Ben Jones analyses how the Australian seamer goes about his business.
In Australia, Pat Cummins is everywhere. Every advertising board, every commercial break, every banner outside a ground, adorned with that smiling Sydney face. You know why. Look at those eyes, that jawline, that rueful grin. It’s a face that could sell ice to the Inuits.
Not that you could plaster them across the side of a bus to sell razor blades, but his numbers don’t look too shabby either.
Since returning from that long series of injuries which kept him out of Test cricket for six years, Cummins has been an unequivocally elite bowler. Of everyone to appear in Tests over the last two years, only three have taken more wickets than him, and they’re an impressive list. One, the GOAT; one, arguably the best all-format seamer in the world; and the man with more Test wickets than any seamer in history. It’s good company to hold.
So, how does he do it?
Pace is a factor, of course. Since that triumphant return to fitness, Cummins has clearly been firing on all cylinders – because he’s right up there with the quickest bowlers in the world. Only Mitchell Starc, a man with an action designed for throwing missiles at far-flung corners of the earth, has managed to bowl quicker than Cummins in the last two years. Compared to his left-arm colleague, Cummins’ action is an effortless, easy means of delivering the ball, meaning that his pace is often overlooked. It really shouldn’t be.
Yet whilst this pace is probably the most emphatic element of Cummins’ bowling method, it’s the least subtle string to his bow.
Unlike many quick bowlers, Cummins doesn’t particularly rely on lateral movement. He doesn’t really swing or seam the ball; of the pace bowlers to play five Tests since Cummins returned from his injury, none swing the ball less. Only a handful of bowlers get less movement off the pitch.
In part, this is a function of him playing the majority of his Tests in home conditions, with Australia being among the least bowler friendly countries in the world right now; in part, it’s deliberate, a tactical choice. Cummins doesn’t need swing and seam, because he’s got plenty else going on.
That express pace is deceptive, because it distracts you from his most important trait. Cummins is remarkably accurate, not just for a bowler of his high speed, but full stop. Everyone knows that the channel outside off stump is the most dangerous place to bowl, across the board, but only one seamer in the world finds that spot as regularly as Cummins. That man is Jasprit Bumrah, a man many people would say he’s the best bowler in the world right now. Again, Cummins is keeping extremely good company.
Essentially, Cummins’ strength is that his headline quality – immaculate control of line – is the sort you can pack into a suitcase and take anywhere in the world. Whilst Starc’s 150kph hoopers are great when the ball is swinging, they’re half-volleys when it’s not. Bowling a tight line at 139kph is never going to be a bad plan, wherever you’re marking out your run-up. Cummins is yet to prove it in practice, because he’s not had many chances, but he’s got all the hallmarks of a good tourist.
On top of this, because of the sustainable nature of that weapon, Cummins is able to stay a threat throughout the innings. He doesn’t rely on new ball swing, reverse swing, inconsistent bounce or grass on the surface; as long as he’s able to get the ball in that channel outside off, he’s able to challenge the batsmen, from the moment Australia walk out to the moment they walk off.
He has a good record against both left-handers and right-handers, but it’s the latter which really suffer at his hand. Cummins averages 20.56 against right-handers in Tests since his return, and 26.62 against left-handers. Only Rabada has a better average against right-handers since Cummins made his debut.
As we already know, Cummins doesn’t really rely on swing to dismiss batsmen of either handedness, but it’s particularly noticeable against right-handers. His bowling average is roughly the same whether he’s swinging the ball in, swinging it away, or not swinging it at all. Clearly, the set-up deliveries are just as important as the wicket taking deliveries, but for Cummins it’s often the notes he doesn’t play which sound the sweetest.
However, this isn’t quite true of seam movement. When the ball doesn’t move off the surface, Cummins averages over 30 against right-handers; when it does move, his average plummets. Both his nip-backer and the one which nips away are staggeringly effective deliveries.
All this bodes rather well for Cummins’ Ashes summer, you would think. He’s quicker than the most accurate seamers in the world, and more accurate than the quickest; he doesn’t need lateral movement, but is devastating when it’s there. Cummins’ value is that he is two bowlers in one, a Jofra and a Jimmy, a Bumrah and a Bhuvi, all bound up in one rather eye-catching package. It’s his presence in the Australian XI that allows them to accommodate the maverick rollercoaster of Starc, far more so than the “balancing” effects of Marnus Labuschagne or Mitchell Marsh. Steve Smith is Australia’s best player, and Mitchell Starc is potentially their most dangerous, but Cummins is their most important. If one man holds the key to Australia’s Ashes hopes, it’s him.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.