Return of heaven-sent Cummins is perfect late gift for Australia’s attack

You could easily arrive at the conclusion that Patrick Cummins had been blessed by some benevolent god. The best-on-ground performance in the teenage Test debut, the personal qualities that made people speak of him as a future captain, the rise to that position despite a century and more of entrenched Australian opposition to bowlers taking the job.

That interpretation though would be overlooking the long, long wait after that teenage beginning, when Cummins had played one Test but spent six years being denied the next, the cycle of injuries whirring as endlessly as the exercise bikes on which he did another stint of rehabilitation. Your early 20s are supposed to be a time of impulsiveness and expression, not of quiet dedication to a long-term goal.

Having observed that discipline though, an age of karmic benevolence towards Cummins resumed. Almost free of injury since his Test return in 2017, he has continued rising and rising in the ranks of world players and the estimation of those watching. As it seems, even his Covid suspension from the second Test of this series has worked out, giving him a break in a packed series without the angst and argument that would otherwise have surrounded resting the Test captain. Twice in previous Ashes series, Cummins has got through all five Tests, but none had such short turnarounds between matches across the whole series.

On his return on the first morning of the Boxing Day Test, Cummins looked every bit the better for his break. He stood by while Joe Root called the coin incorrectly, chose to bowl first on a cool cloudy morning that had just seen its last shower of rain, and immediately, immaculately locked onto an off-stump line with enough seam movement to threaten. Like any good mob boss, Cummins doesn’t make threats that he isn’t prepared to carry out.

Australia’s Pat Cummins celebrates the wicket of England’s Zak Crawley who was caught by Cameron Green (bottom right).
Australia’s Pat Cummins celebrates the wicket of England’s Zak Crawley who was caught by Cameron Green (bottom right). Photograph: Jason O’Brien/PA

Haseeb Hameed has shown moments of composure to the adherents and moments of weakness to the doubters, but his dismissal in the first over gave nothing to either, playing a line that he had no choice but to play, left by seam and bounce that took the edge. Bounce too did for Zak Crawley, returning to the team, slicing from the shoulder of the bat to gully as he tried to nudge leg side, an innings of 12 runs in a year in which he has averaged 11.2. Then another perfect line, adjusted for a left-hander, took out Dawid Malan while his toasted cheese sandwich was being readied on the grill, ending the only partnership that has offered England any stability in this series.

In that first session, Australia’s other bowlers had been manageable. Mitchell Starc looked for swing, found none, and wandered down the leg side, taken off after three overs. Scott Boland on debut was accurate and serviceable, while Cameron Green and Nathan Lyon both had a bowl without much effect. Had the attack been rounded out by someone other than Cummins, England might have got through. The middle session might have become a parade of batting incompetence, but it was the opening session, against his quality, when they were undone.

All of the above was received with relish by a sizeable Melbourne crowd. The MCG’s usual Ashes threshold of 90,000 shrank this year to just over 57,000, not by any government mandate but by the choice of people to stay away during another pandemic surge. It was still a crowd that would dwarf most in world cricket, but a reduction reflecting a city that remains battered and wary after a difficult couple of years.

A bit like Cummins, Melbourne has been extremely fortunate, in a way that doesn’t discount its own particular privations. Pandemic death rates have been low, vaccination rates are high, and this balance of elements was hard won by the long lockdowns that forestalled one while enabling the other. With isolation not required since October, the people like those who filled the stands today have been happy to burst back into the world. Those who left them empty remain cautious of the twists that this story could yet take.

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Which added some poignancy at the MCG, especially from a hometown perspective. There were crowd roars and circular waves and some all-time incompetence from a pitch invader. There were beach balls and beers. And there were absences. An atmosphere ebullient, but less than it might have been. A celebration, against a well-founded background hum of anxiety. Trying to congregate in the way of the recent past felt like trying to claim closure for something that is not yet done. The tranches of empty seats told that story without a noise.

Still, in some ways the rituals of a Boxing Day felt important. The early burst of rain, the cold delay. The gradual gentling of a day into something approaching pleasantness. The packed lunches and the shouted greetings. And there were the strange new things, like a fast-bowling captain throwing himself the ball for one more quick burst before the lunch break. Knocking through England’s only partnership of resistance. Showing us someone for who, at least for the moment, most things keep going very right.

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