WTC Finals: Pat Cummins breaking the mold and the smiling captain of the Australian team

This teenager would soon blossom into a formidable breakaway, breaking ribs and toes, becoming the fast bowler the world admired and feared, becoming the first fast bowler to become captain of Australia in 64 years, and the first ever to win the Ashes. And yet, above all, you are struck by his smile. Ask him the toughest question in the interview. He’ll smile and answer. Throw him a red ball at any critical moment in the match. He will smile and cast a spell of unrelenting hostility. Give him the most puzzling crossword puzzle, one of his amusements, and he will smile and ponder it. Rebuke him, tease him, and he would still keep smiling. He always did it with a smile, and that, I think, was the trait of a true champion, the coach said.

It’s hard to remember an Australian captain of late who smiled more often or smiled at all. Steve Waugh smiled softly and measuredly; Ricky Ponting grinned; Michael Clarke grinned often; Tim Paine chuckled. Steve Smith was all of those things, but he smiled sparingly, and even when he did smile, it wasn’t as disarming as Cummins’. He broke the archetype of the Australian captain, who was a pulsating individual alpha male.

On the field, he was rarely agitated or antagonistic. Occasionally he banters–you can tell by his smile–but rarely engages in heated exchanges of swearing. His celebrations are solemn, as if he were mentally reciting a requiem for departed batsmen. I don’t like to waste time on things like sledding and things like that, he once said.

Consciously or not, the team he leads has adopted his traits. Their recent tours to the subcontinent — one of the three he won — were largely devoid of incident and scandal. Pre-series conversations were almost non-existent, occasional skirmishes never escalated into rage and never made it to the judges’ room. Peace and order prevailed.

Some of his critics cried out that his team was soft, devoid of bark, as opposed to a more energetic approach and positive results after Smith replaced Cummins, who flew home to his sick mother. But in this WTC finale, it would be Cummins’ version of Australia.

In his biography written by Ron Reid, The Hour Comes, Cummins the Man, Cummins reasoned about his less frisky approach: A couple of years ago it was obvious that the world wanted all cricket comands, especially the Australians, have slowed I constantly urge all our players to be themselves. They shouldn’t try to impress anyone or sled just because they could do it in the past. I’m very proud of the way they act.

It wasn’t one man’s decision. We all talked about it beforehand, and we all believed in it. It wasn’t just me. I kind of laid out what I wanted and what kind of environment I wanted and shaped it. We sat down and thought it through, he says in his bio.

That approach also needs some reflection. His ascension to captaincy came at a time when Australian cricket needed rebuilding, when the prototypical grinning Aussie seemed artificial, when there was so much quasi-machism, when there was a striking lack of identity, when there was a relentless moral crisis, from the Sandpaper-gate scandal to the Tim Paine sexting storm. Cummins was the man for that crisis, and he turned out to be the perfect choice.

Cummins brought finesse and direction to the game, though he was sometimes called soft. But beneath the less obnoxious approach lurks an invisible steelyness, relentlessness, and indefatigability that have been the ideals of Australian cricket for centuries. Cummins’ charges play tough, tough cricket, but they don’t pretend to be tough, tough people.

In the event of defeat, as happened in India, he remained graceful, supported his players, took the blame for defeat, and showered praise on the winners. In triumph he maintained his dignity. After beating England in the Ashes, he sympathized with them, wondering how difficult it was for them to travel and play the series during the pandemic. Thanks for coming, I know it wasn’t easy, he said.

During Ash’s previous time in Australia, the backdrop for the presentation was a giant pair of inflatable hands: one, painted in Australian colors, held four fingers, while the other, in English livery, clutched them in a zero sign. The gesture was derided as a crude triumph of triumphalism. But not this time. Later, in the series against India, he presented an all-team autographed jersey to Cheteshwar Pujara for his 100th Test in New Delhi.

It was a small gesture that revealed his cricketing ethic, rooted in mutual respect and sportsmanship, which former Australian fast bowler Geoff Lawson captured in his column for Sydney Morning Herald. He makes Test cricket look like a game of fun and consequence rather than do-or-die. Perhaps his view is shaped by the seriousness of world events, he wrote.

The calmer approach has won over his teammates as well. The most experienced of all his teammates, Nathan Lyon, said: Pat is extremely calm as a captain. I think Australia plays best when they are calm, have a smile on their face and enjoy the game. Pat made a very accurate point.

However, there is a sterner, more practical side to him. Beneath the smiling exterior hides a classic Australian bowling executioner. Were it not for that toughness, he would not have been able to recover from a string of injuries that caused him to miss 63 Tests. He would have quit and probably started a career as a manager, or he wouldn’t have flown back and forth from Sydney to Perth to train under Dennis Lilly. There he reevaluated his actions, rediscovered the zest of the game and fell in love with red wine.

A day after Justin Langer was asked to leave, his former teammate Mitchell Johnson wrote a scathing column. Cummins has been vaunted as something of a cricketing saint since he took over the top job this summer…After Langer’s disgraceful departure as coach, he (Baggy Green) means selfishness, Johnson wrote. A group of old teammates, including legends such as Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden, stood up for Langer.

But Cummins remained undeterred by public opinion or the disgust of the players he idolized as a child. At a press conference a few days later, he calmly explained the circumstances, firmly and eloquently stating his point of view. He was the perfect man for the time, he did a fantastic job – I absolutely loved working with him, he said, almost paying homage to him.

Then he got to the point. Some of those skill sets (desired by players) are a little different than maybe his traditional coaching style. But we think it’s a good time for a different direction. It’s a matter of opinion, but we think it’s the right one.

There was no anger, irritation, passion or emotion in his words. He was simply explaining his point of view without belittling the other or getting personal. There was no arrogance in his carefully constructed sentences. There was nothing between the lines. But at the endhe said with a smile: As his old comrades stood for him, so will I stand for my comrades.

These were not empty words. He is caring and sensitive. So much so that he asked a jubilant teammate after the Ashes triumph not to pour champagne on Usman Khawaja, a practicing Muslim.

The next day Khawaja posted the video, saying: If this video doesn’t show you guys have my back, I don’t know what will. They stopped their usual champagne celebrations so I could join them. Inclusivity in the game and our values as a sport are so important. I feel like we are headed in the right direction. In the past, the left-handed batsman has talked about how difficult it is for him to fit into the culture of Australian cricket, where alcohol is accepted.

This is a more appropriate gesture because Khawaja is religious and Cummins is not. Both are friends who have deep conversations that are not about cricket. Because I am very religious and he is not religious at all, we had very good conversations about religion and life, and they were very deep. I think it’s hard for him to understand that I’ve always loved science and been religious, Khawaja told the Sydney Morning Herald.

This incident shows Cummins’ broader life perspective. He’s not a cricket tragedian to the point where he devotes all his time and thoughts to the game. He likes to do crossword puzzles, reads a variety of books from management to fiction, is attentive to climate issues, is the organizer of Cricket for Climate, a movement to get cricket clubs across Australia to reach zero emissions within the next decade, donated $50,000 to buy oxygen for hospitals in India during the pandemic, works with UNICEF on humanitarian efforts and is involved in the Reflect Forward campaign against racism.

Wallahan could sense his humanity from an early age. He remembers the first time he came back from a Test debut with piles of shirts and kits; or how he played for a club with an injury even after he became an international cricketer; or how he gave his credit card to a club teammate to celebrate a win. He is special, a cricketer of rare gifts and a man of rare values, he says.

In 853 Tests, fast bowlers (not counting all-rounders) have captained Australia only 16 times. Pat Cummins: 15; Ray Lindwall: 1. This is not an Australian aberration – fast bowling captains are rare. No current test team has a pacesetter captain. There are practical reasons, too. The challenges are many and unique, whether it’s balancing the hostility required during his own throws with a calm attitude in general, setting pitches and making plans while trying to catch his breath between overs, objectively distributing the workload between himself and his fellow bowlers, or staying injury-free for long series.

So it’s no surprise that Mike Brerely argues that appointing a fast bowler as captain should be a last resort. It takes an exceptional character to know when to bowl, to keep bowling with all his energy twisted into an aggressive ball, and to be sensitive to the needs of the team, both tactically and psychologically. They tend to either overplay or not play enough, out of vanity, modesty or self-defense, he wrote in The Art of Captaincy.

In addition, they are more susceptible to injury and long recovery periods, which means there may be long periods when a substitute will have to replace a player. The added mental stress can lead to rapid burnout, and they may end up underperforming. An oft-cited example is Bob Willis, who led the England team in 18 games. He won seven and lost five, but his teammates were not the happiest. Derek Pringle once wrote: He led the game from midfield often in a daze, his bowling with its long and winding run uphill squeezed so much out of him. Ian Botham sympathized: We were practically creating pitches for him because he was so focused on running fast and doing everything right on his end.

But so far the captaincy hasn’t knocked Cummins out. He gives the impression of a democratic captain, making decisions as a group rather than individually, and his team is collegial rather than individualistic. He is not one to fancy pitches; he does not interfere with the bowlers when pitching; he is not a captain on his ears; he does not bark instructions; he is not a strategist weighted down by theory. Not that he is unconcerned, but he does not impose himself on his teammates. He is not the most demonstrative of captains, but he is aggressive and relentless, determined and determined.

At the same timetime, the captaincy had no effect on his bowling, averaging 21.22 as a non-captain and 21.59 as a captain. There are no world stars on his team, but somehow his team continues to find heroes. Travis Head’s transformation is a classic example. His defense of Head lifted the batsman’s morale when he was going through a tough time, criticized for his ugly outings. Cummins defended him: As captain, I don’t care if he comes out differently. I just want him to come out and play freely.Head soon became an Ashes hero.

Cummins became the first bowler-captain to win the Ashes for his country. In a few weeks he could add a WTC crown and another Ashes to his bag of honors. But his legacy, regardless of how the next round of captaincy turns out, will be a form-breaker – a captain who is a fast bowler, an Australian non-alpha male captain and an Australian captain who smiles.And makes spectators smile, too.

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