one, they were scoring freely, and once he was out it was like a new batsman starting against the reversing ball is always hard, and that put us right on the way. To have them 8 for 260 at the start of the day you'd have definitely taken that."

In this there was one more parallel with Hughes, despite their wildly contrasting physiques. With his beer gut and broad beam, Hughes was remarkably durable through the peak years of his career; after a six-year break between his first Test and his second, Cummins is now a fixture in the team, and gaining a reputation for hardiness in the game's most physically taxing role.

"My body at the moment is one thing I don't have to think about anywhere near as much as I used to, so it's brilliant," he said. "I feel like I can just go out there and bowl as fast as I can each spell, and a four-Test series at the back of a five-match [series] is a pretty long series, but I just have to worry about staying fresh and bowling well rather than any injuries."

For the peskiness he showed around the Australian dressing room, Hughes earned the sobriquet of "fruit fly" from teammates. On this day in Cape Town, the only cricketers annoyed by Cummins' presence were South African, and in the stands his moustachioed fast-bowling forebear could look with plenty of admiration upon a display so redolent of his game-breaking best.