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Cummins faces rocky transition into Australia captaincy

It is a journey into an unknown world for both Australian cricket and Cummins himself, who will have to juggle a number of responsibilities

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
In the middle of last week - a moment that now feels a long time ago - Pat Cummins was asked about the likely need for Australia to rotate their fast bowlers during the Ashes.
While in one breath saying he thought it unlikely that all the quicks could play the five Tests, he then added: "I certainly won't be putting my hand up to be rested unless I've got something going wrong."
If what is highly expected to happen in the coming days is confirmed, and Cummins is named as Australia's next Test captain following the sudden departure of Tim Paine, then it may not even be up for discussion.
It is a remarkable part of the Cummins story that he has become Australia's most durable fast bowler. Since his return to Test cricket in 2017, only Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Nathan Lyon and R Ashwinhave bowled more overs. A major success story for sports science after Cricket Australia saw the talent they had but held him back from Test cricket for six years following his stunning debut - which marked its 10th anniversary just a few days ago. But that durability will now be tested to the full.
There is recent evidence that Cummins can withstand the strains of the five Tests which are largely back-to-back from early December to mid-January. He was the only one of Australia's fast bowlers to play all five Tests in the 2019 Ashes as the team embraced rotation although conditions in England are not as brutal as those that can play out in this country.
However, if his elevation is rubberstamped it is a journey into an unknown world, both for Australian cricket and Cummins himself. The previous fast bowler to captain an Australia men's side in any format was Ray Lindwall who did it for one Test in 1956. Having a wicketkeeper in the role was going against the grain, too, even if not quite so much and it does raise a question about whether an on-field leadership void has opened up in the Australian men's game.
History is not without specialist quicks (the list is widened if allrounders are included) who have held the position over the longer-term - Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram and Bob Willis among them - but it remains a select group. Bowling fast is the toughest job in the game, physically at least, and there is the added challenge of a bowler-captain needing both a singular focus and a wider view of the game when they have ball in the hand.
For a batter, the traditional custodians of captaincy in the game, all they need to worry about at the crease doing their main job is the next ball and that innings. The other questions don't go away, but they are more easily parked when the team is at the crease.
The other factor for Cummins will be knowing when not to bowl. He was Paine's go-to man last season against India, particularly by the time the series reached the final Test, but he will need to resist the temptation of feeling he has to be the one to take the ball on all occasions. When Andrew Flintoff was named England captain in 2006 he bowled himself into the ground, peaking at 68 overs during a Test against Sri Lanka in Lord's after which he was never the same again.
Writing in Nine newspapers, Greg Chappell said that Cummins had some natural advantages that other quick bowlers may not.
"The captain traditionally fields close to the wicket to control proceedings," he said. "Cummins is such a brilliant all-round fielder that he can be close to his bowlers, instead of the outfield pastures usually favoured by fast bowlers. My biggest fear? The workload, which could preclude him playing a full, five-Test series, without a rest. So, it would be interesting to see who is appointed as his deputy. Cummins will also have to learn to use himself judiciously and neither over-bowl nor under-bowl. It is imperative that the seniors in the team advise him, in a timely manner."
That is not say Cummins won't be able to make a success of it, he is a hugely impressive cricketer with a terrific mind - and, perhaps significantly, a broad range of interests beyond runs and wickets - but there is precious little on-field evidence to go by. His professional captaincy experience is four one-day games for New South Wales last season, a role he was given with the future national leadership in mind although not quite so soon.
He was good in those domestic one-day matches but was not overly taxed by too many situations. And, with due respect to the Marsh Cup, the consequences of it not going so well were minimal. That certainly won't be the case come next month in Brisbane, not to mention the weeks leading up to that first ball which will test his leadership given the situation in which he is set to be appointed.
"My biggest fear? The workload, which could preclude him playing a full, five-Test series, without a rest. So, it would be interesting to see who is appointed as his deputy."
Greg Chappell on Cummins' challenges
As Chappell pointed out, the identity of the vice-captain is arguably just as intriguing. Steven Smith is a strong candidate although that would put him one injury away from taking the captaincy again and it remains to be seen if, in the current climate, that is something Cricket Australia wants. Beyond that, it becomes a rather thin field, particularly in terms of experience.
David Warner is not an option as he remains banned from any leadership position in Australian cricket for life - although there is a push to have that reconsidered - and it feels too early for Marnus Labuschagne. Travis Head is a previous vice-captain but is not assured of his place in the middle. Usman Khawaja has the experience and standing but is fighting for the final batting spot with Head. During the era of dual vice-captains, Josh Hazlewood also had the title. If ultimately it is decided that Paine can't keep his position in the team and Alex Carey takes the gloves, he would be a candidate even on Test debut. Nathan Lyon, with 100 Tests to his name, would seem worthwhile of consideration.
Whoever is the deputy, Cummins faces an even tougher transition into the job than Paine did. When the ball-tampering unfolded at Newlands, there was very little expectation that the final Test in Johannesburg would be anything other than a car crash for Australia and so it played out. By the time their next Test came around, six months later, there had at least been time to take stock even if the fallout would still be felt for a long time. This time there are barely days to pick up the pieces before the series that so often defines Australian cricket.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo