Pat Cummins sets his field
© AFP/Getty Images

Pat Cummins: 'You can worry about the batter or you can think about what you as a bowler can do'

Is leading in T20 different? The Australia Test and ODI captain talks about that, and about how captaincy has influenced his bowling

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Australia captains, men and women, have been rated among the best in cricket for decades. Their teams have been built in their image, and each leader has usually brought a unique flavour to the captaincy. Pat Cummins is the latest in that line, well on his way towards being recognised as a great captain, having won the World Test Championship, ODI World Cup and the Ashes.

In this interview in May during the IPL, where Cummins led Sunrisers Hyderabad to the final a year after they finished last in 2023, he says he is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom when it comes to individuals and the team evolving. In the process he has understood the importance of empathy as well as of being able to accept that things will not always go to plan. Still, as he says here, with a clear head and a certain amount of calm, things do fall in place more often than not.

It looks like the amount of time you have spent in India over the past year has helped you get into the local culture. There are pictures of you outside restaurants in Hyderabad, videos of you trying to speak Telugu… and then those dance moves. Are you enjoying Bollywood music?
My sister stitched me up. She dragged me to a Bollywood dancing class, and then posted a video (chuckles). So, yeah, she's in the bad books!

But no, it's been great. I have been coming here for a long time. I probably embrace it a bit more than I used to. That's always the joy of playing IPL - you play alongside guys that have lived here their whole life, so I get their suggestions on where to go out for dinner or what places to go and see. It's been a thrill taking my family around this time in particular. It's the first time that they came over.

As an athlete you're used to living out of a suitcase, but you're travelling with a young family now, so you have lots of other things to look after outside of cricket. Is embracing local culture and enjoying it a big part of an athlete's life?
It has to be. Realistically, if you want to be a professional cricketer, especially an international cricketer, you are going to spend more time away than you are at home. So your options are: either stay in your room and wait for time to go past, or you get on the front foot and enjoy the time [going out] there. With the Aussie team, you'll see us go out for dinners, go and play golf, bring our families along. And it's the same over here in India [during the IPL]: bring families along, and kind of in between all the stress of the games and the playing and the travel, try and create some good family memories.

The one standout quality in your leadership across formats, including at Sunrisers now, is your calm demeanour. Almost like you were born with such a gift
Ah… you know, I think to some degree I was born with it. I have always kind of had this "she'll be right" kind of attitude. The more I have played, the more I have mellowed a little bit in terms of not being as fiery, and you just want to concentrate on how to get the job done. As a young bowler I wanted to puff the chest out and really get into the opposition. Nowadays I'm a bit more concentrating on my own game, and as captain trying to navigate as calmly as possibly our team to, hopefully, a victory. Maybe it is experience, maybe it is [that] I try and talk about calmness a lot, so if I'm captain and I'm not calm, well, I'll lose a bit of credibility with my team-mates.

Staying calm - is that a strength for a leader?
Look, I think so. On balance, when you are making so many decisions all the time, a level of calmness and consistency probably outweighs someone who's erratic, I would say.

In the past there have been teams labelled as Allan Border's, Mark Taylor's, Steve Waugh's, Ricky Ponting's Australia. This current team - Test and ODI - are Pat Cummins' Australia, built in your image. How long did it take for you to first understand what you wanted from your team, and how long did it take for you to transmit that and gain trust from your players?
Not just in cricket, the world around, generations bring different people and different ways that people think about the world and what motivates them. Our team's just a natural evolution of that really. I didn't want to prescribe anything about how I wanted our players to act and be - outside of just [being] themselves.

I was really strong on [acknowledging that] we have got a group of really talented individuals and I just want them to be able to be themselves and feel like they are welcome, and hopefully we all feel some ownership in that environment and we try and foster that for new guys that come in. What you are seeing isn't a deliberate, you know… how do I say it, persona. It's the boys just being themselves.

Heads together: Cummins with Australia coach Andrew McDonald, who he says has great people skills and is a fine strategist

Heads together: Cummins with Australia coach Andrew McDonald, who he says has great people skills and is a fine strategist © Getty Images

So you believe in letting individuality thrive? That every individual has that freedom, and you are just trying to give them security, trust and empowerment?
Absolutely. And that brings the best out of them as players. And it also makes it a more enjoyable, fun environment. So there's a human-being element, but there's also a performance element, where that's where you get the best results.

A large part of leadership is about building trust and respect, which often takes years. Do you reckon you've been doing that work of building for quite some time?
No doubt. And not necessarily deliberately. This is about my 14th season, so over that time I have seen so many different captains, coaches, players, other leaders around the world. You use [those people] to try and shape your own vision. [Thinking that] if you are ever in that position, that's how you'd want to act, or that's how you see the world. So yeah, it's kind of naturally evolved over the years.

How do you communicate? Are you a direct-talking person or does it take you time to get a message across?
My style isn't ever a stand-up-in-front-of-the-class-and-tell-everyone-off, and [telling them] how they are doing wrong and what they are doing wrong. Through building rapport with players and staff, you have a thousand organic interactions as opposed to laying down the law occasionally. Of course, there's times where you do need to step in and make sure everyone's on the right path, but most of the times these are really good mates, really good colleagues, that I talk to every day. So if I need to be honest, then yeah, of course, I'll be honest. But they know it's coming from a good place, hopefully.

Have players told you that has helped them?
Absolutely. It's our team environment, and of course I get feedback from the players and [coaching] staff all the time, saying: I love this environment, this is what gets me out of the bed in the morning, this is what makes me want to jump on a plane to go on the next tour, and this is what makes me want to perform. Or for guys outside the team saying, "It sounds like you guys are having a lot of fun and success. I want to be an Aussie cricketer and be part of that." So that's super-rewarding, not just for me and the coach but the senior guys who are the main reason why the environment's like that.

"Really concentrating on the pace of the game [as captain] has probably helped me. When I go and bowl, I feel like I know what is needed at that moment" © Associated Press

Is Andrew McDonald, Australia's head coach, a mate to you? And is that helpful in what you guys do?
Yeah. Among a long list, two clear strengths that stand out for Andrew are: one, he's got amazing people skills. He really builds rapport. And two, he's a great strategist and thinker of the game, [not just] on the fly but also in building a team environment. And that involves making big calls. And he is [also] a selector. He's made some big selection calls over the years. It means putting yourself out there, through tactics and selections and [taking] stances, and he just does all that brilliantly.

Would you say Travis Head is an example of a player who has been given trust and security by you and McDonald, and now you're seeing the results in terms of performances?
Trav exactly embodies the type of player that we want in our team. It's someone who does [things] a little bit differently but plays with a level of freedom, backed up by years of scoring runs and absolute skill. Great team-mate. Great around the environment. Has fun. Those attributes just shine through with someone like Trav, and hopefully, part of his success is because of the environment and the people around him and [him] feeling like he's supported to just go out and be himself.

If we say that the team environment you guys have created has allowed Head to express himself, what is it that he might not have managed to do earlier?
Look, with someone like a Trav, it's easy to overlook that he scored something like 10,000 first-class runs. It's a pretty easy narrative to think, because he might look unconventional. That, oh, he's not going to score runs, or when he fails, oh, of course he's going to fail because of his technique. But you overlook that [his technique] has been crafted by thousands and thousands and thousands of runs, averaging over 40, being on top of his game for so long.

People get really caught up in the technique side of things to the detriment of players. So we just encourage him to basically play to his strengths and work around his weaknesses. People try and change players like that into a certain mould where you can understand if things go wrong, you can have ways players or coaches can explain it. Whereas we don't want to overcomplicate it with someone like Trav. [We tell him] you have done the time, you have got a body of work behind you, you just go and shine and you do it your way. And we don't care if you get caught out at gully flashing one or you snick off one because you are trying to block, you are still out either way. You might as well try and score a few runs.

Cummins on Travis Head:

Cummins on Travis Head: "People try and change players like that into a certain mould, where you can understand if things go wrong, explain it. Whereas we don't want to overcomplicate it" Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images

You're not one for conventional wisdom then?
If you only worry about doing everything because it's been done in the past, there'd be no evolution. There's no real added advantage. But the game's always changing. Players are always changing. So where you can get those marginal gains by thinking a little bit differently, putting yourself out there, or maybe you got a slight jump on the opposition, [you should]. But they don't always come off. A lot of conventional wisdom's there for a reason, but occasionally it does need to be challenged.

Australia electing to field in the 2023 World Cup final could be an example of what you are saying. Not sure if you heard the chat R Ashwin had recently with Ravi Shastri on his YouTube channel. Shastri, who was at the World Cup final toss, called it a brave decision and the right one. So when you take those calls, presumably you are not worried about whether the decision can backfire, since you are convinced about what you are doing?
You start from the place of "My job is to try and help win games for the team as best as I can." And if you start from that and you put in all the data and all the thoughts, and don't worry about much else, I thought bowling was a clear decision. But if you are adding layers of "Oh, what happens if this goes wrong?" and you overthink it, then it doesn't help my decision-making, it only gets in the way. If that got in the way and changed my decision and it didn't come off, I would regret that for a long time. Whereas if you made what you think is the right decision at that time and it didn't come off, I can sleep much better at night. Kind of irrelevant what other people might think, from the outside.

How has captaincy influenced your bowling across formats?
Hard to say, really. Being at mid-off and probably having a closer eye on the game and really concentrating on the pace of the game and what you feel like the game needs at that stage has probably helped me [in] that when I do go and bowl, I feel like I know what is needed at that moment, maybe a little bit more. At times if I'm the one saying, we need to take a few more risks [like in the World Cup final] - that's probably influenced my bowling. Because I feel like, okay, well, I've said it now, I have got to kind of walk the walk. I feel supported by the coach and selectors and all those kind of things. So that probably helps just being that little bit braver if we want to play a certain style.

Your mate Mitchell Starc thinks you are more empathetic towards fellow fast men.
Yeah, I feel like I have always understood that, being a bowler (laughs).

Would you say that having empathy is a big element of being a captain?
Yeah, absolutely. I don't always get that one right. But you are part of a team, you are part of a group, and empathy is the way that you connect most of the time. I know how I feel when people are empathetic with me and it makes me feel better and more confident. So it's always something I aim to give a little bit back.

Cummins versus

Cummins versus "scary prospect" Sunrisers Hyderabad team-mate Heinrich Klaasen in Sydney last year © Getty Images

You have barely led in T20, even at state levels, and yet you've become a natural leader. What are the qualities you think are needed in a T20 captain?
The game moves really quickly around you, so I try and not get caught up in that pace. I definitely have at certain times, but you try to think clearly and not get caught up in the pace of the game. More so than any other format, you have to understand that you could have a perfect plan, perfect execution, but the batter might still hit a four or six from that ball. So you have a level of acceptance, I think, in T20 cricket that it's not always going to go the bowler's way even if you execute perfectly.

It is interesting to see you bowl the same hard lengths in T20 that have brought you success in the other two formats. How you have managed that?
I try and concentrate mainly on what makes me the best version of myself. So if I try and start bowling, I don't know, legcutters and round-the-wicket funky stuff, that's not me at my best. I got picked [as a fast bowler] because bowling hard length is my strength. So it is always a balance in T20 cricket, in particular of mixing up your own strengths as a player but then not being too predictable and always throwing something different at the batters. Some games you walk off and you feel like you got that balance right, other games you kind of rue one or two balls and feel like you should have tried a bit more or tried a little bit less. So it's always a constant battle.

Is it more difficult bowling in T20 than Test cricket now, considering the way things are going, especially in the IPL this season, which has been batter-dominated?
The physical aspect of Test cricket is the hardest of all. Obviously T20 has the tactical [element), you feel like the deck's stacked against you sometimes, but it's the same for every bowler. So it still feels like you can have a big impact. But I don't think anything's tougher than bowling 20 overs in a day's play, going to bed, waking up and having to do it again like in Test match cricket.

Heinrich Klaasen, your Sunrisers Hyderabad team-mate, recently named you as one of the toughest bowlers to face.
Oh, I'll take that! I feel like he's one of the most difficult to bowl to. I played him quite a lot - think one or two Test matches and quite a few white-ball games. He's always a bit of a scary prospect.

Plane truths: if you want to be an international cricketer, you need to be ready to spend more time away than at home

Plane truths: if you want to be an international cricketer, you need to be ready to spend more time away than at home Matt King / © Getty Images

He showed that in the 174 he hit against Australia in an ODI at Supersport Park last year, which he rates as probably his best innings. As a T20 captain, do guys like Klaasen or Nicholas Pooran or Tim David, to cite few examples, give you stress?
Every team realistically has a couple of those players. Again, it comes back to: you can worry about them or you can start thinking about what you as a bowler can do and how you can try and make an impact. And again, that's always the balance I always encourage our bowlers and myself to focus on: me and what makes me a good bowler.

Yeah, I might need a slight adaptation to the guy down the other end, but as soon as you are thinking about the batter down there and what he's trying to do and all those kinds of things, it feels like you have already half lost the battle. We come up against these guys all the time, sometimes they get the better of you, sometimes we have a good day. That's T20 cricket.

In Test cricket you have always bowled the difficult overs. We saw that in the Ashes and the World Cup last year, where, like you were saying, you stand at mid-off, you read the match situation and bring yourself on to bowl and you become that point of difference. What about in T20s - do you do the same or you stick to a certain bowling role or plans?
It changes. You go on the feel and the pace of the game. It really comes down to how your bowling group's structured. [SRH] have got Bhuvneshwar [Kumar], who's great upfront. We have got [T] Natarajan, who's great at the back. And then there's a few of us who can kind of bounce around in between where needed. So it's always just a bit of a feel thing and trying to feel like where the whole bowling group can make the biggest impact, not necessarily just me as a bowler. Someone's 2 for 30 might be as important as someone else's 1 for 40. All depends on where you bowl. So it kind of changes game to game and I like that aspect. I like that challenge of bouncing around.

Is it easier to win a World Cup than an IPL?
Ha ha. I dunno. The [2023] World Cup certainly wasn't easy and I haven't won an IPL yet, so hopefully you can ask me in a few weeks and I can give you a better answer! But World Cup's probably the pinnacle.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo