Pat Cummins is endowed with the cricketing foresight allied to a fast bowler’s ‘wicket-taking sense’ © BCCI
When India and Australia locked horns in Dharamsala this year, there was a small passage of play charged with intensity. Pat Cummins, the Australian fast bowler, with his rhythmic lead up to the crease, propelled the ball at speeds in excess of 90mph. The venomous bumpers from the fast bowler veered towards Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja’s helmet. In the 111th over, he smashed Jadeja’s forearm and that was followed by another one that sparked through the 22-yard strip to leave Saha ducking for cover. It was right next to Saha’s head and all he could do was glove it to the slip cordon.
Cummins’s four-over spell was exhilarating. With a single-minded focus, Cummins was aware that his task was to silence the Indian lower-order with pace and hostility. His impressive spell also gave an inkling that the gifted athlete has the potential to explore new vistas of fast bowling and touch greatness. When the firebrand pacer is on song, it feels as if he is a one brilliant piece of athletic excellence, flawlessly transferring ‘kinetic energy’ to the ball to get the desired result. Swing – both conventional and reverse swing – seam movement, cut, pace and decent control, Cummins almost has every kind of weapon in his armoury.
He is also endowed with the cricketing foresight allied to a fast bowler’s ‘wicket-taking sense’. In the recently-concluded Test series against Bangladesh, he was able to gauge the pace of the pitch and change his strategy accordingly. To illustrate the point, in the Mirpur Test (uneven surface), he rattled Bangladesh’s top-order with bumpers and full deliveries. And on a slower surface in Chittagong, he used reverse swing to pick up scalps.
Fast bowling is also about hard work as it puts a lot of stress on the body. When a pace bowler jumps and thuds his front foot onto the crease, around 15 times the entire body weight, the knees and ankles have to carry. It is called ‘ground reaction forces’. Cummins in his injury-plagued career has certainly given glimpses of his temperament to plough through tough conditions.
If we revisit the four-match Test series between India and Australia, Cummins bowled 39 overs in testing conditions in Ranchi and picked up a four-fer. The surface was flat and bowling so many overs under hot and humid conditions turned out to be an energy-sapping exercise. But self belief and resilience were the foundations of Cummins’s faith as he pounded life out of an unresponsive surface and was rewarded.With the eagerly awaited Ashes scheduled to commence in a few days time (November 23), Cummins now has the chance to enter into the folklore of Australian cricket. The home side also has Mitchell Starc, who can breathe life into the match with a game-turning spell. However, Cummins comes across as a natural attack leader.
The upcoming Ashes provide Cummins and Starc an opportunity to become enforcers against an unproven batting line-up © Getty
An attack leader needs to be the ‘enforcer’, someone who can move up a gear when the team is in dire need of wickets. If we jog down the memory lane and look back at Cummins’s career, he showed the ability to stand up and become the enforcer in his very first Test versus South Africa at the Wanderers in 2011. At the age of just 18, he bagged five of the last seven wickets to fall to lay the foundation for Australia’s impressive win at the Bullring.
For the Australian think-tank, it is imperative that they give the space for Cummins and Starc to take the mantle of aggressors, allowing them to bowl with hostility in short spells. Over a period of time, the English batsmen have also shown a tendency to hang back, resulting in edges behind the stumps on tracks with bounce and pace. It certainly was the case in the Ashes 2013-14 when Mitchell Johnson exploited this very weakness with a barrage of well directed bumpers and full deliveries to bore right through the fears and anxiety of shell-shocked batsmen. So it opens up the door for Cummins and Starc to become enforcers against an unproven batting line-up – barring Alastair Cook and Joe Root.
Cummins himself had signalled a warning to the Antipodean rivals by observing that Australian quicks would come hard at them. “Hope you practice your bouncers because we’ll be bowling a lot of them. No-one really likes it if you’ve got real pace and real accuracy,” the Australian pacer had noted.
The Australian camp, however, would be worried whether the 24-year-old pacer’s body would take the heavy workload of playing five Tests over a duration of one and a half months. Due to persistent injuries, Cummins has played just five Tests over a period of six years. He has been laid low by four stress fractures of the back, side-strain and a foot injury.
Bone stress injury of the lower back has curtailed promising careers of numerous fast bowlers. Andrew Leipus, the well-known physiotherapist, had once said to ESPNCricinfo: “When the [vertebral] bone is subject to chronic loads, as a living tissue it will want to adapt and remodel itself to become stronger. But the body is only as strong as it needs to be.
“For example, astronauts actually lose bone strength/density due to the lack of gravity/load, since without load the skeleton becomes weak. But when the stress is applied faster than the bone can strengthen, at some critical point on this continuum a threshold will be crossed and the stressed area of bone will collapse, resulting in a stress fracture,” he added.
On a slightly positive note, unlike his Australian teammate James Pattinson, some of Cummins’s stress fractures haven’t been related to the same spot. Yes, in August 2013, Cummins had a partial re-occurrence of the “lower backbone stress injury” that he had sustained in 2012. But, his latest back injury which he suffered after the England tour in 2015 was related to “new early stage lumbar bone stress fracture”.The Australian backroom staff has tried to work on his action. In November 2012, the fast bowler had taken the help of Australia’s Institute of Sport to assess his action. A running coach had guided Cummins with regard to rectifying the mechanics and alignment of his action. In January 2012, Cricket Australia had investigated about the kind of boots worn by the national team’s pacers after a slew of bowlers, including Cummins, had sustained foot injuries.
In his injury-plagued career, Cummins has given glimpses of his temperament to plough through tough conditions © BCCI
However, while tweaking a fast bowler’s action, it is imperative that the pacer retains his ‘naturalness’ and the foundation structure on which he has come through the system. When a fast bowler’s action is changed, it is about ensuring that adjustments are made without damaging the whole. James Anderson, the England spearhead, was one of those who struggled with a remodelled action. It was only when he went back to an action that was based on his old one in 2006-07 that he was able to again create that ‘extra whip’ and found his rhythm back.
It isn’t just Cummins, a lot of modern day fast bowlers breakdown constantly. There are former cricketers who point to too much of cricket being played. Michael Holding, the great Windies pacer, is of the opinion that when a fast bowler has a mixed action – partially side on and to an extent chest-on, it could lead to back issues.
In Cummins’s case it also has to be observed that he had the natural gift of bowling fast at the tender age of just 17. At that age, his body perhaps couldn’t take the burden of bowling quick. The point can be illustrated by the kind of injuries Brett Lee, the former Australia fast bowler, sustained at a young age. At just 18, Lee bowled quick spells for Australia Under-19 against India Under-19 in 1994. Unfortunately, in a few years time, he was set back by a back injury and his action was tweaked. But he erased the lines of pain and agony to succeed in his chosen field.
Sometimes, the pain a sportsman wears while being on the sidelines helps to ingrain that required mental toughness in an athlete. It is the time when sport itself questions whether you have the desire and purpose to make a comeback. To his credit, Cummins has shown the desperation to return to top-flight cricket every time he has suffered an injury.
Cummins’s whispering feet as he runs to the crease, the shifting balance (the jump), the extension of the arm, with legs spread before delivering the ball at fearsome pace, strokes the senses of a connoisseur. Someday, it would be great if there is no scoreboard, no batsman batting at the other end or the umpire, and in an illusionary world, one can feel the vigorous wave of Cummins’s fluid strides.
In an era where there is a dearth of genuine fast bowlers going around, all of us can only hope that the New South Welshman would have a long and relatively injury-free career ahead of him.