'Career-defining' year looms for captain Cummins

Never before have the Ashes, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and the World Cup been up for grabs in the same calendar year, and sweeping all three would elevate the current crop to legendary status

As Pat Cummins embarks on his term as the first fast bowler to captain Australia in one-day internationals, he is acutely aware far more historic events await as his team eyes an unprecedented trifecta that could potentially ensure their standing among the game's enduring greats.

Cummins' recent decision to forego next year's Indian Premier League came about through the confluence of several coincidental factors, a major one of which was the daunting schedule Australia's men's team faces between now and the end of next year's ODI World Cup in India.

Should they reach the ICC World Test Championship final at The Oval next June, Cummins' men are scheduled to play 15 Tests and possibly more than 20 ODIs during that time - at home, in India, the UK and South Africa.

But it's the timeframe into which some of the game's most sought-after prizes have been compressed that makes the coming twelve months so pivotal.

Never before have the Ashes, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and the World Cup been up for grabs in the same calendar year and should Australia defy history – and perhaps, prevailing logic – by sweeping all three, the current crop of players will have justifiably earned immortality.

Since being appointed Test captain a year ago, Cummins has led a core group of just over a dozen players in winning campaigns against England and Pakistan, as well as a drawn series in Sri Lanka with the latter two series representing Australia's most successful Test ventures in Asia for a decade.

Faith in that cohort was underscored by the national selection panel's decision to retain the same squad from last summer's 4-0 Ashes triumph for the upcoming NRMA Insurance Test matches against West Indies.

And Cummins believes the sense of unity and achievement among that outfit, coupled with the knowledge some key members are entering the twilight of their international careers, has them well placed for the exceptional challenge ahead.

"When you have an experienced group together, and you feel like you're clicking and playing really well, you've got to make hay when the sun's shining," Cummins told cricket.com.au prior to his ODI captaincy debut in the Dettol Series against England.

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"We've all been through rebuilding phases at different times, but to have this group who won in Australia (last summer) and then found a way to go and win in Pakistan and to win a Test match in Sri Lanka, it feels like we're in as good a position as ever to go to India and challenge over there.

"And the same with winning an away Ashes series.

"In the next seven or eight months there's 15 Test matches, and we'll have a really similar group together that we've had together for the last couple of years.

"It could be a career-defining period for a few of the guys. There's significant legacies we could leave on Australian cricket. They happen very rarely and that's what's exciting for this group. But it's not going to be easy."

Cummins' final caveat is something of an understatement, given no Australia men's team has so far won Test Series in India and England when held in the same year.

Bob Simpson's team of 1964 came closest when their hard-earned 1-0 Ashes win across five Tests was followed by 1-1 result from a three-Test India tour.

But even Steve Waugh's star-studded 'Indomitables' of 2001 squandered the best chance of setting that benchmark when they fell 1-2 to India in a memorable 2001 Test campaign before sweeping England 4-1 in the UK.

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And the last time the rare double was attempted in 2013, Australia finished with an abject scoreline of 0-7 from a total of nine Tests.

Compounding the complexity are other historical trends which show Australia's only Test series triumph of the past 50 years in India came in 2004, and their most recent outright Ashes triumph on enemy turf came before that, in 2001.

Although winning in India has been framed variously as 'the final frontier' or 'Everest', Cummins feels the performances of his men in Pakistan and Sri Lanka suggest they are capable of scaling that peak while noting it's not an assignment that will define their collective and individual careers.

"There's reasons why India are so hard to beat at home – the conditions are so different, and they're a very good side," he said of the four-Test tour scheduled for February-March next year.

"So we plan as best we can and we're incredibly hungry to try and win, but I don't think that's a deciding factor in whether you're a terrible team or whether you're the best team in the world.

"We don't speak too much about winning specifically.

"Everyone's got that insatiable competitive drive already, so I think a lot of it comes back to the belief from looking at past tours to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and knowing we are good enough on our best day.

"And then we just try to put ourselves in a position where we can have our best days over there."

Cummins also conceded that "more so than anywhere else", India was the Test destination where players specifically suited to unique subcontinental conditions were likely to win selection.

"We're in a privileged position where we probably have 15 to 17 guys who have performed at Test level of late, and we feel like we can slot any of them in," he said.

"For example, Scotty Boland hasn't played a Test match since the last home summer when he averaged about five with the ball.

"And seeing people like Marnus (Labuschagne) who has scored millions of runs, but still having to improve to score in conditions he hadn't necessarily played in before, I think that's all really exciting. So we're in a good position."

While the mental and physical challenges of Test cricket in India have been widely documented, the subsequent Ashes tour takes on a newly arduous look with all five Tests plus the prospect of a World Test Championship final to be squeezed into an eight-week window from June-July.

That scheduling was a key factor in Cummins' decision announced this week to pull out of next year's IPL, as was the Test and World Cup fixtures either side of the UK tour and his need for more family time with wife Becky and their one-year-old son, Albie.

"I did the maths and I think we've got 100 days of cricket for Australia in the next 12 months, so I'll try and take that six-week (IPL) window and then hopefully I'm fresh for the Ashes and the World Cup," he said.

"I loved playing the IPL the last couple of years, and with two T20 World Cups (in 2021 and 2022) it felt like that was the best preparation.

"But now having a son as well, you try to find windows to spend a bit more time at home. And if I played IPL, that would mean close to six months of cricket in India alone next year."

Cummins' excitement at the prospect of returning to England, where he was a key factor in Australia's retention of the Ashes in the 2-2 drawn series of 2019, is palpable.

It's partly driven by the "burn" that remains among Australia players who saw their hopes of being involved in the historic first World Test Championship Final last year dashed by a penalty copped for maintaining a tardy over rate.

Cummins admits the significance of the Test Championship, decided on results achieved over a two-year period, was perhaps lost on the Australians until they watched the decider between New Zealand and India and realised a shot at history had gone begging.

But his major motivation is getting the dark red Dukes ball in hand and bowling in conditions he rates as his favourite of anywhere in the cricket world in a bid to land the away Ashes series win that eluded his captaincy predecessors Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith and Tim Paine.

"It was a great series, but I look back and it was a series of missed chances really," Cummins said of the memorable 2019 Ashes campaign.

"Obviously Headingley, but even at Lord's I felt like we were in a winning position and at The Oval we didn’t play our best game.

"Test cricket is my favourite format, and I really love bowling in those conditions and it feels like we've got some unfinished business there.

"You want to challenge yourself against the best in the toughest conditions, and those two tours (India and England), it doesn't get any harder as a cricketer."

Before getting the chance to pit himself against that pair of Test challenges, Cummins must first marshal his ODI troops against the undisputed benchmark of white-ball cricket in the three-match Dettol Series beginning at Adelaide Oval today.

While the games against Jos Buttler's England, not-so-fresh from their T20 World Cup triumph at the MCG last weekend, don't count towards the ICC's ODI League Table for next year's World Cup, they do provide Cummins and his team an opportunity to begin planning for that tournament.

Having borne painful witness to the England men's team's rise as a white-ball super-power, Cummins has mulled the merits or otherwise of his rivals' decision to draw distinct demarcation between the personnel deployed in Test and limited-overs formats.

And while he agrees the age of "specialisation" is increasingly taking hold, particularly when it comes to tournaments in the T20 format, he does not see Australia following a similar model of markedly different red and white-ball line-ups in the immediate future.

"I think most of the time, the best players are still the best players," he said of Australia's selection stance that sees a core of key players involved across all three international formats.

"The way we manage players is to hopefully have the best playing as much as we can, across all formats while also keeping that balance of new guys because you want to see what the next tier looks like.

"Hopefully these next games against England, we really start to find our style and what works for our specific players.

"Going to India for the World Cup, the conditions will be different so we might need to have different options to what we would in Australia. We might need to look at two spinners at times, or some more allrounders, or batters that play spin through the middle overs really well.

"But I feel really confident in the amount of players we have to pick from who can perform.

"The next few (ODI) tours will really define our style, so that once we get over there (India) we're really clear on how we want to play."

But before any of those overseas assignments fall due, Cummins has more history to write at home.

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The upcoming NRMA Insurance Tests against West Indies beginning November not only represent a long-awaited return of Test cricket to Perth, it will be the first time in his injury interrupted decade-long Australia career Cummins has faced the Caribbean kings in the five-day format.

And he's also not before tackled South Africa – against whom he made his Test debut as an 18-year-old at Johannesburg in 2011 – on home turf, and that omission from his CV will be rectified by the subsequent NRMA Insurance fixtures at Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

"I'm just pumped for that," Cummins said of the imminent start of the 2022-23 home Test summer.

"It feels like a long time since the Ashes series of 12 months ago, when there was just so much good feeling around the team, around Aussie cricket, and having the fans back. So I can't wait to get stuck in again.

"I just feel like I've bowled a lot with a white ball, or with a red ball in spinning conditions of late so I'm ready to have a red ball again in Aussie conditions … or a pink one."

The 29-year-old is also looking forward to putting into place some of the captaincy insights he's gleaned since taking over from Paine on the eve of last year's Test summer, with his leadership remit now expanded to include the ODI team at least until next year's World Cup.

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In addition to the Ashes triumph and the historic series win in Pakistan, along with the creditable showing in spin-friendly conditions at Galle earlier this year, Cummins admits some of his fondest experiences of leadership came as something of a revelation to him.

"I've enjoyed the team success immensely, which is probably something that surprised me a little bit," he said.

"Just seeing someone like Trav Head being player of the series in the Ashes last summer, seeing someone like Greeny (allrounder Cameron Green) grow and evolve, and Scott Boland come in and make his mark.

"As a captain, they've been really proud, enjoyable moments and I've loved that part of it."

As for the elements of captaincy he's found the greatest challenge, he cites the off-field scrutiny rather than in-game strategies as toughest to tackle.

"I think the on-field stuff has been fine, to be honest," he said. "But some of the off-field stuff, you try and block out as much as you can.

"As captain, you quickly realise there's a million people that watch every day of Test cricket in Australia, which is such a privilege but with that comes a lot of different theories and thoughts and commentary.

"You just have to put a bit more time and effort into making sure you're not focusing too much on that, and you're staying on course."

Men's Dettol ODI Series v England

Thursday Nov 17: Adelaide Oval, 1:50pm

Saturday Nov 19: SCG, 2:20pm

Tuesday Nov 22: MCG, 2:20pm

Australia ODI squad: Pat Cummins (c), Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, David Warner, Adam Zampa

England ODI squad: Jos Buttler (c), Moeen Ali, Sam Billings, Sam Curran, Liam Dawson, Chris Jordan, Dawid Malan, Adil Rashid, Jason Roy, Phil Salt, Olly Stone, James Vince, David Willey, Chris Woakes, Luke Wood

Buy #AUSvENG ODI tickets here