When it comes to Australia’s prodigy rumour mill, no tale slingshots around the country quicker than that of the young, raw, fast bowler.
When he was 13, the mother of an opposition player once stopped Pat Cummins as he was taking the field with his team-mates. Playing underage cricket for Penrith in Sydney’s West, she called him over for a word. She looked pensive as he approached. He didn’t recognise her, but she recognised him.
“Her son was opening the batting,” Cummins says. “She told me she remembered me from last year. She basically asked me if I would bowl slower to him. I think I’d hit him in the legs and chest a few times.” It’s unknown whether the son ever became aware of the exchange.
When you are the fastest bowler in your country, you’re bound to have stories like these. Like the one offered by Cummins’ Penrith club-mate, who describes a 20-minute break in play after Cummins, aged 14, clean bowled an opposition batsman.
“Nobody could find the off-bail on the ground,” he says. “The umpires eventually discovered it had disappeared over the rope, over the fence. He’d effectively bowled the bail for six.” Another tale born.
Cummins struggles to recall that one, but nor does he rule it out. He contemplates these stories with more amusement than any obvious sense of macho pride. His club cricket friends do that for him by proxy. Some of them retain grainy iPhone pictures of a snapped stump courtesy of Cummins in a recent Sydney one day final. “Cheers for coming patty C” reads the Snapchat caption, shared around the club. That Cummins – a world stage cricketer with fair reason to rest – would even play the fixture, let alone snap stumps for Penrith, says something about his values. You can probably guess the rest of the story: they win, he stars, he shouts everyone drinks “with his IPL millions”, one team-mate affectionately offers.
It looks a well-worn story: the raw-boned, strapping Australian quick leaving tales of trembling children, bargaining mothers, lost bails and broken stumps in his wake. And as Cummins prepares for his first home summer Tests, it certainly forms a comfortable narrative.
But Cummins confounds the Australian fast bowling stereotype as much as he fits it. This week he graduated with a Bachelor of Business from the University of Technology in Sydney. In doing so, he became the final member of his seven-strong family able to call himself university-educated.
Not that you can imagine him using those words. He’s distinctly grounded, undoubtedly due to the influence of his parents, Peter and Maria, and his siblings Matt, Laura, Tim and Kara.
“As I was growing up, cricket was always just a game and a past time,” he says. “But because of Mum and Dad, sticking with my education wasn’t negotiable. The reason I went to uni was because it was the normal thing to do. My brothers and sisters went. All my mates from school went. It’s just what you did.”
He tried on the superstar cap once, he admits. Tired of the rigmarole of public transport to-and-from his Sydney CBD university campus, he spotted the university car park, which had spaces reserved for faculty heads, professors and senior staff alike. “I went to the dean’s office and knocked on the door. I asked him if he could reserve me a spot too. He said he’d think about it.” Cummins went home and mentioned the exchange in passing to his Mum. “She was absolutely mortified,” he said. “She made me write a letter to the dean straight away apologising for the question, and I handed it in the next day.”
His brothers give him shorter shrift. The day after Cummins’ exploits on debut against South Africa in 2011, aged 18, members of the media turned up at the family house unannounced.
“They were TV reporters,” he said. “They knocked at Mum and Dad’s home. One of my brothers answered and tried to shoo them away. They said to him something like ‘what are your thoughts on him debuting?’ and he said, ‘I can’t believe he’s playing a Test match. He still hasn’t won a match in the backyard against me’. Then he closed the door.” Cummins says it’s the “youngest brother syndrome” that still drives him on the field.
What would Australia’s storied fast bowlers union – men like Lillee, Thompson, McGrath et al – make of Cummins? How do you square a frightening paceman from the mountains with a tertiary-qualified, tatt-free man whose favourite hobby is “a really good crossword”? Can a person with a stated aversion to verbal barrages even be considered aggressive?
“For me, being intimidating is about using body language – those kind of things – rather than a verbal attack, which is something others might do. It’s not really my character, but it doesn’t mean the aggressiveness isn’t there,” he says. “I’ll probably get in trouble for giving someone lip, now that I’ve said that,” he adds.
Australia’s current and former Test captains noticed his aggression when Cummins was a junior, and Cummins didn’t have to say a thing. At 16, he was invited to bowl at the Australian team on the day before an ODI in Sydney. He enjoyed the experience, and thought no more of it. 18 months later, when he was in the Test team, Ricky Ponting raised the exchange. Recalling it, Cummins said, “I got the chance to bowl to him and he told me he remembered being impressed by my pace. Steve Smith overheard him and told me the same thing. It was nice to know they’d remembered me.”
The story is apt, because while an injury-free Cummins is quietly amassing Test performances of note for Australia, so far they’ve all been away from home. They sit blurred in the corners of our memory: a hostile spell in India here, another in Bangladesh. And of course, that South Africa match. But while Test cricket turns on itself, some truisms still remain. Like the one in Australia’s collective cricket consciousness, that says: “if it didn’t happen at home, did it happen at all?” For the first time, finally, Cummins stands poised to do something we might all remember.