Vodafone Men's Ashes
Science friction: Inside the rebuilding of Pat Cummins
He is the fast bowler who launched a thousand MRIs. A decade on from his Test debut, Australia's go-to quick and potential captain-in waiting reflects on a unique journey of experimentation, determination, support and self-belief
Louis Cameron is a Melbourne-based journalist. A former Victorian Bushrangers fast bowler, Louis joined the cricket.com.au team with assistance from the Australian Cricketers' Association's Internship Program in 2016.
November, 2011. Some say they would walk over glass to get a Baggy Green.
Well, Pat Cummins pretty much did.
On the fourth morning of his very first Test, as he walked to breakfast at the Australian team's hotel in Johannesburg, Cummins was wincing with every step as a knife pierced through the bottom of his heel. Well, at least that's what it felt like. The pain, an early sign his teenage body might not yet be up to the rigours of Test cricket, was precisely why Australia had never blooded a fast bowler so young. Eighteen years old and entrusted with the most physically challenging duty the sport has to offer.
Yet there were signs, too, that the Aussies had uncovered a diamond in this sprightly paceman from Penrith. A young quick with an outswinger, a rapid bouncer and an enormous heart. To that point in the Test, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis had been victims of the first of those traits, Jacques Rudolph to the second.
The third was about to reveal itself.
Reach down and touch the bottom of your foot. Feel that fleshy part under your heel? That's called a 'fat pad'. It absorbs the force that goes through your legs when you run, jump, or land with the force of eight times your body weight on a Wanderers pitch about as forgiving as a slab of concrete. Cummins had done that nearly 200 times in three days. An hour or two after the short walk to the breakfast buffet had seemed beyond him, he was back out in the African sun, holding a ball that was 69 overs old and steeling himself to put in another shift with one very heavily-strapped foot.
"I was bowling 10-15k's slower (than from the start of the Test), trying to bowl as fast as I could," Cummins tells cricket.com.au. "I'd never bowled with anywhere near that kind of pain.
"I thought, 'How the hell does anyone play 100 Tests?'"
South Africa were 199 runs ahead. At the crease were two of the finest batters of their era, AB de Villiers and Amla, on 70 and 89 respectively, to begin day four. Australia, still reeling after the embarrassment of being skittled for 47 in the Test prior, were down one bowler – Shane Watson was incapacitated by a hamstring concern – while another, Mitchell Johnson, was having a confidence crisis and had reverted to bowling off a short run. Despite having the worst ailment of the lot, Cummins was suddenly captain Michael Clarke's most important bowler.
"The shock absorption must have gone in it and he had the beginning of a stress fracture," says Alex Kountouris, then the team physiotherapist who would later become CA's head of sport science and medicine, in reference to Cummins' busted heel.
"By the end of the game, it became real bad."
On day three Cummins had roughed up another modern great, Kallis, in a captivating spell that saw him push the speed dial towards 150kph. A day on, as he acknowledged, he was nowhere close to that. Yet it was on that fourth morning that Cummins gave a glimpse of the intangible piece that elevated him from merely a gun young fast bowler to a once-in-a-generation wunderkind.
One worth persisting with, should it come to that.
The outswinger that got de Villiers with his 13th ball of the morning was the catalyst for South Africa handing over their final seven wickets for a little over 100 more runs, not long after lunch. Cummins came again after the break to blast out the tail and finish with a second-innings haul of 6-79, the best return by an Australian fast bowler on debut in 24 years. The following day he nervelessly struck the winning runs with a boundary.
The cost was the stress fracture to his heel, an injury Kountouris had not seen before.
Cummins had bowled 44 overs in his maiden Test, most of them with a broken foot. The naivety of youth meant he presumed he would be bowling again within weeks, probably at the MCG or the SCG in front of tens of thousands. He knew – we knew – he was good enough. What lay ahead instead, as Clarke foreshadowed with these words at the end of the Johannesburg Test, was a much tougher road.
"We've got to be smart. I don't think it's possible for Paddy right now to play all forms of the game for Australia," he said. "To play every single game I think would be silly. That's only my opinion.
"We need to speak to the selectors and we need to make a plan for him, because he's got a bright future. He's got the potential to be an amazing cricketer for Australia."
* * *
March, 2017. "Get your Baggy Green ready. Don't tell anyone I told you, but the selectors are going to call you tomorrow."
These words, down the phone from Australia's Test captain Steve Smith from Bengaluru, were not part of the plan. And until then, Cummins was quite happy with that. From his home in Sydney, he had taken in the first two matches of a bitterly contested Test series against India. The tour had begun with an upset Australian win on a fiendish Pune pitch before escalating into full-blown allegations the visitors were routinely cheating in a DRS controversy.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is pretty full on," says Cummins, "And then, next minute, Smithy called me."
The drama in India had nonetheless been a distant concern for Cummins, who had just ticked off the second of two stated goals for that summer. The first had been a return to Australia's one-day team. The second was a return to the Sheffield Shield, which he completed by sending down 36 overs in a win for New South Wales at the SCG. They were modest targets but as a professional cricketer who had endured setback after setback in the five years since he had last pulled on the cap Smith had just bluntly told him to dust off, it was a notable milestone.
There was not even a week between the end of the Shield match and the third Test of the series Cummins had just been parachuted into. A tour-ending foot injury to Mitchell Starc had augmented Australia's need for a spearhead. Yet although few doubted Cummins' ability to make an impact – he had just taken eight wickets in his first Shield match in nearly six years – not everyone was on board with throwing him straight into the fire.
"I remember being super pumped but there was a lot of commentary around it from people that had guided me over those years that were dead against it," Cummins admits.
"They said, 'You shouldn't be going on that flight. It's not part of the plan'. We'd set a really good plan for the summer, there'd been no hiccups, it had gone so smoothly.
"And then this came up."
NSW support staff who had carefully guided him through a rare injury-free home season were apprehensive. They had envisaged him taking a few weeks' rest after playing in just his ninth first-class match in his six-year career. But Australia, driven in part by the possibility of slaying the Indian dragon on their home turf, were not willing to leave their luxury cruiser in the harbour for any longer.
"That volume of work meant we were confident he could play in a Test match," says Kountouris. "We weren't that confident he could play two or three (Tests), but we were confident he could play, because he'd bowled enough balls over the last 10, 12, 16 weeks that were at the right intensity, and that the volume was building. That gave us some confidence."
Initially torn by the warnings from voices he had entrusted his career to, Cummins had recaptured the single-minded resolve that had propelled him through a Test match with a busted foot and then held him together through all the stress fractures, rehabilitation and resets that followed.
As he peered out the window of the plane taking him into Ranchi, over lush rainforest and the region's famed waterfalls encircling an expanding city, he was suddenly certain.
"I really specifically remember when I landed in Ranchi just thinking about the amount of times I played with restrictions, or was saving something in the tank, it was to play Test cricket," he says.
"So what's the point? I'm here, so there's no point saving anything. If I'm getting injured, well at least I'm getting injured playing Test cricket."
* * *
2013. Their careers are separated by 40 years, but the relationship between Dennis Lillee and Pat Cummins might be one of Australian cricket's most important. That it began at a suburban oval in Perth where pouring rain rendered the nets unusable only heightens the mythical quality of this union of like-minded fast bowlers.
On the recommendation of another of Lillee's disciples, Mitchell Johnson, Cummins had paid his own way to Perth in order to meet with the legendary paceman. At the time, Cummins had never felt more isolated and his love for a game he was playing less and less often was being tested.
"What was becoming really clear at that stage, with the stress fractures it wasn't just 'Okay, you can't bowl for 12 weeks and then you're right to come straight back'," he says. "It was, 'Whatever time you missed bowling, you need to have at least that (amount of) time again to be available for red-ball bowling'.
"With each injury, it wasn't just three or four months, it was, 'This is another whole year where I'm going to have to build up'."
After the initial setbacks following his Test debut, Cummins had been whisked back into Australia's limited-overs teams in 2012. But when he was picked to go to England on an Australia A tour before the 2013 Ashes, there was a small caveat; he was not to play in any actual matches, as part a bigger plan to prepare him for an ensuing 'A' trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe, and then the home summer that followed.
That plan hit a snag when, once again, Cummins injured his back.
"I felt like I was literally a workload number – a diary entry for a full year," he says. "Then at the end of the year I got injured and I had no cricket to show for it.
"That was when I when I felt furthest away from getting back, especially Test cricket."
Lillee, while taken by the young quick's remarkable Test entrance, had been concerned by the mechanics of his bowling action. He was of course not alone in realising there was an issue. The heel injury Cummins suffered on Test debut would end up keeping him out of cricket for almost five months. A side strain was followed by another stress fracture in his back after he had played in the 2012 World T20 and Champions League, before a recurrence of the same injury in the year he first met Lillee.
What separated Lillee from others who noticed the same faults in Cummins' bowling action was that not only had he previously helped the likes of Johnson with similar issues, but also because he had fixed himself after he suffered a back stress fracture a few years into his own career.
"Everyone can tell guys, 'Oh, you're falling away' – that's easy to point out, and that's what a lot of people do," Lillee tells cricket.com.au. "But they can't show them how they can fix it with some tweaking of the technique.
"The actual process is quite simple. Once you teach the player, if you can show the player where they're going wrong, why it's going wrong and how to fix it, then they understand the mechanics of it all and therefore they become their best coach.
"In my opinion, the best technical coach does themselves out of a job."
It started on a narrow corridor of slippery concrete next to the South Perth Cricket Club pavilion, as wind whistled through the pine trees separating Cummins and Lillee from the Swan River. One all-time great showing a future one the ropes. Cummins' run-up, Lillee had identified, was the first thing they needed to address. On that slab of pavement, Cummins stepped through the tweaks as instructed. When the rain dried the following day, they came back to the nets and went through the changes off a longer run.
It sounds simple but Lillee stresses how difficult seemingly simple alterations are to commit to memory. He uses the following example; if a 100-metre sprinter inadvertently steps outside their lane while running, they must use their arms and legs to right themselves. Their natural gait is disturbed for a few paces. Now think about a fast bowler trying to make a similar correction when they load up to release the ball.
"You haven't got three or four paces to do that," explains Lillee, "you've got to do it in your action. And that's where the problems come in."
This was vital work. Their initial time together in Perth only lasted a few days, but a bond was forged for life. And it wasn't just the bowling. During that same trip, Lillee had Cummins around for dinner. When the younger man cleared the table and stacked the dishwasher, Lillee's wife Helen told him he would be welcome back anytime. It was during one of these early meetings that Lillee also introduced Cummins to red wine, sparking another shared passion.
"I don't know what he drank before that," laughs Lillee. "He reckons I've cost him a fortune."
For Cummins too, their connection went beyond cricket.
"The biggest influence he had on me was (telling me) that I wasn't just a science experiment," he says. "Working with him, I felt like I was concentrating on becoming a better bowler – not a bowler that has less stress on his body, or someone who's going to be able to bowl more overs in a week.
"I was a bowler that could actually get better – swing the ball more, pick up pace, think a batter out, the problem-solving of bowling.
"That really struck a chord with me. It really motivated me to keep working on those things. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and found that enjoyment."
The pair remained in constant communication. In Cummins, Lillee saw elements of himself. And in Lillee, Cummins saw a man who had been through the same challenges he was struggling with and then emerged even better. In addition to the technical changes he had recommended, Lillee also espoused the virtues of fitness, strength and flexibility – all major factors in his own recovery from back issues that had threatened to derail his career decades earlier. Even today, when things do not feel right when he is bowling, Cummins sends through vision to Lillee for feedback, or they might chat on the phone after Lillee spots a bad habit creeping in.
"Some can't quite grasp (the necessary changes), or it would take a long, long time," Lillee offers. "He took to it like a duck to water.
"He would slip back every now and then – that's what happens; you bowl a lot of overs, you get tired bowling on flat tracks.
"That affects your action and you don't notice it at the time. Two games down the track, and all of a sudden I could see little glitches creeping in.
"It was just a quick matter of a text and he'd be, 'Oh mate, I just watched that on video and yeah, I can see it'."
Lillee never captained Australia – he played the bulk of his career under two of most decorated skippers the Test team has had in Ian and Greg Chappell – but in Cummins, he sees a leader, and potentially the first among this country's fast bowlers since Ray Lindwall took the reins for a one-off Test 65 years ago.
"Yes, yes," says Lillee on the question looming over an Ashes summer that could be Tim Paine's last in the Baggy Green; can Pat Cummins captain Australia?
"He's an intelligent guy but more than that, he's got real cricket smarts. He's a born leader. He's 110 per cent all the time, whether the wicket is flat or not, and I admire that in a fast bowler. He's a leader of men and they look up to him.
"There's been fast bowlers who have captained. Imran Khan, Bob Willis – In Imran's case, he was batting and bowling. They are modern cricketers that have proven really strongly that a fast bowler certainly can captain the side."
* * *
2012-2017. The fruits of the Lillee-Cummins partnership, combined with CA and Cricket NSW's refined approach to treating their delicate asset, started to materialise not long after that seminal meeting in Perth.
The 2013 stress fracture was viewed as a recurrence of an old injury, as opposed to the more serious issue of an entirely new one, meaning Cummins' lay-off was shorter and he was back playing in the Big Bash the following summer. The season after that marked an even greater success; a home campaign without a major injury, albeit one in which he was limited to just white-ball cricket, and capped with a hand in Australia's 2015 ODI World Cup triumph at home. At the behest of then selection chief Rod Marsh, Cummins practiced with a red ball during the ensuing Indian Premier League he featured in for the Kolkata Knight Riders. An Ashes tour was on the horizon.
It was a false dawn, and a cruel one at that. Careful management had seen him steadily emerge into the best physical shape of his career, a gradual crescendo set to peak with the 2015 Ashes. A familiar tale looked to be playing out when Ryan Harris went down with an injury, paving the way for Cummins to join the Test squad in England. A return to the XI was on the cards for the series finale at The Oval before selectors instead opted for Peter Siddle.
"That was the first time I felt back in terms of swinging the ball," says Cummins. "I felt like I could bowl 20 overs in a day and get into the contest.
"I absolutely loved it and I felt easily the most ready for that fifth Test as I had been since my Test debut. I was pretty dirty when I didn't get picked. They picked Sidds who probably deserved the spot more than me.
"But I remember being pretty annoyed because I knew how fickle my injuries were."
Sure enough, during the ODIs that followed the Test series, Cummins suddenly couldn't touch his toes in the middle of a spell. This time he knew an early plane home awaited. It was another stress fracture, and it ruled him out of the entire 2015-16 season.
It was a challenging time for even the most resilient athlete, and it begs the question: did he ever consider giving up?
"I never considered quitting," he says. "There were conversations about how much easier it is to play T20 cricket, even compared to one-day cricket, let alone Tests.
"But never in my mind (did he consider giving up on Test cricket) – it's the format I love most. I just tried to stay patient.
"And it was a pretty good job. I still got to go to the SCG every day, I got to hang out with my mates. It was more just frustration in that I felt I was ready to have a career, but my body wasn't."
Kountouris had to remind people that Cummins was a unique case. An Australian bowler making their first-class and Test debuts at 17 and 18 respectively was unheard of. Among Australia's other most prolific Test quicks, Glenn McGrath was 22 on first-class debut and then 23 for his first Test, Brett Lee 21 and 23, Johnson 19 and 26, Lillee 20 and 21.
Cummins was still only 22 when he went down in 2015.
"You can't expediate growth," says Kountouris. "He can't all of a sudden have the body of a 24-year-old."
What was expediated was CA's understanding of how fast bowlers develop. Some of the tools the medicos now see as routine management did not exist when Cummins debuted. These days 'hot spots' (so called for how problem areas on the bone appear when x-rayed) are detected before they become stress fractures. A young fast bowler can play with a hot spot in their back for some time before it becomes painful. But eventually it will become painful. The earlier it is identified, the shorter the break required for the bone to heal.
Nowadays, every elite young pace bowler around the country is sent for a scan at the end of each season. About 20-30 per cent of them routinely have a hot spot, Kountouris explains. After a break over the winter, those spots are gone by the time their pre-season begins.
"We didn't have that to guide us when Pat started, so it did make it trickier," says Kountouris, who co-authored a paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018 on detecting stress injuries in young fast bowlers.
"We were going by him feeling well, building up, playing cricket, bowling – when he felt ready and we thought he was ready; we were making a judgement call based on the information we had.
"We've got much better tools now."
CA's understanding of bowling intensity has also developed considerably in the decade since Cummins debuted. Wearable GPS sensors can now detect not just how far and how quickly a bowler runs during a training session or a match, but also indicate how much effort is being exerted when the data is matched up to speed-gun data.
"Bowling your first ball in a Boxing Day Test in front of 90,000 people is very different to bowling your first ball in the nets," says Kountouris. "They are completely different things.
"You can never replicate that (intensity), but we can get a feel of whether they're getting there."
* * *
Australia may never do it again, but Cummins holds no bitterness towards those who threw him into Test cricket's fire at such a young age.
That's not to say he believes it should be repeated.
"I don't think bowling 50 or 60 overs is the right thing to do for an 18-year-old," he says. "If he's that good of an asset, if he's an asset you really want in your Test side, I think you do need to manage them."
In one sense, Cummins knew back in 2011 that something extraordinary was occurring. He had made his international T20 and one-day debuts in South Africa in the weeks leading up to the Test series and when the limited-overs players departed, he felt like the tide had gone out and taken his togs with it.
"Suddenly I was left with Ricky Ponting, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke was captain, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Brad Haddin – literally guys I'd watched play Test matches for years and years, and suddenly I was alongside them," he recalls.
"I remember loving it but there was certainly a part of me that just thought: Why am I here? I've played three Shield games, didn't set the world alight in any of those games, and suddenly I'm here."
Cummins had felt comfortable in that Sheffield Shield final six months earlier, swinging the red Kookaburra and displaying a rare stamina for a teenager. For him, the fact he had developed a stress fracture in his back after sending down 65 overs on a flat Hobart track was merely a nuisance.
Kountouris saw things differently. Put simply, there are three main risk factors for fast bowlers. The first is age – the younger, the more susceptible. Tick. The second is a big step-up in intensity. Tick. The third is a previous injury. Tick, tick, tick.
"He had all three," Kountouris says of Cummins. "I remember watching (his debut in the one-dayers against South Africa) and thinking, 'Oh God, this guy is quick'.
"He was super-fast for his age, he was only 17 so not fully matured. He had played virtually no Shield games – well he'd played three and he'd got a 'stressie' in the Shield final. Then we picked him after he had recovered from it."
It was Kountouris who in fact first alerted Cummins to the likelihood of that debut in South Africa. Ryan Harris had a hip injury, but Cummins presumed fellow squad member Trent Copeland, who impressed in his maiden Test campaign in Sri Lanka just a few months earlier, would come in if required.
"Alex said to me, 'Are you ready to go?' and I'm like, 'What are you on about?'" Cummins recalls. "He said he wasn't sure if 'Ryno' (Harris) was going to be all right. That was the first I even knew Ryno had any niggle at all. But I thought if he's injured, Copeland would just come in.
"After that session, Michael Clarke said in front of everyone, 'We've got two changes … Pat's making his debut'. I couldn't believe it."
Was it the right call to play him? If anyone thought it wasn't at the time, they didn't speak up. There may have been repercussions had they not played him. There was outrage a year on when Mitchell Starc was rested from a Boxing Day Test match. Cummins was good enough and a Test series was on the line.
"Maybe if we treated him with kid gloves it would have been the right thing to do, but no-one would have accepted that," Kountouris says.
"When a kid has an opportunity to play a Test match and he's fit and raring to go, it's not something you want to interfere with. We're trying to facilitate things, we're trying to win, we're trying to be part of a team, we're trying to develop a kid's career. There's all these factors.
"In hindsight maybe that wasn't the right thing to do.
"But we didn't know that at the time."
Lillee concedes few bowlers at that age have the technical base to be able to cope with the workload of Test cricket. The only exception that comes to his mind is Bob Massie, who was 18 when he first played for Western Australia but would wait another seven years before his Test debut.
"It would be okay at 18 if your action is safe and efficient," says Lillee. "But if you're 18 and go in with some glitches, then once you bowl with more pressure and more overs than normal – you're doing all that with a glitch in your action. It's only a matter of time before something gives.
"Not many people have a beautifully grooved action at 18."
Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight and an acute awareness of how painful the years that followed were, Cummins has no regrets.
"The Test match was probably the best thing I've ever done," he says. "The opportunities it provided for me. It's one Test match. I don't think that was irresponsible at all. I wouldn't change it at all."
It was fitting that Cummins was the one to present Cameron Green with his Baggy Green last summer. Green had won his spot largely on the weight of his batting but the frequency of his bowling, the skill that had initially won him a first-class debut with Western Australia, would be carefully monitored over the course of the season. Test skipper Tim Paine was careful to not over-bowl him.
"It's a different case because of his batting," says Kountouris of Green's management, "but we tried to model some of the stuff we learned from Pat."
Perhaps there was a hint of understanding of the path ahead for Green when Cummins, speaking of the ups and downs that lay ahead of him before he handed over his Test cap at Adelaide Oval last year, discerningly noted: "There's going to be times when you're stuck in a lonely Indian hotel – just know you've got 25 million people behind you."
* * *
2015-16. After almost returning to Test cricket during that losing Ashes campaign in 2015, Cummins took some convincing that his route back to the Baggy Green might involve forgetting about it for a whole season. Of course, he still had one eye on the longest format. The retirements of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris meant a new generation of pacemen were now more important to the Test team's fortunes than ever. But in a meeting with Kountouris, CA high-performance boss Pat Howard and others when Cummins was getting over his latest setback, a new plan was hatched. It would see him not only miss upcoming 'A' series, but also an away Test series in Sri Lanka and then, even though all the evidence suggested he was fit to play, a one-day tour of South Africa.
"He absolutely wanted to play, he was chomping at the bit," remembers Kountouris. "He did take a reasonable amount of convincing (of the new approach).
"He was fit, he hadn't been injured for a reasonable amount of cricket at that point, he had recovered well. But we just said, 'Why don't we just play through the summer rather than playing through the winter?'
"We were never going to force the issue – it was a genuine conversation. We all agreed in the end that the best way forward was to take this management approach with white-ball (cricket) and be a bit more patient … it ended up working well."
For a man whose career had gone through the washing machine of the international schedule across three formats as well as various domestic T20 tournaments, Cummins found solace in his new routine.
"I knew I had six months building into the Aussie summer and for that whole six months I wasn't injured so I could map out a whole pre-season having really specific goals," he says.
"I was going to bowl three times a week and I knew I didn't have to impress anyone. Monday, Wednesday, Friday I would just run in and bowl 5-6 overs at the top of off stump, pretty low intensity. I did that for months on end.
"Then we came to a South Africa one-day tour. I was close – I could have easily got up for that series – and I remember saying, 'Nup, I'm not ready. What's the point?' I hadn't missed the last 18 months of cricket just to race back and try to play the next one-day tour.
"Looking back, that was a really pivotal decision."
* * *
2017. Kountouris smashes his hands together when he explains how bones get stronger.
"With very strong impact," – SMASH – "your bone adapts. Your bone is a living organ, it's always trying to fix itself, trying to make itself stronger all the time. A stress fracture is the bone breaking itself down and rebuilding itself."
Cummins' bones had been smashed and broken and painstakingly rebuilt. When those bones were sent over on a plane to bowl in Ranchi in 2017, Kountouris was silently praying for another turning pitch. Would a low-scoring Test in which the fast bowlers took a back seat – allowing a gradual reintroduction for the car Australia left in the garage for 1,946 days – be too much to ask for?
As it turned out, it was. The flattest track of the series greeted Cummins after he had landed in Ranchi, one that required him to send down 39 first-innings overs. There were 38 more waiting for him as Australia lost the series in Dharamsala.
He had claimed eight victims across the two Tests. But his ability to take wickets was never in question. What had everyone holding their breath was the way in which those once-brittle bones would react. An x-ray in Ranchi. All clear. An x-ray in Dharamsala. All clear. The medicos were happy.
And not for the first time, Australia looked at Pat Cummins and liked what it saw.
Vodafone Men's Ashes v England
Nov 23-25: England v England Lions, Brisbane
Nov 30 – Dec 3: England v England Lions, Brisbane
Dec 1-3: Australian intra-squad match, Brisbane
Dec 9-12: Australia A v England Lions, Brisbane
First Test: December 8-12, The Gabba
Second Test: December 16-20, Adelaide Oval
Third Test: December 26-30, MCG
Fourth Test: January 5-9, SCG
Fifth Test: January 14-18, Perth Stadium