To the slick guitar riffs of Skillet’s Monster, a whippet-fast Australian bowler charges in and knocks over batsmen repeatedly. Interspersed between commentators yelping in delight are lyrics like “I feel it deep within / it’s just beneath the skin / I must confess that I feel like a monster”.
The bowler is Pat Cummins. The soundtrack is the flight of fancy of a YouTuber who felt that was the most appropriate song for a compilation of his best wickets. Fast bowling – fast anything, really – inspires that sort of hype. It’s why we love Usain Bolt and Formula 1. It’s why we clock footballers, tennis serves, and even how much time it takes to solve a Rubik’s Cube.
“I think it’s about pushing the limits of what’s possible in the human body,” Cummins tells Wisden India. “People love seeing sport happen faster, quicker, stronger. That’s what excites people. And, in some ways, it’s the rarity of it. In underage cricket or grade cricket, there are people who swing the ball or spin the ball. But there’s only a handful of people who can bowl the ball really, really fast.”
“It’s not just the ball flying really quickly through the air. A big part is having a presence. It’s the little things that can upset a batsman or make them uneasy. Everyone does it differently. But the bravado that comes with fast bowling is important.”
Cummins is one of them, those so-called lean, mean bowling machines. He’s 6’4″, the shortest among his fellow Aussie pacers, but tall enough to necessitate this vertically-challenged correspondent to wear four-inch heels to avoid a stiff neck during this chat. He’s lean, but not obsessively so. His visit to a chocolate factory two years ago can be considered indicative that he’s not in a race with either Cristiano Ronaldo or Virat Kohli to have the least percentage of body fat. He’s been likened to a machine after he proved all doubters wrong by bowling sustained pace in two Tests in India and coming out of it alive. And mean, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing this guy can bowl at 90mph regularly, so that he doesn’t have to worry about cultivating the personality of a cactus.
“You certainly have to be really, really competitive,” he says. “You have to have a switch inside you. A lot of feeling behind fast bowling is a desire to bowl fast. Whatever gets you up for the game to run in and bowl fast, whether it’s to be blood-thirsty or to try and get on top of the game or make the batsmen look uncomfortable. There definitely has to be something inside you that makes you get up in the morning after a long day in the field to go out and run in and bowl fast again.
“But it’s not just the ball flying really quickly through the air. A big part is having a presence. It’s the little things that can upset a batsman or make them uneasy. Everyone does it differently. But the bravado that comes with fast bowling is important. It can be another tool in your armoury, like a swing bowler having an inswinger.”
We propose a quiz to find out just how much of a (superficially) tough guy Cummins really is. You know, to prepare him for that moment in the future when Shane Warne offers him constructive criticism about his a) looks, b) demeanour, c) bowling or d) all of the above.
Where’s the ink on your arms?
I think I’m not a tough enough person to get my arms tattooed. I don’t think my mum or grandmother would like me having tattoos either. They’re old-school (his grandmother, in fact, has told him, ‘Hope you don’t get a tattoo like that Johnson, I’m sure he’s lovely but I don’t like the tattoos’). I also don’t think I’m cool enough to pull off tattoos, to be honest. I’ll leave it to the stronger guys in the team and I’ll just hang around them.
What happens when you grow a moustache or a beard?
Ah, I did do this for Movember, a moustache. I’m … okay? Okay, it’s a pretty poor effort. It takes me a while. I wouldn’t be able to grow the big handlebar moustache like Mitchell Johnson did.
Who or what did you last punch?
Probably a boxing bag? In training. I’m not much of a fighter.
I’ve heard from one of your teammates that you’re a Taylor Swift fan?
(laughs) No. (laughs)
Okay, last –
Who told you that?
I’ve been sworn to secrecy.
Journalism ethics and all.
This is getting intense.
No … I’m … no. I don’t mind a couple of her songs.
Whoever told you is lying. They’re trying to stitch me up. [Shake it off, shake it off, Pat.]
Okay, last thing you did – fixed a household item or listened to Coldplay’s Fix You?
Probably … household item. I try to fix a few things around the house. I always have my drill out and try to put together furniture.
Well, you redeemed yourself with the last one.
Flying from Australia to India takes at least 25 hours when you include layover time. When you’re among your team-mates, a long haul flight can seem a little less painful – you can have a bit of banter, swap stories and relax. Cummins didn’t have that luxury when he was called up as a replacement for the injured Starc midway through the India tour – he was flying solo. He could distract himself with his phone, in-flight movies and magazines for only so long before his mind wandered to cricket.
“First it was just the realisation that I was going to go on a Test tour,” he says, recalling the thoughts running through his head during that flight. “I hadn’t been on one for 18 months. I hadn’t played in six (five) years. I hadn’t really comprehended going there so the first thing was getting my head around it, thinking how cool is this, I’m going to a Test series and one that is such an important and big series for Australia.
“The second thing was trying to get my head around what I need to do in the next four or five days in case I was picked for the Test in Ranchi. I remember thinking which guys I need to speak to about technique and batting, and which guys I need to speak to about how they go about their bowling in India.”
Cummins had played his first Sheffield Shield match in six years in March. He took eight wickets, won Man of the Match and was preparing for his next Shield game when he was asked to pack his bags. Was he really ready for Test cricket on the back of one Shield game? Physically? Mentally?
He concedes he was unsure ahead of the Shield game but afterwards he just knew he was ready, that six months of cricket had prepped him for this. As for being in the right mental state, he says it’s easier for a bowler, as compared to a batsman, because technique and approach doesn’t change drastically.
On bowling captains in T20s:
“There’s more a captain can do on the fielding side of things than the batting. Especially as a quick bowler, you get a feeling of what a batsman’s going to do, what works best for each bowler, what fields to use, when to flip the switch from attacking and defensive. I think that comes with experience and as a bowler you learn that a bit quicker. International duties, it’s hard for a fast bowler to play every single game and you want your captain playing every game. But I think T20 cricket is the platform where the bowler can play a bigger part in decision-making, how to set fields and what balls to bowl, because that’s what they do every single game.”
Then, D-day arrived. He knew India weren’t going to lay out a red, or green, carpet for him. He was made to feel “a million miles away from a quick Australian wicket” in Ranchi. But that switch that he was talking about earlier turned on, and that horrible cliché that cricketers spout about putting in a mathematically impossible amount of effort, well, he was doing just that. The Indian batsmen looked knackered trying to fend off Cummins, and he had the wickets of KL Rahul, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane to show for his effort on the third day. He looked knackered too – the giveaway being the camera capturing those fleeting moments when he was hunched over and taking deep breaths – but he wouldn’t say he had enough. He simply couldn’t.
“Any game for Australia, especially a Test match, it’s inside you that you want to just go flat out all the time,” he explains. “For me, it’s my first game in six years and you realise that it could be your last game forever so you don’t want to leave anything out there. Yes, it’s hard work, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.”
That’s what 1,942 days away from Test cricket does to you. Or, more precisely, that’s what 1,944 days away from bowling in Test cricket does to you. But what’s the ballpark figure of how long we have to wait before we see Starc, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and himself playing together in an Australian Test XI?
Cummins immediately perks up at that. “Dunno! That’s always the dream,” he says. “We’re lucky in Australia that we have other guys as well – Jackson Bird, Peter Siddle, and a couple of others who have such a great strength in their bowling. I’d love to see an all-out pace attack. We’ve seen the likes of Mitchell Johnson, what his pace can do. I love that tactic. But I think a few of us might have to pull our finger out and score some runs to try and fit that in.”
Before anything of that sort materialises, Cummins would want to add to his personal Test tally. He has played three Tests compared to Starc’s 36 and Hazlewood’s 28, and he admits it does play on his mind a bit.
“Being able to play quite a lot of one-day cricket in that time made that a bit easier,” he concludes. “There probably weren’t many times I felt like I was close to a Test match in terms of form or how the body was feeling. I played a couple of first-class games, but before that Test series was the first time I felt really close to playing Test cricket since then. You always look back and wish you played more, but one thing I try to remember is I was so young when I started and some of the greats of the game didn’t get an opportunity until they were 23 or 24.”
That’s what he tells himself now, but what would he say if he could have a chance to speak to his 18-year-old self, right after that spectacular Test debut? Well …
He allows Wisden India to keep the letter. Perhaps the Harry Potter fan in him trusts yours truly to acquire a Time Turner and do the needful. Or his new Cricket Australia contract, keeping in mind the Ashes, has a clause that doesn’t allow him to time-travel.
Cricket Australia did, however, let Cummins stay back in India for the Indian Premier League 2017 despite speculation that he might be forced to withdraw. So far, it’s been a smooth ride for him with Delhi Daredevils: nine wickets in seven games at an economy rate of 7.41. The biggest challenge about IPL, he explains, is the travel.
“You play, on average, every second or third day and in between each day is a couple of hours flying, a couple hours on the bus,” he points out. “After having to get settled in a new city and a new hotel room, there isn’t a lot of down time as a fast bowler and in between those things you want to do the right recovery. It might be seeing the physio and getting strapped. On top of all that you have to be able to perform. You want to train as much as you can. You might want to do some gym work to stay on top of conditioning. To be on top of all of those little things go into being your best at game time.”
What makes it worth it is the experience and the bonds that are formed between the unlikeliest of pairs. When he was with Kolkata Knight Riders in 2014-16, Cummins became fast friends with Andre Russell – “Dre Russ, he’s just a cool guy” – and in Delhi, he’s found a kindred spirit in Kagiso Rabada. “I think we both had fairly similar paths,” he suggests. “We’re wired pretty similarly as well. He’s someone good to talk to about experiences in the first few years, what’s worked for him and what hasn’t worked.
“Early on, you just want to be bowling non-stop,” he remembers. “There’s a little voice at the back of your head that’s kinda telling you this is probably not the best thing for your body but you desperately want to win and do the job so you want to bowl as much as possible. I’m sure someone like KG is exactly the same. I think the most successful bowlers have different gears. While they might bowl 25 overs in the day, it might be 10-15 flat out and the other 10-15 just slightly within themselves, trying to swing the ball or finding another way to get the batsman out. That’s something that comes with age and experience.”
On his missing ink:
“I’m not a tough enough person to get my arms tattooed. I don’t think my mum or grandmother would like me having tattoos either. They’re old-school (his grandmother, in fact, has told him, ‘Hope you don’t get a tattoo like that Johnson, I’m sure he’s lovely but I don’t like the tattoos’). I also don’t think I’m cool enough to pull off tattoos, to be honest.”
Speaking of which, Cummins counts himself fortunate to be able to pick the brains of Zaheer Khan, his Delhi captain. What has impressed him the most is his leadership. Being a bowling captain is the exception to the rule in IPL and international cricket, but Cummins strongly feels bowlers can provide more insight in Twenty20 cricket. “There’s more a captain can do on the fielding side of things than the batting,” he insists. “Especially as a quick bowler, you get a feeling of what a batsman’s going to do. It’s a feeling of what ball works best for each bowler, what fields to use, when to flip the switch from attacking and defensive. I think that comes with experience and as a bowler you learn that a bit quicker.
“International duties, it’s hard for a fast bowler to play every single game and you want your captain playing every game. Things like Test matches, your bowler needs to spend time recovering in between spells. I can see it from that point of view why it’s hard work. But I think T20 cricket is the platform where the bowler can play a bigger part in decision-making, how to set fields and what balls to bowl, because that’s what they do every single game. It needs to be the right person, someone with a lot of experience like Zaheer. But I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.”
Perhaps a topic of discussion for the famed Fast Bowlers’ Cartel about the unfairness of it all?
“Spot on!” he says before affirming that batsman are “too pampered” with their coffees and captaincy handed to them on a plate while bowlers are out “doing all the hard work”.
Cummins loves solving crossword puzzles – he’s very cerebral like that. If you’ve ever attempted one, you know it can be frustrating as hell. You jot something down. Erase. Re-write. Re-erase. Rinse and repeat.
But then you spend some time away. And come back. And eureka!
A bit like Cummins’s cricket career, really.
He’s not one to give up after pencilling in a wrong answer in a puzzle, nor is he one to give up on his cricket dream after the roadblocks that popped up after that unforgettable Wanderers start. “This summer I’ve played the most consistent amount of cricket that I have in the past six years,” he says. “I’m hoping this is the start of my career. You never know what will come in sport, especially as a bowler, but I would hope the worst of the time missed is behind me.”
Him, and every other person who calls themselves a cricket fan.