And now? Cummins is on top of the world, not just the mainstay of Australia’s pace attack but the preeminent bowler in the game, according to International Cricket Council rankings. We meet again on a chilly Monday afternoon at The Stadium Club, a multi-level gym a long throw or two from the Sydney Cricket Ground. Just home from Australia’s Ashes tour of England, where his tally of 29 wickets at a sub-20 average helped Australia keep hold of the urn, Cummins is bright-eyed and affable in the wake of a campaign in which he sent down 211 overs, 50 more than Australia’s next busiest paceman.
“I’m okay. My body feels a little weak and tired, but I have a break now,” says Cummins, 26, who between sentences is sneaking in sips of a piccolo and nibbles of a toasted sandwich. After his flight home the day after the last Test, “it was feet up for a week,” he says. “Now it’s about trying to get some muscle back that you lose over five Tests.”
Time to rebuild, in other words. And quickly. The break he’s savouring is brief: a total of six T20s against Sri Lanka and Pakistan precede a two-Test series against the latter, beginning at the Gabba on Nov. 21. The Cummins story is there to inspire anyone who’s felt like giving up in the face of a slew of setbacks defined by pain and frustration. No sooner had Cummins, fresh out of high school, excelled in his first Test than an inflamed heel cut down the prodigy and ushered in a half-decade cycle of breakdown-rehabilitation-resumption-breakdown. Cummins, fortunately, had both resilience and a plan. And oftentimes, that’s all a guy under the pump really needs.
As for Cummins’ transformation from fragile to bulletproof, don’t ask him about a secret. There isn’t one. Just hard work and being smart. And time. Time has been his ally.
“There’s no shortcut,” he says.
Up to a point the answer to an uncooperative body has been allowing biology to take its course. The adolescent frame needed to mature.
“And with that everything gets a bit stronger and you’re able to bowl more. And the more I’ve bowled, the better I’ve felt.”
Just as you grow out of the boy’s body, so too the youth’s approach to fast bowling is jettisoned. In Cummins’ first Test back in 2011 in Johannesburg, where he claimed six wickets in South Africa’s second innings, Cummins was a tearaway, straining to hit top speed with every ball. As a modus operandi it’s gripping viewing but also murder on the back. Change is the only certainty. Cummins looked barely old enough to shave in that Test; now he’s an ambassador for Gillette.
“My action was different then – whippier. And I probably bowled faster,” says Cummins. “But the trade-off was I lacked consistency and bowling took a much bigger toll on my body.” To avoid being a shooting star, “I’ve tightened everything up. Everything about my action is more efficient”.
Dialling back on pace requires willpower because it’s a rare quick who doesn’t get a charge out of speed as an end in itself. In England, onto centre stage swaggered the local quick Jofra Archer, who stole the show if it’s pure, helmet-rattling velocity that gets you amped. Did this bother Cummins? He smiles.
“I think if you’d asked me that two years ago I would have said, ‘Yep, I want to be the fastest’,” he says. “But now it really doesn’t bother me. As long as I’ve still got a quick bouncer up my sleeve and I feel like I’m rushing batters, it doesn’t bother me if it’s 145 or 155[km/h].” There’ll be times, he says, when he’ll “ramp it up for a fast spell . . . but other times I feel like I’m going to be more effective if I rein it in slightly.”
FIT FOR PURPOSE
In the dark times, Cummins lent on Cricket Australia and Cricket NSW medicos. With hindsight, he’s filled with appreciation for their encouragement. They kept his chin up. “Looking back on it now, having their backing . . . that’s what kept me going,” he says. Drawing on their experience with other fast bowlers who’d overcome injuries, “they gave me the confidence that on the other side of it was going to be a long career”.
A key to his reemergence has been the physical training. Fast bowlers don’t need bulging pecs or biceps. These would be dead weight given the imperative is a fast-rotating arm to propel a ball that weighs a mere 156 grams. The bowling shoulder needs to be stable, not boulder-like. Where bulk is required is in the lower body. At the moment of release “we can have 10 times our bodyweight going through our legs,” says Cummins. “So if you bowl 50 overs in a Test match that’s 300 times you’ve got that force going through your body. Our glutes and legs, they’re the shock-absorbers. The main thing is to build those up to absorb all those forces but also to keep you in a good position so you can bowl 300 balls with the same action.”
Former Test spearhead Mitchell Johnson swore by Olympic lifts for preparing his body for fast bowling. Cummins isn’t about to follow his predecessor’s lead.
“He’s a machine, Johnno,” says Cummins. “I’ve tried Olympic lifting and I’m just not that good at it.”
So, he pursues lower-body explosiveness through safer moves, such as box jumps. Cummins had not so much as a niggle during the Ashes. Team leaders declined to rest him at any stage of the series, in which he was bowling as fast at the end as at the start. Crucial to that consistency was Cummins’ approach to recovery. After a day in the field the process would begin upon returning to the sheds. After a hit of protein he would lower himself into an ice bath – and stay there (slightly miserable) for 5-7 minutes. Warm again, he’d stretch out his muscles and weigh up the need for physical therapy.
“But the main thing is just a really good sleep,” he says. In this area he’s lucky: he routinely manages 8-10 hours with a strategy no more complex than closing his eyes. Between Tests he would aim for one gym session. “Even if it was light, you were finding that balance between resting and doing something to keep the strength in the legs. I’m always trying to stay on top of my hamstrings. That’s the first place where my strength goes, so I do a lot of bodyweight holds targeting the hammies.”
NEXT IN LINE?
Personal downsides from the Ashes? Cummins would have liked to have been more productive with the bat. And he was also the poor sap whom Ben Stokes clouted to the rope to secure England’s farfetched win at Headingley.
“But in the end I’ve rationalised it by saying that was one of the greatest-ever Test innings and it was special to be a part of it.”
There was an intriguing postscript to Cummins’ Ashes efforts. Reviewing the series, Wally Mason, sports editor of The Australian, put the case for Cummins as Australia’s next Test captain. Current skipper Tim Paine, Mason argued, had served his purpose but wasn’t really up to the job, while Cummins had the nous, character and killer instinct to do it well. Cummins says captaincy isn’t on his mind – he last led a team when he was 15. But in a career moving rapidly after those five years on hold, who knows what’s around the corner for the world’s best paceman?
NEED FOR SPEED
This Pat Cummins 3-round circuit will prime your lower body for explosive athletic performance.
1. FARMERS WALK
Grab a heavy dumbbell in each hand and walk for 30 metres.
2. SLED PUSH
Head down, arse up, push till it hurts.
3. MED-BALL SLAM
The key word here is “slam”. Lift, twist from the hips and waist, then slam!
4. GOBLET SQUAT
Holding the weight out front is gentler on your back. Rep it out, feeling the burn.
5. SINGLE-LEG PLATE RAISES
Looks a little precarious, we know. Start with a light plate. Or no plate at all.