Pat Cummins poses for photos at Bronte beach in Sydney
© Getty Images


The naive and fragile boy who became the world's top bowler

Pat Cummins was young and thrillingly quick but never fit long enough to make an impact. Not anymore

Melinda Farrell  |  

The light was fading fast and Australia were in serious trouble. The thrilling first Test in Cape Town had featured two dramatic batting collapses but Australia's second-innings total of 47 was calamitous - their lowest in 109 years. Now, in Johannesburg, they needed 18 runs to level the series while eight wickets down and facing Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander with the new ball.

Eighteen-year-old Pat Cummins walked to the crease and took guard on debut. He had already taken six wickets in South Africa's second innings, and seven overall, bowling with impressive pace and swing. He had rocketed into the Australian side on the back of mouth-watering potential and a handful of first-class performances for New South Wales. There were murmurs that this kid had the chops to one day stand in the pantheon of great Aussie quicks.

But now he had to save Australia with the bat. Mitchell Johnson was at the other end, and a visibly apprehensive Nathan Lyon padded up on the dressing-room balcony. Steyn and Philander mixed hostile short balls with others of length tempting enough to drive. Cummins edged one for three, wildly tried to pull another, played some off his pads, and played and missed while trying to drive. Then he narrowly survived an lbw review against Imran Tahir and a ball later confidently and outrageously hit a short delivery through midwicket to get the winning runs.

Asked about his innings by broadcaster Mike Haysman at the end of the match, Cummins exhibited the exuberance of unblemished youth: "Mitch asked me to keep a cool head and I took that for swinging," he grinned.

The wunderkind had won the day in breezy, dramatic, blockbuster fashion. He was Player of the Match, he was on top of the world, he was the Next Big Thing.

He wouldn't play another Test for six years.

The 2010-11 Australian Under-19 Championships in Brisbane were blighted by rain but the weather held up enough for Cummins to bowl a few times, and that was enough to send chatter up the chain to Troy Cooley, Australia's fast-bowling coach, about the kid from the Blue Mountains who could generate serious pace.

"There was a bit to like about the young man. There still is," Cooley said. "He was obviously strong and athletic, a little bit different, but sure had some arm speed. I remember Greg Chappell saying, 'You know, this kid can bat too, he's gonna be an allrounder.' He had everything that you wanted at that stage."

Cummins was in the fast lane to the top. That summer, playing for New South Wales in his maiden Big Bash, he topped the bowling charts with 11 wickets at 14.09. He followed that up with nine wickets in the Sheffield Shield, including three in the final. He became the youngest player to win a central contract with Cricket Australia, such was the confidence in his abilities.

"I kind of thought: how good's this?" Cummins recalled when we chatted in Manchester ahead of the fourth Ashes Test this year. "I'd played maybe half a dozen T20s and done quite well, so I thought, 'Maybe I'll get a crack in T20 cricket to start off with.'"

A few months later he flew to South Africa to make his Australia debut in all three formats.

"I just remember thinking: This is crazy! I've played three first-class games. Ricky Ponting has played 150 Test matches! I just felt like I should be playing first-grade cricket rather than a Test. I was really naïve."

When Cummins made his debut, against South Africa, Dale Steyn was the top-ranked bowler in Tests. Earlier this year, shortly before Steyn's retirement, Cummins became No. 1

When Cummins made his debut, against South Africa, Dale Steyn was the top-ranked bowler in Tests. Earlier this year, shortly before Steyn's retirement, Cummins became No. 1 © Getty Images

To mark out life in the slow lane, a ritual developed at the start of the Australian summer. As cricket paraphernalia replaced the colours of various football teams around Moore Park, which accommodates the Sydney Cricket Ground, a gaggle of reporters and camera operators gathered and set up for the annual Pat Cummins injury media opp.

Each year he walked out and answered questions about the latest injury that had cruelly ended his season before a match was played. The questions were largely the same: about his frustrations, hopes and prospects. Cummins answered them all politely, with as cheerful a demeanour as he could muster.

It could hardly have been more frustrating. Cummins trained well throughout the winter and built towards the start of the season before injury hit. The first, initially a bruised heel, struck after the South Africa series; several more would follow. A side strain in June 2012, then a back stress fracture in November, which would occur twice more, in August 2013 and September 2015, both prematurely ending his seasons.

"The initial injury was really frustrating in that I'd played one Test," said Cummins. "And with that first injury, the second Test felt like it was getting further and further away. And the naïve 18-year-old started turning to, 'Maybe I'm a fragile 18-year-old who isn't up to the rigours of international cricket.'"

"The hardest thing was not being able to play. If you're out of form, you can kind of take not playing. There's a reason for it. But when your body's not fit, it's totally out of your control. I'd never experienced that. I spent that first summer I missed thinking, 'This is the first time I've not played cricket since I was five.'"

The understanding and management of young and developing fast bowlers' bodies is an ever-evolving science. Organisations like Cricket Australia are constantly developing new ways to collect information on everything from the biomechanical impact of specific actions to sleep patterns. Balancing the rigours of learning to bowl at the highest pace against the inherent risk of injury remained a challenge for Cummins and those guiding him through the ensuing years.

Struggling with frequent injuries, Cummins approached Dennis Lillee for help to simplify his action

Struggling with frequent injuries, Cummins approached Dennis Lillee for help to simplify his action © Getty Images

"It was trying to help him navigate through those years where externally you look fit and strong and big but internally there's a little bit more to go in the maturity of those bones to be able to take the load and the speed he was bowling at," said Cooley.

Cummins became one of the best-paid university students in Australia: studying for a Bachelor of Business degree, majoring in marketing, while centrally contracted and careering between being tantalisingly close to making a comeback and falling away with another injury.

"It always seemed like: all right, build up, play some winter cricket overseas, just start getting momentum and then bang - another injury. With each injury it felt like I was almost one step back. You start building up this momentum and then it's back to square one."

Studying helped distract him from his injury woes, as did having a supportive family. Some of Cummins' friends were at the same university, and while he admits he wasn't the most diligent student, he believes it kept him grounded between bouts of rehab.

But it also kept him keenly aware of his ultimate goal.

In the lower Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney, four-year-old Cummins arrived home after a day of preschool, full of excitement. He had a bag of sweets for each of his four brothers and sisters and he couldn't wait to show them. His younger sister, Laura, was in the bathroom. In his eagerness, Cummins opened the door and waved the lollies at her. Unhappy with the intrusion, Laura slammed the door on him, inadvertently slicing off the end of his right middle finger.

It's not until he holds out his hand that the unusual outline of his bowling hand becomes obvious. The middle finger is around the same size as his forefinger, with a smooth round tip above the top knuckle, absent a fingernail.

Cummins learned to bowl with the missing fingertip from the start, so he finds it hard to say if it has had any effect on his delivery.

Cummins (first from left) had to watch from the shadows while other Australian fast bowlers grabbed the opportunities that he kept missing

Cummins (first from left) had to watch from the shadows while other Australian fast bowlers grabbed the opportunities that he kept missing © Getty Images

"I don't think it affects pace. I'd say it affects seam release, but I don't really know. For just about every right-hand bowler, the middle finger is the last finger that comes off the ball, whereas, for me, it's my forefinger that comes off the ball last, which is probably more of a natural inswinger than an outswinger."

Cummins' childhood finger injury was relatively easy to overcome and may even have helped his action in a tiny way. The battle to conquer repeated stress injuries to his developing teenage and adult bones remained a challenge year after year.

Alongside the rehab and recovery came the task of adjusting his action to make it strong and repeatable without losing the potency of his bowling. The key was straightening his alignment and ensuring he was in the best position to absorb the forces of impact when he landed on his back foot.

"My action was also a lot less efficient back then," said Cummins. "I was arms and legs kind of flying everywhere, quite slingy, quite raw. So the constant battle through those years was trying to move in straight lines, trying to reduce the amount of twisting I was doing with my body. I could kind of do it 80% in the nets, but in a game, trying to bowl fast and swing the ball, you creep back to what you've always known."

During the summer of 2013-14, in addition to Cooley and the trainers and physios in NSW, Cummins turned to the man who wasn't just the fast-bowling poster boy for a previous generation but arguably for all successive generations. Dennis Lillee's well documented battle to overcome back injuries and come back with a remodelled action was a tale Cummins could relate to and use as inspiration.

"He's great," smiled Cummins at the mention of Lillee. "I went over and saw him a few times and still keep in touch. He's a guru of bowling.

"[Test cricket's] a lot more brutal on bowlers than I first thought. It's a hard slog but you've got to do it, whether they're good conditions or bad conditions" © Getty Images

"There are always a thousand theories on how you should manage your body, what actually you should be bowling with. I liked that he kept it quite simple. He was really individualising what he wanted to do with me, and straight away when I worked with him, I felt like a better bowler."

Throughout this period, Cummins was still playing for Australia in other formats, and by 2015 he was a regular in the one-day side. While he doesn't regret the opportunities he got, he does admit that it may have affected the time it took him to be physically ready for the demands of bowling in Test cricket.

"I probably [missed] those years of drilling low intensity, whether it's Shield cricket or 2nd XI or grade cricket - just getting overs into your body at 80% to 90%.

"You can't do that when you're playing one-dayers for Australia. I wouldn't necessarily change it, but after the 2015 tour here [in England], I was injured, and we all agreed I'd miss the South Africa one-day tour in 2016 and really concentrate on drilling my action at a slightly lower intensity for longer.

"I felt like once I came back at the start of that summer [of 2016-17], I was so much more consistent in everything I did. And it felt like, bowling at 95% of, say, what I was as an 18-year-old, I could hold an action together and it was a lot more accurate."

There is a joke within the Australian men's cricket circle about the "magical" act of turning 24. On Josh Hazlewood's 24th birthday, Cummins recalls Alex Kountouris, then the team physio, wishing Hazlewood a happy "bone-healing" day. The 24th year often seems to mark the end of the most dangerous stage of growth spurts and vulnerability to stress injuries, although the injuries can and do still occur at any age. But it remains an important milestone on the way to a more robust phase.

Quick fix: Cummins made his Test comeback in India in 2017, bowling nearly 40 overs each in back-to-back matches and taking eight wickets

Quick fix: Cummins made his Test comeback in India in 2017, bowling nearly 40 overs each in back-to-back matches and taking eight wickets © AFP

In early March in 2017, playing his first Sheffield Shield match in almost six years, Cummins took eight wickets. While he had played limited-overs cricket for Australia during the summer, the Shield match represented the biggest step towards a Test recall and the following summer's Ashes series seemed a realistic goal. Cummins, cautious after years of setbacks and mindful of other bowlers who had risen in his absence, still felt a Test match was a long way off.

In the same week that he made his first-class return, Australia were playing the second match of their four-Test tour in India. Cummins had watched the first two Tests from his couch. The series was exciting but fraught with controversy over pitches and veiled accusations that captain Steve Smith had cheated by looking to the dressing room for advice when weighing up whether to review an on-field ruling. In the swirl of controversy that emerged after the Bangalore Test came news that Mitchell Starc had suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. Within a few days of completing the Shield match, Cummins was on a plane to Ranchi.

"I still felt like I was probably another 12-18 months of a lot of cricket away from being back," said Cummins. "Bowling in a Test match, it's not like, okay, one day I'm not injured anymore and I'm right to play. It takes another six months of getting up to bowling 20-30 overs in a week consistently, week after week, before you're available to play, and obviously, I hadn't played for six years.

"Suddenly I was on a plane over there to be right in the thick of it. I'd spent six years managing the body, at times bowling a little bit within myself, and I just thought, 'I'm back playing Test cricket. I'm not saving myself for anything else. This is it. The handbrake's off. I've just got to give it everything.' [Ranchi] was a dead flat wicket, but I was back where I wanted to be."

Cummins bowled 39 overs and took four wickets in India's first-innings total of 603 in a match that would end in a draw. On a relatively lifeless wicket that held together over the five days, Cummins' pace and bounce were exciting reminders of what Australian Test cricket had been missing.

There were just four days between the third Test and the fourth, in Dharamsala. India snared an eight-wicket victory to secure the series but Cummins took four wickets, and more significantly, bowled 38 overs.

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After an interminable wait, the comeback did not disappoint. Cummins opened with Hazlewood and had batsmen ducking and swaying to avoid his bouncers in between negotiating tricky slower balls and cutters. He pushed his pace into the high 140kph range. The Ranchi pitch offered little assistance, and yet wicketkeeper Matthew Wade was leaping, hands outstretched, to take balls above his head. Cummins' second spell of six overs yielded figures of 1 for 8. On the third and fourth days, he found bounce enough to dismiss KL Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane and R Ashwin. Stunned silence followed Virat Kohli's loose flash caught at slip off a Cummins wide half-volley.

The battle that unfolded between a tenacious Cummins and an imperious Cheteshwar Pujara, whose stamina and patience took him past a double-century, provided enthralling Test cricket. At the end of the third day, as the teams walked off, the two men shook hands. In a series of many ugly moments, both on and off the field, it was a heartening and illuminating sight.

"Just getting that second Test, which had been elusive for so many years, was a great feeling, but then almost even more satisfying was playing the next one. I gave it a couple of days and thought, oh the body's pretty good, let's go again. To get through Dharamsala, I'd played basically three back-to-back first-class games in three weeks and I thought, you know, hang on, maybe my body can cope with this. It was the first time I'd done that in years."

Eleven days after the Dharamsala Test, Pat Cummins turned 24. Happy Bone-Healing Day.

Cummins 2.0 is slightly different to the original teenage version. In his maiden Test, at the Wanderers, according to Cricviz, Cummins generated 1.5 degrees of swing. Since his return, he has shortened his length and the amount of swing has reduced to around 0.5. While one Test is a very small sample size, a reduction of two-thirds is significant, but it has come with increased control. He also has slightly more pace: he averages around 139kph, and at his quickest can touch 150kph.

"I feel confident that 99 days out of 100, I can rock up and bowl where I want to bowl. If I get some swing, some movement from there, it's a bonus. I just feel so much more consistent in my action, my run-up, how I bowl every day, more so than when I was a raw 18- or 19-year-old."

Cooley believes that along with having a more repeatable action, Cummins is now a better problem solver in the way he breaks down a batsman.

"You don't have to swing it that far," said Cooley. "You just have to miss the middle of the bat. He swings it enough. He can miss both sides of the bat, either with swing or seam. You don't have to do it too much and especially when he's bowling at that pace."

The 2017-18 Ashes Tests were, astonishingly, Cummins' first on home soil. With so much delayed public expectation riding on his performances, he didn't disappoint, taking 23 wickets and batting with an assurance that called to mind Greg Chappell's hopes that he would develop into an allrounder. In Cummins' own mind, this was his true arrival, and it is instructive of how cricket is consumed and viewed in Australia.

"It almost broke that cycle of having so many people ask me, 'Oh you're injured, you haven't played for five years.' Just being on the TV for once was a nice difference. The only cricket I watched growing up was the Aussie summer. We only had free-to-air [television] so Gabba Test matches, SCG, MCG, that was the main cricket I watched. That was probably the first time there was a real link to 'I am actually playing for Australia.' This is what I grew up watching. And to cap that off, it was an Ashes series.

"I played five back-to-back Tests. I hadn't planned anything like that before, so probably after that summer, I felt like I was now a big, full-time Australian player.

"I never felt as much pressure playing overseas as a young person as maybe I would have done back home. There's a million Aussies that watch and all of them have an opinion on the team in the home summer. Sometimes you can fly under the radar a bit more when you're overseas - relax a little bit more, especially playing white-ball cricket."

But there would be no relaxing on the tour that followed the Ashes. The Australian team was about to implode.

In the 2019 Ashes, Cummins was the only Australian fast bowler to play all five Tests. He was the leading wicket-taker in the series, with 29 at 19.62

In the 2019 Ashes, Cummins was the only Australian fast bowler to play all five Tests. He was the leading wicket-taker in the series, with 29 at 19.62 © Getty Images

In the immediate aftermath of the infamous ball-tampering affair, with three players sent home in disgrace and doubts cast on the integrity of those who remained, Australia were demolished by South Africa by 492 runs in the final Test, at the Wanderers ¬- where Cummins had made his dramatic and joyful debut.

Cummins, who described feeling "sick to my stomach" when he saw footage of Cameron Bancroft shoving sandpaper down the front of his trousers on the big screen, scored a half-century and took nine wickets in that final Test.

He credits the new captain, Tim Paine, with setting a new cultural and behavioural standard, but as a relatively new presence in the Australian Test side and a bowler who has maintained a "good guy" image that doesn't rely on an overly aggressive demeanour, Cummins has been at the forefront of repairing Australia's image. Along with Paine, he was part of the review panel Cricket Australia set up in the wake of the disastrous South Africa tour, and he now shares the vice-captaincy role with Travis Head.

Contrary to their pugnacious image, most Australian fast bowlers are a personable lot when you encounter them away from the field of play. Cummins is no exception. I first interviewed him several months after he played his maiden Test, at a school event in Sydney. In every subsequent conversation and interview, he was polite, thoughtful, intelligent, and yet retained a boyish enthusiasm and eagerness. He believes he is less wide-eyed than he was at the start of his Test career, but still feels he is somewhat naïve.

On the field he has managed to steer clear of the baiting and belligerence that all too often characterised Australians in the years leading up to Sandpapergate. Cummins was not someone you associated with macho bullshit, unmitigated sledging, talk of cutting off snakes' heads or headbutting the morally slippery line. The image of Cummins shaking hands with Pujara after a day's unyielding contest is one that seemed to sit naturally on him. He is clean-cut, bright-eyed and smiley.

Cummins was recently elected to the board of the Australian Cricketers' Association, cementing the authority he has shown over a period when Australian cricket was endeavouring to rebuild the trust of fans.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"I think we all felt a real responsibility. I remember, especially in Jo'burg, feeling that responsibility to make sure that - not so much not showing aggression - we had that balance right. I didn't want to go the whole other way and be really timid.

"I don't think I've changed too much. I think everyone changes the more they play. That was definitely a big moment. I think we probably all just made sure we kept our emotions in check.

"I know when I'm totally in control of what I'm trying to do is when I'm bowling my best. Sometimes if I try and get emotional, I go too far to get in the fight. I lose sight of what I'm trying to do. That's probably more just playing more cricket and understanding yourself."

At the start of 2018, Pat Cummins was ranked 36 in the ICC Test bowling rankings. In the 16 Tests he has played since then, he has taken more wickets than any other bowler, at a miserly average of 19.05. In the same period, no other bowler with at least 50 wickets has a better average.

Of the fast bowlers to have taken at least ten wickets in this period, only Jasprit Bumrah and Vernon Philander have a better average.

But Cummins 2.0, with bonus control and more refined swing, isn't just more potent. This model comes with the added feature of sustained durability. Only Nathan Lyon has bowled more balls in international cricket since Cummins' return in Ranchi. On three occasions Cummins has bowled more than 900 balls in a series and only James Anderson and Stuart Broad, who don't play limited-overs cricket for England, have bowled more deliveries in Tests.

It's almost as if he was making up for lost time, all those years in the rehab wilderness.

At the end of the last Australian season, in February 2019, Cummins was the No. 1 Test bowler in the world.

Cummins continued to play limited-overs games as he worked to come back from injury. He thinks that may have contributed to the delay in his Test comeback

Cummins continued to play limited-overs games as he worked to come back from injury. He thinks that may have contributed to the delay in his Test comeback © Getty Images

The shift became obvious during the 2019 Ashes series. Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc had appeared to be the automatically selected heirs of the Ryan Harris-Mitchell Johnson combination that so successfully spearheaded Australia's attack earlier this decade. In England, Cummins was the only fast bowler selected for every match.

Of course Australia have long been blessed with depth in extravagantly talented quicks, and with Cummins' second coming there is a new dynamic and balance to be found. It may also provide an explanation of why there seems to be so little hype surrounding the world's top-ranked bowler. Because Hazlewood is so consistent and Starc so exciting, Cummins doesn't stand out the way he might do in another team.

Consider the hubbub surrounding some of the other premier fast bowlers in the world. Bumrah is a freakish talent with a quirkily beguiling action in a country rarely celebrated for producing quick bowlers. Jofra Archer catapulted into the England side with a captivating back story and a sleek, feline menace. Kasigo Rabada carries a potent symbolism as he leads South Africa's attack in the post-Steyn era.

When Australia are playing, turn up the sound on your TV to listen to the goodness-gracious-great-balls-of-fire euphoria from commentators. It's likely they are describing a Starc delivery. It's not that Cummins doesn't bowl brilliant balls, but perhaps the deceptively fast, subtly swinging or seaming delivery on a challenging length doesn't unhinge jaws in the same way that a late-swinging Starc yorker or a badge-smacker from Archer off a short run-up might do.

The last example is a case in point. During the 2019 Ashes, the threat of an Archer bouncer created its own hype, realised when he felled Steve Smith at Lord's. Broadcast, broadsheet and online discussion followed, analysing what made Archer's short balls so difficult to avoid. And yet, since January 2017, according to Cricviz, Cummins has struck a batsman on the helmet more than any other bowler, a total of 13 times. Archer may eventually take the lead on that not entirely welcome leaderboard but the figure remains illustrative. Cummins' nice-guy smile belies a consistent danger that is truly fearsome.

It is also noteworthy that he has crept into the top ten Test allrounders' list, currently sitting at No. 8.

In the penultimate over of Cummins' glorious Test debut, he faced Steyn, then the world's No. 1 Test bowler. Steyn charged in towards the precocious newcomer in his ferocious way and let fly a full delivery at off stump. Cummins drove hard but a touch early and the ball rocketed back through Steyn's outstretched hand and to the boundary. The world's best bowler had just dropped the teenager who would eventually wear his crown.

Big-ticket wicket: Cummins dismisses AB de Villiers on debut in Johannesburg, 2011

Big-ticket wicket: Cummins dismisses AB de Villiers on debut in Johannesburg, 2011 © AFP/Getty Images

When we spoke in Manchester, Steyn had just announced his retirement. It seemed fitting, somehow, and yet when the rankings were released earlier in February, Cummins retained a modest and almost surprised disbelief that he could possibly be in Steyn's class, let alone be the best bowler in the world.

"You always judge yourself on how you're going if you're winning games for your team. I felt like I hadn't won too many games. You see Jimmy Anderson bowling brilliantly over here in England, Rabada in South Africa - how dangerous a bowler he is - and obviously some of the world-class spinners that are around. So to kind of out of nowhere become No. 1, I didn't really know what to make of it.

"My first five or six years of playing international cricket, Dale Steyn was always the undisputed No. 1. And that was probably the first thing I thought. 'I'm not better than Dale Steyn, how am I No. 1?' So yeah, it's a nice title to have. It doesn't really mean much. It's pretty hard to wrap my head around."

With the advantage of hindsight, would Cummins change anything from those early years to avoid the injuries that so severely delayed his rise to the top?

"No, not really," he says, pausing to consider the question. "I think there's definitely lessons I learned along the way which were only learned by going through it. It took me probably four or five years to start being patient. At the time every tour is the biggest thing in the world at that moment, but you realise, pretty crucially, there's a tour straight after and straight after."

Cooley, back once again in an Australian coaching role, says Cricket Australia is still learning how to best treat each individual, a task not made easy by the increasing number of fixtures and the lure of T20 tournaments.

"We've to make sure we can look at the individual, work out what suits them, know that there are some issues around growth spurts until they get to that age of about 24, when the bone starts to really harden up and accept more load. If you keep breaking that bone down before they get to 24, it's not a healthy bone when it gets there. It's getting all those pieces of the puzzle right. Would we do anything differently? I suppose we'd like to say we could try and keep him away from those big six-month breaks."

As we wrap up our interview, I ask Cummins what question I should be posing to him if I want to understand his career.

He thinks for a moment.

"I'd probably ask, 'What's different about Test cricket than what you thought it would be?'"

I ask the question.

"It's a lot more brutal on bowlers than I first thought. It didn't take long before I had a newfound respect for Starcy and Joshy and [Peter] Siddle - just the amount of overs you have to bowl, especially in Australia, surprised me. Most Test matches you're bowling 40-odd overs and it was a bit of an eye opener that you were bowling 20 overs, three or four [spells] then you've got to wake up do it again the next day.

"In four-day cricket, you don't really get that. Junior cricket, the amount of one-day cricket, I hadn't experienced that.

"Just acknowledging that it's a hard slog but you've got to do it, whether they're good conditions, bad conditions. You know if you bowl in the first innings and suddenly the second, you don't bat long enough, you don't get a break. You've got to be back out there."

Cummins shrugs and offers a rueful smile.

"It's brutal."

Melinda Farrell is a presenter with ESPNcricinfo