With a federal election on the horizon, Australia can soon expect media wonks to comb the language patterns of party communications, parsing the signs, slogans and subliminal messages for revelatory insights into our leaders. Even though, as Richard Flanagan writes, “words are mostly used to keep us asleep, not to wake us”, this work usually tells us something about how campaigns and their leaders like to be seen.
If the specialists ran Pat Cummins’ words through the software, one word would stand above all else: “calm”. It was the first word he used to describe himself after becoming captain. Speaking about Cummins a week earlier, teammate James Pattinson used the same word. Explaining his response to Joe Root and Dawid Malan’s threatening partnership last week, Cummins said the team was “calm…[with] no panic”. Nathan Lyon twice said Cummins was calm through the first Test. So did Mike Hussey, noting the “calm feel around the team.” Coach Justin Langer called out his calmness, too.
The theme for Cummins’ leadership style is clear. It looks diametrically opposed to life under intense, pre-intervention Langer. And, unlike many of our elected leaders, the first Test provided signs that Cummins is able to deliver on the promise.
Possibly forgotten amid the runs, the wickets and the routing was the distinct lack of carry-on. In the past, splaying stumps on the first ball of the series at a frothing Gabba might have resulted in a barking cordon. Some overzealous hair ruffling between friends was as aggressive as it got.
Later in the Test, with frustration lengthening in proportion to the shadows as Joe Root and Dawid Malan batted on, we heard no drivel from under Marnus Labuschagne’s lid, forced “wit” from behind the stumps or mic’s coincidentally turned up to capture both. Instead we had debutant Alex Carey, whose presence imbued the sort of assuredness and maturity a parent might hope for when meeting a debut babysitter. Eight catches showed substance to support the optic. Carey just seems to be an adult.
Travis Head was bombing all-comers before he was beamed, and accepted Mark Wood’s apology in good faith. Earlier, Cameron Green apologised to his skipper for over-celebrating his first wicket. It all has the whiff of, dare we say it, actual humility. We’ll need more evidence to trust it.
Where was the niggle? Where were the barbs? Where were the small hold-ups in play while the opponents sighed, waiting for the chat to stop? Each example above is only a small thing and perhaps it’s selective – the broadcast was victim to the Covid border wars, after all. Even so, though Cummins is firmly in the honeymoon throes of his captaincy, this looked a little bit like winning without the carry-on. Tougher tests await, et cetera.
Does Cummins actually believe that he can both win and let cricket do the talking? If so, he’s rejecting decades of accepted national wisdom that he must sledge to succeed. Cue many of the former generation on first Test media duties, who flew that doctrinal flag with typical gusto last week.
The latest and most egregious chapter in Shane Warne’s tedious vendetta against Mitchell Starc has been well covered. Elsewhere, one of Ian Chappell’s immediate responses to Travis Head’s scintillating and unexpected match-winning hundred was to note he still didn’t trust him. In a match preview, Ian Healy unironically asked where James Vince was, and whether or not he had retired. English reaction to their Australian broadcast was both eye-opening and unsurprising.
But ultimately Langer himself stole the show with his dig-by-inference at Jack Leach. It came a day after Australia had played the England spinner out of the match, denting both him and England for the series. Leach suffered blow-after-predictable-blow before Root stopped him, because he was already dead. The cricket had done the talking, the effect self-evident, the comment unnecessary. How did Cummins – who last week said, “I don’t think you need to go out and pick fights…I’m a big believer in concentrating on our own game” – feel about it? Viewed from distance, there is value to each of their comments, it’s just that they’re so regularly delivered with one part insight, three parts scorn.
There isn’t a hashtag for it, but it’s not all ex-players. Adam Gilchrist underlined his class, humility and gravitas when presenting Alex Carey with his baggy green. Ricky Ponting provides the sharpest eye and preternatural ability to call the future. Others like Trent Copeland and Chris Rogers explain the game soberly, marrying their own playing expertise with knowledge and research both current and communicable. Professional antagonism isn’t in the repertoire.
It looks like this is how Cummins wants to do it, too. His manner has echoes of the ex-Wallabies captain, John Eales – both unblemished physical specimens whose specialist skill made them unlikely captains, but somehow inevitable ones. Last week headlines rang to the tune of “Perfect Pat”. John Eales was simply known as “Nobody”, because Nobody’s Perfect. Eales was composed, unflustered. In partnership with coach Rod Macqueen, they eschewed the conventional understanding of concepts like passion; Macqueen said that “passion is often an excuse for those who haven’t done their preparation…teams often know they are lacking in some way but believe by trying harder and being aggressive they will somehow win the game.”
Cummins has already made clear he isn’t perfect, but Australia will be well-served by a captain more attuned to this way of thinking than the prevailing philosophy of his predecessors.