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Analysis

Cummins: An Aussie World Cup winning captain like no other

There were questions about him at the start of the World Cup, but by the end of it, he killed all the chatter

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
21-Nov-2023
Put Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Pat Cummins into a room together and welcome to the easiest odd-one-out question ever. It's obviously Cummins. The first three are, by and large, all from that one particular lineage of Australian captains. Hard nuts, take no prisoners, Mates R 4 life, sport is war until it's a shared beer.
Clarke might have been a mid-2000s metrosexual poster boy but he yearned to be like his predecessors. In the process, he oversaw a side mouthy enough to once be labelled "a pack of dogs" and uttered the single most unimaginative sledge of all time, one that has become a commandment of cricket's Bro Code.
What is common between all of them is also obvious, that they are, after Sunday night, ODI World Cup winning Australian captains and what that should tell us, is that niceness or nastiness, hardness or softness, wokeness or whateverness, has nothing to do with captaincy.
What captaincy boils down to is all the little decisions Cummins made in Ahmedabad that ultimately paid off. Such as the decision to bowl first, having been unsure about it right until the toss. He gambled that the wicket would play better in the evening, but also calculated that not getting it right with the bat first would be fatal in a way not doing so with the ball wouldn't. Imagine the flak had they lost.
He actually hit a tactical high in the final, nimble and fluid with his plans, shedding some of the rigidity and mis-steps of the run-in. He hurried through bowling changes in those middle overs, often bringing on bowlers for one-over spells, not in panic, but with a clear purpose: don't allow Indian batters any rhythm. That allowed plenty of resources for the death should they have been needed; a strong possibility against the team with the second-highest scoring rate in this tournament in that phase.
The fields were carefully calibrated fields at all times, the angles just right, somewhere finer, somewhere else squarer, in impact enlarging the boundaries and making them feel, spiritually, as distant as they have ever looked for this Indian order. It was, ultimately, this most unusual feat: a masterful old-fashioned Sri Lankan choke, straight from the 90s and 2000s, except executed by Australia and their fast-bowling captain.
The impression that Cummins has had an uneven tournament with the ball is not entirely misplaced. It's more, I think, that Cummins with a red cherry in hand is Cummins in excelsis and anything else is just not the same. That is his true happy space. But the sleight of numbers masks the real impact of his work.
He dismissed Virat Kohli in the final and the Sri Lanka openers in that crucial league game in Lucknow, but also David Miller, a thrilling hundred to the good, in the semi-final where, had he stayed, another 30 runs were eminently possible and critical. In Ahmedabad, Cummins got Dawid Malan for 50 when England were revving up at 103 for two in a chase of 287, only to abruptly falter. In the 41st over at Dharamshala, Rachin Ravindra was keeping New Zealand in the hunt for a big chase until he got done by a Cummins slower ball, on 116. In Bengaluru, Saud Shakeel and Mohammad Rizwan were rebuilding briskly after Babar Azam's dismissal until Cummins got Shakeel with a short ball.
That's seven of his 15 wickets, each of either an embedded batter, or breaking a set partnership. Each incision a decisive one, prompting a distinct momentum shift in the game. For a fast-bowling captain in a batter-dominated World Cup, that's quite the imprint.
It's some way to finish the second full year of his captaincy and will no doubt lighten what has not been an easy year for Cummins. He lost his mother while leading Australia on a Test tour of India, a close-fought series which Australia lost.
He then led them to the World Test Championship, but the Ashes were bruising. And by the end, Cummins looked, for perhaps the first time in his career, slightly frayed. Had there been no rain at Old Trafford, England would likely have won the series from 0-2 down. That's the truth of it. Retaining the Ashes does not quite have the ring of winning the Ashes; neither did squandering a lead feel very Australian.
Plus he's rarely looked as ineffective as a Test bowler as he did during the second half of that series, going for over five an over across more than 80 overs. The purring, repeatable operation that constitutes his bowling - back of a length on demand, hovering on off, in, out, straight on - looked, for the first time, as if it wasn't enough. And placed against the avant-garde leadership of Ben Stokes, Cummins' captaincy at times came across as not inadequate so much as prudish.
Some of that mood filtered through ahead of the start of the World Cup, when it was reasonable to wonder how good a fit Cummins was as ODI captain. He'd only led Australia four times before in the format. Squeezing a three-man pace attack in the XI, in which one bowler was an undoubted format great and the other the No.1 ranked bowler at the time, in conditions where three might not be needed, was a legitimate concern.
Six weeks later and we're reminded that there's nothing like a World Cup win to drop dead all the chatter. Not the right format? World Cup winner. Not enough leadership experience? World Cup winner. Too woke? World Cup winner. Too polarising? World Cup winner. Too soft? World Cup winner. Too nice? World Cup winner. Did wrong by Justin Langer? World Cup winner. Not Aussie enough? World Cup winner.
It has not been the flawless campaign of Ponting's sides in 2003 or 2007. In its stuttering start, perhaps there was a bit of Waugh's 1999. Winning it in India, where they began as underdogs right the way through until they won it, had a little of Border's 1987. And in nearly half of this squad being part of the 2015 triumph under Clarke, it can't help but retain some of the flavour.
But really, as with each one of the others, this one will also stand as a triumph all on its own, identifiable in time instantly and primarily by the name of its leader.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo