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Comment

Pat Cummins is golden - for now at least

Why the Australia captain represents an unusually evolved cricket leader for his age

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
03-Mar-2022
Pat Cummins wait for the coin to drop at the toss, Australia vs England, The Men's Ashes, 5th Test, 1st day, Hobart, January 14, 2021

Heavy lies the head that wears the baggy green, but Cummins wears it lightly for now  •  AFP/Getty Images

"To all past players, I want to say this: Just as you have always stuck up for your mates, I'm sticking up for mine."
As sign-offs go, this one on the Justin Langer saga is one heck of a finish.
Not unlike, if you think about it, a Pat Cummins wicket. No frothing, no foaming. No energy wasted. All very concise, very precise. The flourish of the message lies in its economy and its devastating finality.
Like that ball to Joe Root at Old Trafford in the 2019 Ashes. You may be England captain, the ball acknowledges, and this may be the Ashes, it adds, but I'm being delivered by Patrick Cummins, it warns, and I'll sell you an inswinger, it promises, and I'll land on a perfect length, it winks, and then I'll straighten and hit the top of off, it laughs, as it casually drops that conversation dead.
Read the entire statement all through to that payoff. It's a Pat Cummins spell. Pacy: it takes just under two and half minutes to read. Lays out basic principles clearly: "I believe in respecting the sanctity of the change room and proper process" is making sure to hit the top of off stump, ball after ball. Occasionally, something's thrown in to make sure you're paying attention: "Justin has acknowledged that his style was intense. And it was", is the one that beats either edge and needs replaying or re-reading a couple of times.
Then the chef's kiss.
Another Root dismissal comes to mind, this one from the Gabba at the 2017-18 Ashes. Cummins has talked about that set-up, how, over nine balls, he's gradually pulling Root's front foot across with a fifth-stump line. He wants to drag him out, then trap him leg-before as he falls over with one that ducks in.
Cummins' control stats are stunning, and for most of those ten balls he hits that off-stump line impeccably. In between he slips one that comes back, but Root lets it go. For the tenth ball, having got that front foot where he wants it, Cummins bowls a sharp inswinger. He knows this carries risk, because there's always the danger it will slip harmlessly down leg side, or be clipped for runs. This is Cummins, though, and it's perfect. Root duly falls across and is leg-before: finish as you mean to set it up. Cummins does this all the time on the field. So regularly, in fact, that his genius runs the danger of becoming normalised.
Like that inswinger, that statement also comes across as a risk, although it does also feel, undeniably, like a moment in modern Australian cricket.

****

On Friday, Cummins will become the first Australian to lead his side in a Test on Pakistan soil in over 23 years. This is a moment too. There's much to say about that absence, little of it complimentary of Cricket Australia, but now is not the time for it. Now is the time to reflect on the bigness of this moment.
In some ways, this tour is similar to Australia's tour to Pakistan in 1959-60, their first proper one here (they had played a solitary Test in Karachi three years previously). At the time this part of the world was thought to be neither especially attractive nor particularly important as a destination; in 1956 it was a pitstop on the way back from an Ashes series. But in 1959, Australia were touring the subcontinent during their own domestic season and though some players didn't want to tour, they were told by the Australian board they had better, or else.
Because it was the first real visit and because it took place at the height of the Cold War, the captain, Richie Benaud, contacted the Australian prime minister and met with a top diplomat to make sure he knew what was what before he got out there. Pakistan had just had its introduction to military dictatorship and the US president was scheduled to visit during the tour (and though he did end up watching, he wasn't there to watch cricket but to firm up a Cold War ally). The tour needed delicate navigation and even now, nearly seven years after Benaud passed, over 60 years after the tour, it's easy to imagine how well he would have steered through it, sharp on the field, sensitive and charming off it.
You'd think, 60 years on, no way the geopolitical sensitivities would be quite as heightened again but, well, perhaps you haven't yet taken a casual doomscroll down a social media timeline. But Cummins has much to put right in Australian cricket, rather than worrying about broader political equilibriums. Repairing Australian cricket's image within Pakistan for one, or, like Benaud, starting all over. But it's also a little bit about righting Australian cricket's pandemic-era withdrawal. It's their first tour of Pakistan in 23 years, but it's also their first Test tour anywhere other than England since 2019. So in an as-yet unspecified order, Cummins will be fast bowler, captain, leader and ambassador all tour.
Australians have long intuited it, but to the outside world he has emerged recently as just the man for it, a captain who will not only make sure he does not say or do anything stupid but a leader who might actively say and do the right things.
A word of caution: we can't ever really know our public figures, no matter how much we claim we might. We pretend we do, by drawing profiles based on interviews that aim to condense a life into an hour, or through their autobiographies, or by ascribing them traits off the back of their on-field deeds. And in these divisive times, we readily reduce them to easy, binary caricatures.
This applies to every public figure but is especially relevant considering the experiences of the last two Australian Test captains, built up as solid, all-round great guys until they were revealed to be - gasp! - simply guys. We think we know them. Time and again we learn that we don't.
All that we can know is that they must work off some inner peace or tumult, some unknowable urges or apathies exactly like the rest of us humans do; their lives propelled by the usual motivations and machinations of humans, except they operate inside glass houses where everyone's looking in and at the ready with stones.
In Cummins' case, it feels doubly necessary to throw in the caveat of Sandpapergate and its implications for Australia's attack that day. That still feels unresolved, until at least as long as the Loud, Baffling and Ongoing Silence of David Warner continues.
This, then, is proffered with the greatest trepidation: that Cummins represents an unusually evolved leader for cricket in this age. Not just placed against the missteps of Tim Paine or Steve Smith, but of most captains.
Because just as you might watch Cummins best deliveries, listen to his thoughts on racism (or read them here). He's not indulging in some groupthink, box-ticking here. There's active self-education at play, as well as an understanding of how it ties in with historical issues at home - to do with Australia's treatment of its indigenous population.
Or read his column on the climate crisis. That awareness too comes from personal experience, spurred by the birth of his first child. He wants to leave the world in better shape for the people who come after him: it's not so much a pose as basic manners.

****

It's tempting to see that statement on Langer as the full stop not only to his coaching tenure but that entire era; a full stop, that is, between Australia's goldenest generation and all subsequent ones, who, by definition, cannot be as golden; those are your mates, these are mine.
It's more complicated than that, of course, and eras can never be so neatly demarcated. But if one of the consequences from this is that a more enlightened Australia team emerges, one less self-righteous, one less fussed about that wretched "line" and the ethos around it that its predecessors were so hung up on, then that is outright a good thing.
But a more immediate consequence is that a fair bit is riding on this series, or any that Cummins is going to lead in for a while. A loss here and you can imagine some of those former cricketers waiting to wade in. Not far behind them, a wider commentariat too. Because the issues that Cummins has chosen to speak on are so polarising, not least in Australia, that he has already been cussed out in some quarters as a woke poster boy leading a merry team of snowflakes. He should concentrate only on cricket, this numbskull thinking goes, and not, you know, have thoughts about the planet he inhabits or the people who inhabit it around him.
On such issues, we see time and again, the blowback can be intense and unpredictable. Which is the precarious thing about Cummins on this trip. For a man whose only career blemishes so far amount to the yearly moustache he grows (and for the good cause of Movember at that), stepping into Pakistan represents uncertain terrain not only literally, but figuratively.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo