Went fishin': Pattinson returns from the brink
After almost leaving cricket behind altogether, James Pattinson has returned to the game a changed man, with one mission foremost in his thoughts
When James Pattinson flew out of Christchurch after a Test series win in February 2016, he did so with a stress fracture in his back, another in his shin, and a torn muscle in his stomach. Emotionally, he was spent. The injuries that had restricted him to fleeting glimpses of international cricket across more than four years had piled up in his mind. Through the summer prior, he had been at odds with Cricket Australia over some peculiarities in his workload management. Nothing made sense to him, and he could not see beyond another six months of grueling rehabilitation.
"I was almost going to walk away from the game," he remembers. "My life was all over the shop. I didn't know what I wanted.
"I got as low as I've been in terms of life and cricket."
Almost three years on, Pattinson hasn't played another Test. While he never quite walked away, he did disappear for a while, and he did so deliberately.
Now he's back, and he's different.
Pattinson is writing in his diary with one of those four-coloured pens. He has been doing this every day for a couple of years, because he finds value in a process that allows him to put his thoughts to paper. He is using the red ink to jot down his training plans for the following day. Other colours are for errands or goals, while at the bottom of the page, he details one thing he enjoyed from the day, and one thing he really appreciated.
"I never used to be very organised," he says, "but my wife, Kayla, is super organised, which has been rubbing off."
This is the new James Pattinson. The man who materialised slowly in the months after that New Zealand tour, when the life of the old James Pattinson was cluttered and chaotic and threatening to spiral out of control. It was – and is – a work in progress, an ongoing project that involves not only Pattinson, but psychologists, friends and family. But it is also a natural maturation, one that has happened as his life outside cricket continues to tick along, just as it always has, though sometimes he has forgotten to take notice.
"It was a big time for me where I changed how I thought about things," he says. "It didn't work straight away – there were still times where I felt like shit – but if you can take positives out of everything, then life's not really as bad as people might think."
Diaries and deep thoughts. Errands and appreciation. It is a long way removed from the perception of the volatile tearaway who has intimidated and outclassed opponents through a 51-match, decade-long first-class career. Together with Pat Cummins, this was the speedster tipped to lead Australia's pace attack into a bright new era.
Somewhere along the way, that quixotic vision came unstuck. Instead of becoming the dominant paceman of his generation, Pattinson has played 17 of Australia's 78 Tests since his debut. Routinely he has faded into black for months and even years at a time, only to re-emerge with sporadic starbursts; spectacular reminders of exactly what Australian cricket is missing. Right now, he has not played a single first-class match in more than 15 months.
But this comeback, he is telling himself, is not like the others.
A year ago, he was considering complicated back surgery. It came with the usual see-saw of risk and reward. Prior to committing, he spoke to fellow fast bowler Nathan Coulter-Nile about it, who had experienced back problems himself.
"He pretty much was like, 'I would never get surgery on my back – it's such a big thing. It's your back'," Pattinson says. "So I thought, should I do it?"
He took stock. He was 27, and the optimist in him pondered the upside. He thought about Ryan Harris, who debuted at 30 and took 113 Test wickets. He thought about Mitchell Johnson, who owned an entire Ashes series in the months following his 32nd birthday. He briefly considered the fortune to be made on the Twenty20 circuit, but something in his gut told him that path was not for him.
"The lure of the Twenty20 game hasn't hit me as much," he says. "I don't know whether I'm best suited to Test and four-day cricket, but I enjoy it more."
As the surgeons and physios spent a month discussing Pattinson's suitability for surgery, the questions bubbled away in his head. A successful operation would mean another prolonged spell on the sidelines. Months of inactivity would be followed by an arduous recovery period. Even when he was back playing, he had been told by Shane Bond – one of the few cricketers who had undergone the surgery – that he wouldn't feel comfortable until perhaps three or four months after his return to action.
But on one level, Pattinson knew all along which way he was heading. It came back to family ties, a burning ambition, and one particular series standing out like a beacon in his future.
"My big goal is playing the Ashes in England," he says. "That's the main reason I had the surgery."
He likes to escape on his small tinnie out into the ocean from Golden Beach, a few hours east of Melbourne, where the Bass Strait collides with the Tasman Sea and all manner of fish are there for the catching. It is wild terrain, a world away from the everyday norms of cricket life. Last summer he had a shark circling his boat. He has endured storms and rogue waves, too, but the love of the sport keeps him coming back for more, and there are few better ways for him to forget about problems that he has come to realise don't really matter.
Perspective arrived in the form of a 1.97kg baby girl. He and Kayla named her Lilah and she was six weeks' premature. She entered the world in September and was in special care for the first three weeks of her life. The new parents were comforted and reassured by nursing staff, but when Lilah was transferred to Monash Hospital from Berwick for tests on her lungs and bowel, they were understandably afraid.
Ironically, it was another injury that had ensured Pattinson was around when Kayla went into labour. He was due to travel to Townsville with Victoria for their JLT One-Day Cup opener, but a mild hip flexor strain delayed his comeback plans. Three days later, Lilah arrived.
The three of them are home now, mum and bub – and dad – doing very well. Pattinson knows it is a cliché to say fatherhood has changed him, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. Their daughter's frightening first few weeks of life has helped shift his outlook.
"As much as it is difficult, being injured and having a sore back is actually a pretty minor thing compared to what a lot of people have to go through in life," he says.
"When you have a kid, you start seeing those sorts of things. You see things on the news about kids being sick, and you're in tears every time.
"I've learned to not sweat the small stuff. People carry on about things that don't matter."
It is a continuation of the path he was already on, the one that has made him realise the depth and breadth of life outside the cricket bubble since the lows that followed New Zealand. Then, he took some time off and travelled the world with Kayla. When he returned, he met with psychologists from Cricket Victoria and Cricket Australia, and the daily diary entries were one aspect of an overarching plan to put routines and structure in what had hitherto been a somewhat disorganised existence. He also explored the concept of mindfulness and the power of positive thinking.
It was all particularly valuable in the long, drawn-out period after last November's back surgery, which took place in Christchurch – the same city in which he had played his last Test. Pattinson was told to move as little as possible in the first eight weeks of his recovery. If he got out of bed, it was generally just to lie on the couch and watch Netflix. His weight blew out to more than 100kg.
"I went through so many different emotions during that time," he says. "I was sore one day, feeling good the next – I just didn't know how it was all going to go."
As his recovery progressed, he made a conscious decision to largely stay away from cricket. He went to a couple of the Renegades' Big Bash matches (he has since signed with the Brisbane Heat) but was generally a ghost throughout the summer.
"I just got my mind off my cricket," he says. "I was like, I'm not going to even try and act like an elite athlete here – I'm just going to let myself go and enjoy it.
"If I think about cricket too much when I'm away from it, I end up hating the game."
Pattinson grew up in the same area he lives now and many of his closest mates are those from his childhood, so an escape from cricket was relatively easy. He spent many a Thursday night at Sandown Park Greyhounds, went to first birthday parties of friends' kids. He continued studying a Diploma in Building Construction online and bought into a building project with a couple of builder mates. All the while, he and Kayla prepared for the arrival of their baby, and as his back began feeling better, he got his hands dirty with some maintenance work around their acre-sized property.
"I didn't really live like a cricketer at all," he says. "I took my mind away from it, tried to live normally.
"There is a life outside of cricket, it doesn't last forever. It's not really everything for me. It's something I love doing, but if you're thinking about it every day, it will eat you up.
"When you're injured, all these things go through your head."
By June, he was bowling again, coming off a gentle half-dozen steps at the indoor practice facilities at St Kilda's Junction Oval. It was a little more than 12 months out from the Ashes, and the adrenaline had begun to stir again. His mind was slowly but surely refocusing on cricket, and he was sensing blood in the water.
James Pattinson has a better Test strike-rate than Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc. In fact, of the 280 bowlers to have taken 70-plus Test wickets, only 13 have a superior balls-per-wicket ratio to the Victorian. Many of those names – Fred Spofforth, Frank Tyson, Waqar Younis, Dale Steyn – are legendary tearaways, though for now, he falls more closely in line with number two on the list, Shane Bond, who through his injury-plagued career managed one more Test than Pattinson's 17 to date.
He isn't one to study the numbers but he is well aware of the quality of his Test and first-class record. Moreover, he knows what he is capable of when his body allows him to compete. When he is on song, he feels a certain rhythm and relaxation in his run-up. He isn't trying to bowl fast; when it all clicks, the pace is a natural consequence.
"As a young kid you're charging in and try to bowl 100 miles an hour from the first ball, and if it doesn't go well, you're chasing your tail," he says. "Whereas if you can get into your spell and build from there … they're the things you work out when you get older."
He is 28 now and has experience in first-class and Test cricket to call on. By necessity, he had to be more calculated about his game during his County Championship stint with Nottingham in 2017, because the constancy of cricket was so demanding on his body. In taking a more measured approach to his bowling, he discovered consistency.
"What I found in England and towards the back-end of that (2016-17) Shield season, was that every spell felt somewhere around the same," he says. "Even bowling now in the nets, everything is feeling more consistent – each spell seems the same as the one before.
"That's something else you get as you get older – that rhythm that leads to consistency."
He played five matches for Nottinghamshire that county season, and took 32 wickets at 12.06, with a wicket every 26 balls. He had finished the previous Sheffield Shield season in the same way, claiming 24 wickets in five matches at 17.41. Fast, hostile and unerringly accurate, it was five months of Pattinson at his peak.
At Notts, he played alongside Stuart Broad, whom he spoke to with his mind already turning to the 2019 Ashes. Pattinson played two Tests of the 2013 series, and took seven wickets, but Broad's experience is on another level. The Englishman talked about the differences between fast bowling in the two countries, and specifically how a slightly shorter length in England could be more effective.
"He was saying that he doesn't try and swing the ball at all in England – it just naturally swings and he just worries about trying to put it on that length," Pattinson says. "In England, when you're trying to swing the ball and trying to bowl full, the wickets aren't quite as responsive as in Australia, so you struggle to get those big driving nicks that you get over here because the wickets are a bit slower.
"So it's almost trying to bang that knee-roll length, and using the wicket to get it to seam."
All of which could prove to be very useful information for not just Pattinson, but his fast bowling comrades in Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins. Pattinson is longing to play alongside that trio in the Ashes, or at least get himself on that tour and potentially interchange with them. It is a tantalising prospect for Australia, one that has been teased in the past year or two without really coming remotely close to fruition.
"To not have been available to play in a Test series together so far is a bit disappointing," Pattinson says. "We always talk about how good it would be to play together, so that's another driving factor, to get up back with them.
"You hear the media talk about the 'Big Three' and you think, two years ago it was the 'Big Four'. You think about how good that bond could be if we could get it all together, and we could rotate through Test matches.
"At the moment for me that looks a long way away, but if I can string together a few Shield games before the Big Bash starts, then who knows?"
He has that dream where he is falling, and then suddenly, he is awake. Those who study such things say it relates to a lack of control in an aspect of the dreamer's waking life. For Pattinson, it is no stretch to relate this back to his cricket, and specifically, the next 12 months of his journey. It has been playing on his mind lately. He knows a lot of it is out of his hands, contingent instead upon the ability of his reinforced back to cope with the unnatural stresses of fast bowling. If it holds up, he is confident he can again make an impact.
"Performing hasn't been my problem – it's been consistency of cricket," he says. "That has always been in the back of my head: If I can get this right, then who knows what I could be as a player?
"So in the back of my mind I was telling myself: You have to push through. I know it's going to be hard, but if you can get through this, who knows what could happen down the track?"
His close mates have already booked their flights for the Ashes, while his dad – who was born in England – and a group of his mates have been tucking away $20 a week for their own tour.
"I said to them that either way, I'll be over there; if I'm injured, I'll be with them, and if I'm not, hopefully I'll be playing," Pattinson says.
"That's the pinnacle now – winning an Ashes series away. Hopefully I'm going to have the opportunity to do that, if I can get right."
He feels reassured by the surgery, by the use of wire, as well as bone from his hip, to strengthen and hold the vertebrae together. It is different from previous operations, and he is clinging to the hope that the outcome, too, will be different. He has started mapping out some plans that will aid him long term, with a specific route to the Ashes in mind. He knows his body cannot cope with bowling all year round, so he is marking down gaps in the calendar, when he can rest and recharge.
In the past fortnight he has returned to the game, firstly as a batsman with his Premier Cricket side Dandenong, and then as a batting allrounder with Victoria in the Toyota Futures League, in which he made a century and bowled four overs. Last Saturday, he opened the bowling for Dandenong and got through another eight overs, before making 32 batting at No.5.
He is almost back to 92kg, his playing weight, and it is likely that he will make his Shield comeback in the coming weeks, when he will be closing in on exactly 10 years since he debuted for the Vics as the 18-year-old quick whose big brother Darren had played a Test match for England a few months earlier. Pattinson doesn't know where that time has gone.
"It's amazing how quick it goes," he reflects. "I look back and think about my first-class debut, and it doesn't feel like a decade ago. That's crazy. It feels like yesterday.
"I look at my career now and I know I'm more than halfway through. If I can get to 35, I'll be happy, especially with what I've had to overcome."
He knows too, that he might not get anywhere close to that age, particularly as a Test player.
"There will come a point when my body won't be able to take it," he adds, "and I'll have to accept that."
Right now, he seems at peace with either fate. He has come to realise that he is a simple guy with simple needs. He loved the culture of county cricket, where he and his Notts teammates would leave Trent Bridge after a day's play, and head to the nearby Larwood & Voce for dinner and a pint and a laugh, then do it all again the next day. He loves playing for Dandenong, where he can bowl a bad ball – or, God forbid, a bad spell – and not be crucified.
"Sometimes when you're under so much scrutiny, when you're copping it from pillar to post, you can lose the fact that it's just a game, that you grew up playing it because you love it," he says.
"But it's not a bad job, either, when you think about it. It's either playing cricket or getting out on the building site, and I've got plenty of years for that."
Ultimately though, Pattinson knows on some visceral level that he will do everything he can to wear the Baggy Green again. He knows what success at the top level looks like, and he has a picture of that stored away in his memory, which he used as motivation on the days he didn't feel like pushing his recovering body through another session of rehab. He has felt emotions in Test cricket he hasn't been able to replicate elsewhere, and he is craving them again.
"I love the competition," he says. "I love winning. Being away from it, that's the hardest thing – you can't experience those highs of winning a game of cricket, sitting in the rooms afterward, celebrating a teammate's success, or taking a five-fer.
"That's what you miss. That's what drives you along."