Wednesday 30 November 2011

Paceman Pat and his immediate impact...

When South African maestro Dale Steyn is bowling with his tail up, that trademark snarl etched across his face, that demonic look in those piercing eyes and the wind rushing through his hair as he tears in toward the popping crease at breakneck speed, it is safe to assume there is no specialist batsman in world cricket that enjoys the prospect of facing him. Unleashing outswinging and unerringly accurate exocets in excess of 90mph, Steyn is a menacing presence.
In the second and final Test between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers a fortnight ago, that is exactly the proposition 18 year old paceman Pat Cummins was greeted with when walking to the wicket with his side 292-8 with 18 runs needed to win, and just two wickets remaining in Australia’s second innings.
One could have forgiven Cummins for thinking that this wasn’t part of his job description when his prodigious fast bowling talent saw him picked to earn his first Test cap. Crucial passages of play in a high pressure atmosphere are often where hot prospects sink or swim. Cummins, it seems, has an element of Michael Phelps about him. Where more experienced and illustrious names had failed, Cummins took to his task with the fearless youthful exuberance that only the inexperienced can, swiping the mighty Steyn and co for two boundaries on his way to making 13 not out and winning Australia the match and a share of this compelling and criminally under scheduled Test series.
His batting heroics were nevertheless only the icing on the cake of what was a terrific Test debut for the New South Wales man. Whilst Cummins had looked the most threatening Australian bowler in South Africa’s first innings, his modest return of 1-38 did him little justice. It was the second innings, however, where this rising star of Australian cricket really began to burn at its brightest. One over in particular caught the eye and was rather poignant, as an 18 year old novice gave 40 time centurion Jacques Kallis an almighty working over, before removing the great man with an angled delivery outside off stump; Kallis clearly softened up by the earlier barrage of venomous short deliveries. The cunning old fox had been out-thought and out-smarted by the new cub on the block.
Australia, it must be remembered, were still busy peeling themselves from the canvas after that crushing and traumatic trouncing in Cape Town. This was a side carrying more issues than the average Jeremy Kyle guest line-up, and how it showed here in Johannesburg. Ricky Ponting was embroiled in his own almighty struggle for each and every run as he looked to finally post a score of note, Mitchell Johnson was bowling off a shortened run up as an experimental means of gaining accuracy and swing, and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin had clearly decided that blazing his way back in to form through a series of audacious slogs and extravagant drives was the solution to his own batting woes.
A man whose only issue was how much carnage he could wreak on a stellar South African batting order was Pat Cummins. Experience is key in any sport, with participants constructing a mental portfolio which sees them through the toughest of situations. As a consequence, the mental scars of past failures are often etched deep into their psyche, with the potential to inhibit a mind that was once reliant on natural instinct. One suspects that the absence of these embedded psychological terrors was of greater benefit to Cummins in this pressure cooker situation than years of experience could ever have provided.
India’s master batsman Sachin Tendulkar is one such example of experience, and therefore expectation, altering the way that various situations are approached as time passes. At the age of 18, Sachin played with all the freedom of a chick flying the nest. In recent times, and with the hopes of over one billion fans sitting squarely on those small shoulders, the pressure is at times visibly telling. The hook shot has almost disappeared from the little masters game, no doubt a concession to prolong his stay at the crease, and the whole experience of watching him bat is somewhat diminished (though still a pleasure) from that of his youthful exuberance, as he plays to his strengths with minimal risk. Such a situation is something that may present Pat Cummins with problems of his own in the future, but it is likely the very reason that he was the coolest head in the house at the Wanderers.
Whilst his effect upon this particular Test match was undoubtedly critical, it is the wider impact that the emergence of Cummins has on Australian cricket which is likely to be the most resounding. In truth, Australia have struggled for a fast bowler with genuine quality and a real cutting edge since the retirement of the peerless Glenn McGrath. Mitchell Johnson is a mercurial bowler capable of destroying the best of line-ups, but those performances have become all too infrequent of late. Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle are what you would call solid performers that won’t let anybody down, but there is no doubt that a world class attack needs a leader that oozes class and wicket-taking threat whenever the ball is in his hand. It is early days, but could Pat Cummins be well on his way to filling this void already at the tender age of 18?
Cummins bowls with a maturity well beyond his years, and is clearly a ‘thinking bowler’ always looking to out-smart batsmen. Such attributes were consistently on display throughout the T20 Champions League tournament where he found great success with New South Wales on the flat pitches of the Indian subcontinent. Tall, fast and with the ability to extract prodigious bounce from just back of a length, the raw materials of a world class fast bowler are there in abundance. Add to that the promising early signs that he has an ice cool temperament required for the big occasion, and Australia may just have unearthed themselves a gem.
Only time will tell just how far Pat Cummins can go, but based on these initial glimpses the potential seems to be there for a long and successful Test career. One thing is for sure, his emergence will add much needed spice to the Australian bowling unit ahead of the next Ashes series in England, as the selectors look to revitalise an attack ground in to the dirt by the relentless blades of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott last winter.
Of course, it is often English practice to get carried away by talented youngsters that display early promise. In this instance, one has to wonder whether that enthusiasm is more closely related to the possibility of a hotly contested Ashes series against a Cummins led Australian bowling attack, after the relative ease with which the little urn was retained last time out. It couldn’t be that English supporters miss having an Australian bowling nemesis, could it?

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