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The menace and unfairness of Pat Cummins

The Australian captain's show in the Tests in Pakistan puts him alongside pantheon of greats

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Life is manifestly unfair; we know this. It is unfair in so many trivial ways, not to say anything of the more important ways, and then one day you open your eyes and Pat Cummins is bowling, and life? Jeez there's no end to its unfairness.
We're living through a great pace age. Cummins bowls alongside Josh Hazlewood, who's kinda Glenn McGrath, kinda Stuart Clark, better than the latter, forever evoking the former. He also bowls alongside Mitchell Starc, a rangier Mitchell Johnson who comes without the bad and the really bad days.
(Note to self: don't forget Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson or Neil Wagner, because everyone does.)
In opposition, Jasprit Bumrah and Kagiso Rabada are magnificent, one like nobody else, the other with the latent electricity of Michael Holding. They are generational talents and will be all-time greats.
(Note to self: don't forget Southee, Boult, Jamieson or Wagner because everyone does.)
James Anderson and Stuart Board are greats already and if Jofra Archer ever comes back, he'd be a shoo-in.
(Note to self: don't forget Southee, Boult, Jamieson or Wagner because everyone does.)
Beyond them, there are Mohammad Shami, Ishant Sharma, Kemar Roach and Shaheen Shah Afridi - quality fast bowlers everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, some going, some coming.
Don't forget Southee, Boult, Jamieson or Wagner. Everyone does but this roll call comprises two of the top three greatest fast bowlers the country has produced, a rare, unique young talent and then Wagner, a man so permanently pumped he must even sleep aggressively.
But all of them, when Cummins bowls like he has just done in Pakistan, or the Ashes before that, or the Border-Gavaskar Trophy before that, or the Trans-Tasman Trophy before that, or the Ashes before that - this could go on - they might look at him and wonder how and why it is that life is this unfair.
Batters, of course, are plenty familiar with the unfairness of Cummins. If you are new to Cummins, like Abdullah Shafique was this series, you become familiar real quick. Shafique is young and assured and has looked very much at home in international cricket. In time, people will look at this series, see that he top-scored for Pakistan, see that Cummins got him only once in six innings and conclude that he won the battle.
Except that had Australia's cordon had a better series, Cummins may have dismissed him three more times and we'd be talking bunnies. The one dismissal also illustrated precisely why Shafique had won nothing - not the battle, not the war. He was well-set on 96 on the final day in Karachi, Cummins came back before lunch and dropped seamlessly into a groove, like a needle on to vinyl. He showed Shafique a slightly wider off-stump line for an over; then, as Shafique waited at the non-striker's end the next over, showed that he was getting reverse both ways to Babar Azam. When Shafique faced up again he got suckered into driving a ball that was easily wide enough to leave, but one he couldn't because he was unsure which way the ball would go and by how much.
If you're familiar, you may learn anew. Mohammad Rizwan reckons Hazlewood is the toughest bowler he has faced but after this series, he will re-assess. Because he is rarely looked as worked over as he was by Cummins in the first innings in Karachi. He was in more trouble in the seven balls he faced from Cummins that afternoon than he was through all 44 international matches combined last year; swing, seam, pace, bounce, it was an outrageous little flutter of Cummins' skills.
What it wasn't, though, was especially different from his usual mode, which is also the most resounding endorsement of his bowling. He doesn't need to drastically change what he does wherever he goes, even on pitches as unresponsive as these, because what he does is that good. However much Hazlewood evokes him, nothing is more truly McGrathian than this.
Cummins - and Australia - found sustained reverse, for the first time since Sandpapergate. In any series with less diplomacy riding on it than this one, how they managed it would have been played up much more than it was. But a wholesome survey of Cummins' work this series is clear as to the method deployed: park outside off, on a length, or just back of it and stay there. Nearly 60% of the 661 balls he bowled in the series were in this channel, not that different to the 55% from December 2020 to before this series. Maybe the off-stump line was a trifle tighter than it would've been on better surfaces. At least that is the inference from the fact that he made Pakistani batters play at more balls than he usually does. On average, they left just under one ball per over, whereas over the last 18 months or so, batters have usually left nearly two balls per each Cummins over.
Fast bowlers fret and tinker when they travel, as is natural when the two most critical elements to their trade - the ball in their hands and the surface beneath their feet - change depending on where they are. On low, slow surfaces such as those in this series, they often go fuller and straighter, or use more cutters, or any other variations. Apart from bowling in shorter bursts, Cummins didn't change anything.
There's a danger that all this come across a little, if not dull, then utilitarian; assembly-line bowling where no ball is distinguishable from the other. And it is true that because Cummins' genius is on such consistent and abundant display, it can sometimes make it appear more matter of fact. But it's not. You only have to recall the yorker to dismiss Rizwan on the final day in Lahore, or the one to Babar in Karachi that he somehow kept out, or that return catch off Azhar Ali (unfairness manifest because no, human beings, you cannot do that), to know how spectacular Cummins can make cricket look.
And remember his pace because cricket is always a better look with real pace. Pace is where the game is at its most physical, its most athletic and dangerous and demanding, in what it asks of the deliverer of pace and the person tasked to keep it out. Cummins is genuinely quick, a man who hovers in the 140s kmph so comfortably you suspect he could go faster, only he is too polite because now that would make batters look really silly. It's that kind of pace, the kind that works on any pitch. No contemporary combines those traits - the high pace with the extreme accuracy - like Cummins does.
Only the very greatest ever have, which is the company he is keeping now - and everywhere you look numbers are putting him inexorably in the all-time category. He is mingling with the finest West Indian fast bowlers in terms of the best performances in Pakistan by any non-Pakistani fast bowler.
Give or take a Dale Steyn, this has been one of the finest performances in the continent by a visiting fast bowler.
Yes, life is unfair because nobody can be this good and then one day you open your eyes and Pat Cummins is bowling and actually, we're just lucky to be around.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo