Pat Cummins celebrates Cheteshwar Pujara's wicket

"If Pujara doesn't bat lots of time, you love bowling to him, if he does, you go, okay, his method is working"

© David Kapernick/AFP/Getty Images

'Once we knew Virat was going to miss the last three Tests, Pujara was the big wicket for me'

Pat Cummins relives the final day of the Brisbane Test against India and his key battles of the series against their batting mainstay, Cheteshwar Pujara

Interview by Daniel Brettig  |  

One of the key contests within the Australia-India series was the one between Pat Cummins and Cheteshwar Pujara, with Cummins getting the better of Pujara five times in eight innings - though the batsman won the war, facing 928 balls over his eight innings and making crucial, series-defining contributions in Sydney and Brisbane. Cummins spoke about their dogged final-day battle at the Gabba, Australia's short-ball strategy for Pujara, and their plans for a resurgent Rishabh Pant.

There's a great picture of you immediately after dismissing Pujara, with the sun shower that was over the Gabba. What were you thinking in that moment?
My initial thought was that he was the brick wall, so once we opened up his end, I thought that still made all three results in the game possible, winning, losing or a draw. But it was satisfying too: before the series, once we knew Virat [Kohli] was going to miss the last three Tests, [Pujara] was the big wicket for me. He was the deciding factor in the series a couple of years earlier - he was their rock in the middle order - and I felt a big part of the series battle would be played out against him.

It was almost as though he took quite an extreme approach to survival and soaking up balls over scoring. How did your view of his approach change over the series, because you must have initially thought, "Well, he's not hurting us on the scoreboard"?
It's interesting. After the first two games, in some ways, I thought he might have had to adapt to try to take the game on a little bit more and put pressure back on the bowlers. But if anything, he went the other way. He went, "No, I know my game so well, I'm going to just bat and bat and scoring will take care of itself" - whether it's down the other end or later in his innings. Maybe we set some tighter fields than we did a couple of years ago, but I felt like a lot of the time he was there just to face out the tough spells, bat and bat and bat, and in some ways selflessly take some overs out of the bowlers and the ball, with the hope that the lower middle order can cash in even if he doesn't.

You actually said before the Sydney Test that sometimes it can feel like it's easier to bowl to someone like him, because you feel like you can put the ball in the same spot time after time. Mohammad Asif once said a similar thing about Rahul Dravid. Do you still think that now, given how the series ended?
I'd say in some ways it's true. With someone who doesn't look to take the game on, you feel like you can experiment a little bit more, maybe be a little more aggressive in bowling a touch fuller, try to swing the ball, play around with your crease position, knowing that if you're slightly off you're not going to get belted for four like you might against another batsman. But on the flip side, if the batter's good enough to get through that and they can bat and bat, well it doesn't really matter what you bowl at them, you're going to have to bowl lots of overs. It really comes down to the fact that if he doesn't bat lots of time you feel great and love bowling to him. If he does, you go, okay, well, his method is obviously working.

"For a long time [at the Gabba] Pujara looked uncomfortable against the short ball, and many times we hit him on the gloves. One of those might have popped up and it's a different story" © AFP

One of the other things he showed was an enormous amount of courage and tolerance of pain, getting hit on the helmet, the body, the blow on the gloves where he'd been hit before. You use the short ball as a deterrent at times, but do you change how you use it if you see someone actually has that pain tolerance?
I'm not sure you change how you bowl, but it's incredibly rare that someone gets hit on his body and wears so many bruises without trying something. You hope if you keep doing that, maybe they're going to try to put their gloves up and you're going to get a catch that way, but he really stuck to his processes. It makes it hard if you know that short ball is there either to catch the gloves or to get them trying to hook. You feel like you're getting closer to a wicket each time they cop a bruise, and like they're going to have to change their game and start fending or take the game on a bit more. So for someone to stay with their process the whole time, it does take the sting out of that short ball a bit.

In hindsight, do you feel you might have gone a little bit too short to him on that last day, given all the times you did get him out it was with the ball threatening the edge or the stumps?
That's always the question after a game like that - what would you have done differently? In the middle there for a long time he looked the most uncomfortable against the short ball, and there were many times we hit him on the gloves. One of those might have popped up and it's a different story. But knowing that didn't work, if I had my time again, do you maybe set a straighter field and try to attack the stumps? Of course.

You also had contrasting pitches. At the SCG on day five, it seemed so dead, but at the Gabba you had some more pace in the wicket and some cracks.
Definitely a bit more pace in the wicket, and it was kind of a little tempter. It would do nothing and feel really flat, then the odd one would jump up from back of a length. So it was enough to keep you interested, but not diabolical enough that it resulted in any wickets really for us on day five, unfortunately.

How much did you focus on the cracks and whether they'd be a source of wickets, or can that detract from more conventional plans?
On day one if you asked us, we'd have said by day five those cracks are going to be huge and play a huge role. I think seeing cracks in a wicket is really foreign to a lot of teams that come over here, so how it looks can be as off-putting as them actually getting a ball deviating off a crack. That final day, at times we tried to hit the cracks when they were in good areas, but there weren't huge reactions that you might've seen sometimes at the WACA on day five, or even as much as we thought. Day five at the Gabba probably did less than day four. So we concentrated pretty quickly on trying to bowl in the right areas, and if you hit a crack and it did something, that's a bonus.

"On the outside it might look like Pant is quite slapdash, but he knows when to attack and what his scoring areas are" © Getty Images

How did your plans to Pujara evolve over the day? Because the first hour you got Rohit Sharma and that was more through bowling fairly traditionally, but then there was a conversation with Tim Paine where it seemed like you were talking about going short?
The first couple of hours were mainly traditional; the ball was hard, trying to get a little bit of sideways movement. But the wicket was playing really true, especially when you got it up full. It still had a little bit of bounce, which was good, but sometimes that can make it hard to attack the stumps, because you've got to be so full. And we'd known from the day before that on back of a length, Smithy [Steven Smith] had got one that jumped, a couple guys had been hit on the gloves, so we thought the batters are looking pretty solid with the full ball, let's try and get the pitch to play a few tricks. We tried quite a few things. In hindsight you ask, should I go the traditional [way] and [get them to] nick off, but it was a day-five wicket without a heap of sideways movement.

Something else we saw over the series - do you marvel at Pujara's soft hands in defence and the number of edges that don't carry, and how he almost uses his bat to absorb that ball rather than hitting it?
Oh absolutely, it's like a pillow. In the first innings at the Gabba, my first ball to him was a genuine nick. The ball before, I'd nicked off Shubman Gill and it was caught by Smithy above his head, and then the next ball bounced in front of Smithy. Just soft hands, plays it incredibly late, you can see why someone like that is so hard to dislodge, because there aren't edges flying to the slip cordon. He tries to put all the odds in his favour. I think we've played long enough to know it's more skill than luck. But it does make you change, the slips do have to come forward a couple of steps because you aren't going to get those hard hands [where the ball flies] off the bat. It can be frustrating sometimes when you've got a brand new ball and it's still not carrying.

As the day was building, India one down at lunch after you'd given them your best crack when fresh in the morning, how did conversations about what to do change into the afternoon?
Plan A is always to bowl your best bowlers at the top of off stump and hopefully get a bit of sideways movement. If that's not working, you look at different options. So later in the day you try more things - you want to get Marnus [Labuschagne] into the game, you want to try Starcy [Mitchell Starc] or Lyono [Nathan Lyon] from a different end - so you're willing to go away from that Plan A, knowing that it didn't necessarily work straight up.

Were you happy that over the series you were able to create chances and bowl consistent areas whether the pitch was helping you or not?
That's one of the things I was most proud of throughout the series and one of the reasons why I love Test cricket the most. Day one can look so different to day five, and unless you're able to adapt and perform in different conditions, you're not going to be consistent or dominant in a heap of games. I love the challenge of thinking on my feet, being creative out there, trying to think batters out, because how you bowl to them in the first innings, the pitch might not allow you to do that in the second innings.

Before lunch on the second day at the MCG, Cummins picked up the wickets of Gill and Pujara in quick succession for figures of 8-5-12-2

Before lunch on the second day at the MCG, Cummins picked up the wickets of Gill and Pujara in quick succession for figures of 8-5-12-2 © Getty Images

Things went your way frighteningly quickly in Adelaide, and you bowled a spell at the MCG that was very accurate, hostile, and used the pitch beautifully. Were there any other points where you felt like you were right at the top of your game?
I'd say those two games, particularly that Melbourne innings. That's the funny thing - I took the least amount of wickets in that Melbourne Test but felt like my rhythm was really good, I could bowl where I wanted to, my pace was up. I felt like it was effortless and I could bowl for eight or nine overs in a spell. They're the days you've got to make the most of, because not every day is like that. Certainly felt on top of my game during those first two Tests.

How would you contrast that with how you were feeling in Brisbane on that final day?
I have to say this summer I've felt as fresh as I have so far in my Test career. Whether that's down to not much Test cricket leading in, maybe a week or two's break with the T20s and one dayers before the series, but I felt incredibly fresh and really ready to bowl 50 overs per Test if I had to. Even come that last day at the Gabba, I think I bowled 25 or so overs and I didn't feel too bad. Naturally maybe you lose a little bit of zip or whatever, but physically I felt fine and I was desperately trying to find a way to get another wicket.

Does it make a difference when you've been so well served by Nathan Lyon, both keeping runs down and being a wicket threat, then he struggles for impact?
We bowl our best when we're all bowling well together. I think it lifts each other up and pressure down the other end makes our bowling more effective. I thought they [India] played Lyono really well this series; they obviously had done a lot of work on it, and at times like the SCG on day five, we probably expected the wicket to break up more than it did, which made it hard. But I'd say they played him really well, like they played all of us at times. I saw a stat where I think Lyono and Starcy both had five dropped catches off them throughout the series, so it's amazing how fickle cricket is - maybe you take a couple of those chances early in an innings and it changes the game, or it's a confidence boost and changes the way the batters play as well.

Pujara said that it was a real focus to get you guys to the second new ball with plenty of batting in the shed, and while the new ball will bring some assistance for the bowler, if your top six is still in, it's going to help them too.
I think that's where games are sometimes won and lost, especially in the first innings - trying to bat big, set up the whole game and get overs into the bowlers. You feel like you control the game once you have a big first-innings score and a big part of that is getting to that second new ball and cashing in. By then the wicket's a little bit flatter, bowlers have already bowled 20 or so overs, so unless you're right on the mark, the runs can come a lot more freely. They did that quite well, and it was interesting to see at times them playing around with their batting order as well, which might have had something to do with ensuring they had someone there for the second new ball as well.

"I thought they India played Lyono really well this series; they obviously had done a lot of work on it" © Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Speaking of the batting order, what were you thinking when Pant was promoted up the order?
It's kind of a flip of the coin, because while Pujara was there, the game wasn't moving too quickly, but you know once Rishabh walks in, it's going to start moving quickly either way. It's one of those exciting times, I find, where you hope it works in your favour, but if it doesn't, it's going to be a bit of fun for the next hour or so, either way. He's a class player, he takes the game on and to the outside it might look like it's quite slapdash, but he knows his game really well, he knows when to attack and what his scoring areas are, so before next series we'll need to spend a bit of time on that.

Coming back to Pujara, it was a very different battle relative to some of the others you've had in Test series. Where does he sit among your most difficult opponents?
It's hard to say. You have to prepare yourself that you're going to bowl lots and lots of balls. It might be different to Rishabh, who you go, "If I'm a little bit off here I might get hurt pretty quickly" but I enjoy the challenge, especially in Australia where you feel like the wicket might have a little bit of assistance. It's old-fashioned Test cricket - you know if [Pujara] has a good game, it's going to go late into day five, so I do like the attrition of it. He was a huge deciding factor in them drawing Sydney and then winning at the Gabba, so he certainly made a big mark on the series.

You've been in a lot of biosecure bubbles over the past year. How sustainable is it to keep going from bubble to bubble?
I found the Australian bubbles slightly different, in that in Adelaide and for the first half of Melbourne it was fine, you could get outside and it was pretty normal. You can't see anyone else, but you can go out for dinner or have a coffee outside. Rest of Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane it started to get a bit long because you were in a hotel room, but totally fine, we're playing Test matches so you wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

I think the biggest issues will just be the accumulation effects of going from one bubble to the next, to the next. We had guys who couldn't see their wives for months on end, missing their newborn's first Christmas or birthday parties and things like that. So no doubt it's tough, and I think you'll see maybe whether players have to look at the full schedule and pick and choose a bit more, or there's times they might need breaks. But that's one silver lining of [the postponement of] the South African tour: a lot of the guys who've spent the last six or nine months in bubbles will get an extra few weeks at home.

Australia and India players stood in a barefoot circle at the start of the series in support against racism and to celebrate Australia's indigenous people

Australia and India players stood in a barefoot circle at the start of the series in support against racism and to celebrate Australia's indigenous people © Getty Images

All that bubble time gave you plenty of reading opportunities. You've spoken about reading Dark Emu, about Aboriginal Australia and the origins of agriculture. Was that something you did before or after the team got into the conversation around racial discrimination that was quite significant this summer?
I read Dark Emu on the South African tour in February last year. I haven't read too much on Australian history, just bits and pieces at school, but I was straight away captivated and impressed and really had my perspective shifted on a lot of our history. Since then I've read a bit more. The Biggest Estate on Earth is another one by Bill Gammage. I've read through [journalist and TV presenter] Stan Grant's work. So keen to learn more and really impressed about a lot of the history and culture of Australia that I didn't fully appreciate up until more recently. I just read a book review in the paper about [Dark Emu] one day - it wasn't recommended through anyone I know - and then after that basically Googled books similar to this. I've met quite a few people now who've read it or recommended it, and everyone who's read it is like, "Oh, why haven't I heard of this?"

I read a bit of everything, novels, a lot of non-fiction, so anything that catches my eye, I'll give it a crack. I've read a few different ones on climate change and want to do more things in that space in the future. I feel a real responsibility to make a difference and try to, as a cricketer who flies all over the world, take responsibility to do our part with carbon offset and those kinds of things. I read a book over the past few weeks called How Bad Are Bananas?, which just talks through the carbon footprint of heaps of things we do every day.

You've also had conversations with the likes of Josh Lalor and Dan Christian about the experience of being an Aboriginal cricketer in Australia.
I've chatted to Josh and he's been great in this space, especially about the Reflecting Forward campaign, but I was hugely impressed with some of the work they've done and the way they've led Australian cricket on these topics this summer. Absolutely keen to speak to as many people as possible to understand more about it.

It's certainly affected me positively; if it has influence on others, then great. The bigger thing is that a lot of us didn't even think about these things. Our ideas were prejudiced, based on whatever our environments were, whereas I think the last year or so many of us have stood back, thought for ourselves and spent time just looking into what we're about. Even some of the conversations I've had with a lot of the players this summer [have been] around how everyone's making some small changes they hadn't deeply thought about until recently.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

 

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