MCG magic proves Pat Cummins rules the world
If the seamer can maintain this level for the rest of his career, he might just end up being the greatest ever
Eighteen innings and 11 months passed between Test match hauls of five wickets or more for Pat Cummins this year. When he claimed Tim Southee to finish with 5 for 28, Cummins was breaking a streak that spanned all the way back to the second innings of the first Test against Sri Lanka in Brisbane, in January.
For most bowlers, this would constitute a dry spell, lean patch, or whatever other cliche one wished to use. For Cummins, though, it was just another marker of a career that is already great, and on course to be one of the greatest of them all.
Why? Because in spite of that gap between big hauls, Cummins is still ending 2019 as the world's most prolific Test wicket-taker by an enormous margin, with his 59 victims some 16 better than Stuart Broad's 43 as the next best. What that demonstrates, above all else, is consistency, of method, of threat level, of fitness, and of mentality. Cummins really is a pace bowler you could set your watch to.
"I was happy with how it all came out today, I feel like I've been bowling well, especially the last couple of games, but today it felt like it all came together and fortunately a few nicks," Cummins said. "The stats keep coming up on the TV for the last year - Australia Day and those Tests last year feel so long ago, even the Ashes feel a long time ago.
"I'm lucky that I've played so much. The more I play, the less things you have to think about in terms of rhythm - it's easier to find. Every bowler has different cues, you've seen Starcy's got something written on his wrist.
"For me it's a feel thing, I'm trying to build up my run-up and make sure I'm really balanced and everything's moving straight down the wicket at release. Some days when its heavier legs, you feel like you have to over stride, or your weight's a little bit back. Normally when it's all coming out together, those are the type of days where you're not thinking about what happens."
The other reason to regard Cummins' prolific wicket-taking as even more special than usual is the fact that he is doing it in one of the strongest bowling attacks the world has seen. Cummins' teammates Mitchell Starc (42 wickets), Nathan Lyon (41) and Josh Hazlewood (33) all sit inside the top seven Test bowlers in the world for 2019, meaning that they are sharing and supporting one another in a way that provides precious little respite for any opponent.
It's the sort of grouping among three or four bowlers in the same team that has not been seen since the 1980s, when the West Indian pace battery operated in terrifying unison. One year worth noting on this score was 1984, when Joel Garner (77 wickets), Malcolm Marshall (73) and Michael Holding (43) occupied the top three spots on the global list of Test match wicket-takers for the year.
Another indicator of outstandingly consistent performance in a strong team is that of most wickets claimed in a series without once clinching five in a single innings. During this year's Ashes series, Cummins claimed the all-time record with his 29 victims. The previous record holder was the Australian Wayne Clarke, who nabbed 28 against India in 1977-78. But the most recurring name is that of the gargantuan Garner, who scooped 27 against England in 1985-86, 26 against the same opponents in 1980, and 25 against Pakistan in 1976-77, all with a best of 4 for 30.
Like Garner and numerous other West Indian pacemen of the 1980s and 1990s, Cummins relies more on speed, bounce, an unrelenting line and subtle seam movement than any outrageous amount of movement through the air. His ability to simply ask vexing questions of a batsman's nerve, concentration and technique, ball after splice-hitting ball, was amply demonstrated at the MCG, as he used the channel around off stump to defeat each of Tom Blundell, Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, Tom Latham and finally Southee.
If there is something metronomic about the line, the variation Cummins can wring from hard Australian pitches is more often than not of the vertical variety, with just enough bounce and zip to turn the middle of the bat into an edge. One telling aspect of his success is that, in recent times at least, he has virtually avoided lbw as a means of dismissal. The ball that snaked past Nicholls to win an lbw verdict from the umpire Maris Erasmus at the MCG was Cummins' first lbw in his past 70 Test wickets, and one of only six in total.
While this is a comment on the sorts of bails-and-edges-threatening lengths Cummins tends to bowl as much as anything else, it also hints at the fact that he is able to generate steep bounce on just about any surface. That trajectory has, in turn, allowed for Cummins' team-mates to capitalise with fuller deliveries against opponents who have been pushed back onto their stumps.
Asked about lbws being so few and far between, Cummins' response was amusing: "Was it? None in England? I probably should have bowled fuller. I feel like a lot of the wickets are caught behind the wicket or a few short balls, I feel like when the wicket is pretty true it can be hard to attack the stumps sometimes, so that's always a challenge, trying to get the ball in a position where you can get an lbw or a bowled. But that's surprised me, because we always talk about trying to hit the top of the bails and that kind of height - I'll work on that."
While it may seem difficult to believe that Cummins has too much to work on, he is constantly looking at incremental gains. "I feel like I'm always working on things, always trying to get better," he said. "Some days feel better than others and it's about trying to minimise those days where rhythm isn't as good.
"For me I'm always working on things, whether it's trying to get my seam a bit better or try to swing the ball a bit more, try to maintain pace, all those things. It's a constant battle of staying on top of plenty of things. But I've had a pretty good run lately so I can't see it getting too much better than what the last year's been, but hopefully I can maintain that level."
If Cummins can "maintain that level" for the remainder of his career, he may not be just one of the greats of fast bowling, but perhaps the greatest ever.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig