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James Pattinson: A tale of pain and glory

Fast and furious, he often pushed through pain with grit and determination to stay relevant in his injury-ridden career

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
James Pattinson looks on, Australia vs New Zealand, 2nd Test, MCG, Melbourne, 3rd day, December 28, 2019

James Pattinson has 81 Test scalps from 21 appearances  •  CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Australia couldn't believe their luck when they found James Pattinson. Another one. Another young fast bowler who could be a generational talent. Another stallion from the stable.
A kid from Dandenong. The younger brother of England one-Test wonder Darren Pattinson. But James was a different beast altogether. Fast and furious with a V8 engine and with the heart of a lion. It seemed like he had shades of a young Peter Siddle but supercharged.
He debuted in the same Test match as Mitchell Starc, just a fortnight after Pat Cummins, with Josh Hazlewood already in and around Australia's limited-overs team.
It was too good to be true - four express quicks that Australia could call on at any time in any combination to terrorise batters all around the world for the next decade.
At 21, Pattinson tore through New Zealand on Test debut at the Gabba with a frightening ferocity. He took the first five wickets in the second innings including the scalps of Brendan McCullum, Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, and Ross Taylor, claiming three in a single over. Fast late outswingers and searing bouncers were his calling card. He was the Player-of-the-Match on debut and Player-of-the-Series after claiming five-wicket hauls in his first two Tests. He was the Player-of-the-Match in his third Test against India on Boxing Day.
But the attributes that made him so good were often too much for his body to handle. He broke down twice in 2012, his competitiveness getting the better of him in the famous Adelaide Test versus South Africa as he attempted to push through pain against advisement.
He would more than make up for it in his next Test in India. In 30 overs of sheer will in Chennai, he took 5 for 96 while Australia conceded 572. Going wide of the crease and delivering missile-like inswingers at 145kph, he shattered the stumps of M Vijay, Virender Sehwag, Cheteshwar Pujara, and Ravindra Jadeja, and bounced out MS Dhoni on 224. But two Tests later, he was dropped as the youngest of the quartet caught up in 'homeworkgate'.
He bowled like a caged lion unleashed at his home away from home at Trent Bridge in the opening hour of the first Ashes Test a few months later. But again, his back gave way and forced him to miss six more months. It started a vicious cycle. He would get a stress fracture, recover from it, remodel his action to get back only to be asked by his nation to go all out again.
It was the case in Cape Town in 2014. With the series and the world No. 1 Test ranking on the line, he wasn't quite ready to return but was asked to push through. While the win was remembered for Ryan Harris' heroics, team-mates fondly recall Pattinson's efforts, bowling with express pace and complete disregard for his back and taking the crucial wicket of Hashim Amla in the second innings. Australia won the Test and celebrated claiming the mace. Pattinson's reward was nine more months on the sidelines following another stress fracture.
He played four Tests over the summer of 2015-16 but again broke down in New Zealand. The final straw came in 2017 when his back was so bad he made the brave decision to have radical spinal surgery. His surgeon, who had helped Shane Bond back to full fitness, thought it was the riskiest case he had worked on.
Pattinson's rehab took 18 months. There were days he couldn't move, describing the procedure to have a steel rod inserted in his spine as feeling like someone had encased his lower back in concrete.
But at the start of the 2018-19 Australian domestic season, he returned as a batter in grade cricket for Dandenong and second XI cricket for Victoria. He had an ambitious target to play in the 2019 Ashes.
Sheer grit and determination and the ability to push through the pain barrier made that ambition a reality. He proved his worth with a stunning return in the 2019 Sheffield Shield final helping Victoria to the title.
Pattinson batting at No.7 raised the possibility of him, Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc all playing together with Nathan Lyon in a five-man Test attack. But while current world Test champions New Zealand had no fear in playing their best four quicks together, Australia were never confident to do the same believing Pattinson could only bat at No. 7 in first-class cricket. The quartet never once played together, and Pattinson, Cummins and Hazlewood did only once, in the famous Headingley Test and save for one of the greatest innings of all-time from Ben Stokes, it might have been a masterstroke.
Pattinson would play just two more Tests thereafter. A suspension for abuse in a Shield game cost him part of the 2019-20 summer, and a freak injury at home cost him a chance to be part of Australia's series against India in 2020-21.
The depths of lockdown in Melbourne over a two-year period undoubtedly expedited Pattinson's decision to withdraw from the international game. Endless training in an indoor centre is no place for a lion. The V8 engine needed to be revved on the open road, and it needed to be revved with no fear of breaking down. He can play with complete freedom for Victoria in domestic cricket, whereas in a four-man attack for Australia, there are consequences if his body lets him down, and that seems a burden he no longer wants to carry.
Pattinson has 302 first-class wickets at present, 92 more than Cummins. But he finishes with just 81 Test scalps from 21 appearances, less than half of Cummins' current tally, while Starc has 255 having debuted in the same Test at the Gabba 10 years ago.
It seems unjust for a bowler of Pattinson's quality. But he finishes content and cut a happy and comfortable figure at Victoria training on Thursday.
Australia fans will miss him dearly and ruefully. International batters won't.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo