Pat Cummins takes centrestage as Australian captain as Ashes kicks off

In his first few days as Australia’s captain, Pat Cummins didn’t stray from the long-formed image of him. He was serious yet serene, his words measured but warm, demeanour composed and confident, and he was neither too joyous nor too nervous. He talked about human flaws and sympathy, of being kind and understanding to people in tough times, about Australian captains as human beings and not superheroes, and about “being myself and not to overthink” all the while flashing that inescapable smile of his. It was Pat Cummins as we had known him since that morning in Bullring when the fresh-faced teenager ripped through the most decorated South African batting line-up in recent vintage and swirled into the consciousness of the cricketing world.

Look beyond the veneer of composure, and you could see how carefully he has masked the backdrop of tumult. In a sense, making Cummins the captain was the inevitable solution—and the only—to cut the clutter and confusion that stalked the Tim Paine scandal. So much so that, if there was no Cummins, they would have had to assemble one in the attic of their famous sport centres. His appointment cuts no argument, or debates or doubts. It’s hard to think of a more loved Australian cricketer in recent times, not just in Australia, but in the whole cricketing circuit. Rather it has distracted the pre-Ashes talk – strangely there has been little verbal punches – from Paine to a fast-bowler assuming charge of Australia after 64 years (Ray Lindwall, though, was a stand-in).

As with a new beginning, or a new era, there is a flush of new hope, though fundamentally, the nucleus of the side remains the same as their last Test series, the series against India at the start of the year.

But in cricket, more than any other sport, leadership matters. Not just from a strategic or team-philosophy viewpoint, but from how a team thinks, reacts and perceives. Though captains are essentially as good as the team, a good captain does stamp his persona on the team, not forcefully but seamlessly. Like Steve Waugh, or MS Dhoni, and to a lesser extent Virat Kohli. In Paine’s case, there were public and pundits who wondered fundamentally about his cricketing pre-eminence, whether he was the best wicket-keeper or wicket-keeper batsman available to Australia at that point, before even judging his captaincy credentials. But Cummins brooks no such arguments—he is, with Steve Smith, the finest Australian cricketer of his generation.

Whether he could be a good leader is a different question altogether, and one that could be judged in hindsight. Cummins himself admits the new role as a leap into the unknown. “Some parts of it are daunting, but you can’t stay in bed all day worrying about some of these things. There’s so much positive to this role, there’s so much I could bring to it,” he said in the press conference.

Even before he became a captain, he was an influential figure on the field, someone who Paine compulsively consulted in the middle, someone who his vastly experienced colleagues often bounced ideas off too. But being an undesignated leader and an official captain are vastly different portfolios. Especially for a heavy duty fast bowler like Cummins.

Bowlers as captains

Fast bowling itself is the game’s most backbreaking vocation, combine the task with leading a side, straight into the cauldron of the Ashes, it could be the stuff of nightmares. Suddenly, he can’t drift between overs, can’t take a breather after a long spell, has to be in the game all the time, he has to attend more boardroom meetings, engage himself more on the strategising table, do a lot of team-talks, attend more press conferences, make decisions.

And invariably defend under-performing teammates and explain the rationale behind a particular decision and so on and so forth. His thick crown of ash blonde hair could thin and grey, his crinkle-less face could crumple. Captains tend to be twice as fast as others, or deteriorate rapidly like subcontinental pitches. It’s a reason, perhaps, there have been few fast bowlers who became captain. And fewer still who prospered. Imran Khan certainly was, and to an extent so was the inexplicably under-stated (as captain) Wasim Akram.
Even spin-bowling captains are scant. Anil Kumble became one at the backend of his career; Muttiah Muralitharan was reluctant. Shane Warne, many assumed, would lead Australia at some point in time. He was the long-serving deputy of Steve Waugh before a texting scandal disarrayed his captaincy ambitions. He was the closest an Australian bowler became a captain this century.

Cummins understands the enormity of the twin duties, and would undoubtedly be assisted by a core of senior players. He is blessed that way, there is an abundance of experience in the side. Then there is Steve Smith too, who could be more of a captain and less of vice-captain. “There’ll be times in the field where I’ll throw to Steve and you’ll see Steve moving fielders around, maybe doing bowling changes, taking a bit more of an elevated vice captaincy role. That’s what I really want, that’s what I’ve asked and I’m really glad Steve’s happy with that as well. We’ll nut out exactly how that works, it’s going to be a real collaborative approach,” he said in the prematch press conference.

The upgradation would mark a significant step in Smith’s career, a reintegration to the leadership fold after sandpaper incident three years ago. It could be the first step in his journey to reclaiming captaincy in the future. In case Cummins fails or feels knackered by the rigours, Australia wouldn’t have any other alternative than Smith.

Root needs a win too

In the ceaseless focus on Cummins and Smith, and the still lingering ghosts of Paine, England have been largely anonymous in the build-up. Should they not reclaim the urn, they face a leadership makeover themselves. “Absolutely it is (on the line), you look at how hard it has been for English captains and English teams over the years. It’s been something that doesn’t happen very often. Of course it will define my captaincy, I’m not naive enough to think that it won’t,” said Root, who has lost two of his last three Test seres, and trailing 2-1 in the unfinished series against India.

Though emboldened by the returning Ben Stokes, Root would be weakened by an injury to James Anderson, who would sit out of the first Test, and the continuing absence of Jofra Archer. The batting order is unsettled and bowling group, barring Anderson and Stuart Broad, is untested in Australian conditions too. But they have played more Tests than Australia this year (13-2), though they would have ideally liked a couple of warm-up games to attune themselves to the frequency of Australian conditions.

But if Australia nurses any complacency before the series, the sight of the Gabba would wake them up. The last time they played a Test here, they ended up being humbled by a second-string India. Then captain Paine termed the defeat a “life lesson.” In an ironic twist of fate, it’s down to his successor Cummins to put those life lessons into practice.

The prelude to the Ashes, apart from lacking the usual spice and theatrics, has been wholly Cummins-centric. And it would take a hell of a performer to grab the attention away from him.

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