Cummins' long Ashes wait nears its end
A tourist four years ago, this time Pat Cummins is in England as the world's top-ranked Test bowler, and he cannot wait for the action to begin
Andrew Ramsey in Southampton
20 July 2019, 10:49 AM AEST
Pat Cummins' previous experience as an Ashes tourist was gleaned from the periphery.
As an auxiliary member of Michael Clarke's 2015 squad called-up as a replacement for Ryan Harris whose tortured knees had finally forced him to retire, Cummins arrived unheralded and unaccompanied into grey and gloomy Cardiff during the first Test of that campaign.
Four years hence, Cummins jetted-in from a brief sabbatical to the French Riviera to join his teammates for another tilt at the terracotta urn but this time as the world's top-ranked Test bowler and bearing the foremost individual honour afforded Australia men's cricketers.
The reigning Allan Border Medallist barely recognises that still-raw fast bowler who had already devoted three-and-a-half years' work to resuming an international career stalled after one Test, and who remained inwardly unsure his dream would ever materialise.
Not only because it took a further 20 months to complete that frustrating, final step back from debilitating injury to Test cricket.
But also due to the changes – in his technique, in his circumstances, in his persona – that he has embraced during a journey that has seen him assume the mantle of Australia's top-ranked multi-format men's player.
Albeit a cricketer who has yet to play an Ashes Test on British soil.
"Very different," Cummins said in Southampton today after returning from post-World Cup vacation near Monaco, as he reflected on the evolution he has undergone since he last arrived in England hopeful of donning a Baggy Green Cap.
"(I had a) totally different action, I was still struggling with my body trying to bowl back-to-back days, trying to bowl 20 overs in a day.
"I feel like it was hardly me.
"I think I had only played a couple of first-class games … I might have played my first first-class game in about three or four years on that tour."
Indeed, his two outings during the 2015 Ashes – tour games against Derbyshire and Northamptonshire – represented his only 'red-ball' fixtures between the 2013 Australia A tour to Zimbabwe and South Africa and the end of the 2016-17 Sheffield Shield summer.
That's because, by the end of the ODI matches that immediately followed the 2015 Ashes Tests, Cummins was diagnosed with a lower-back stress fracture that forced him to further re-model his bowling action as part of another lengthy rehabilitation program.
However, since his return to Test ranks midway through the 2017 series in India, Cummins' once susceptible frame has grown resilient to the point he's played 19 of a possible 21 matches.
Only Nathan Lyon has turned out more often for Australia's Test outfit during that period, and only South Africa's Kagiso Rabada (112 from 22 Tests), England's James Anderson (108 from 26) and Lyon (102 from 21) have bettered Cummins' 87 wickets.
Consequently, Australia's aspirations to secure the Ashes in England for the first time since 2001 – a success overseen by Steve Waugh, who began his role as Test team mentor at today's rain-affected indoor training session – will ride heavily on Cummins' wide shoulders.
Rain forced the Aussies inside in Southampton where Test legend Steve Waugh was on deck to pass on some batting tips to the bowlers #Ashes pic.twitter.com/JGY0IjMjk8— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) July 19, 2019
It's a challenge the now 26-year-old has imagined tackling since becoming a belated part of the 2015 Ashes squad.
"It was just the absolute excitement at being on that tour," Cummins said of the memories that remain most vivid of that ultimately unsuccessful tilt.
"I just remember running the drinks in an Ashes series; I remember thinking 'it doesn't get much better than this'.
"So I just hope that this time, playing, it's a bit different."
Another marked contrast between previous Ashes tours and the two-month program that coach Justin Langer and his men began today is the format of the pre-first Test warm-up match.
Rather than the traditional games against English county teams, many of whom have been known to rest front-line players to help manage them through a heavy UK domestic summer, two rival Australia outfits will square-off from next Tuesday.
The 12-man teams – one coached by former Australia vice-captain Brad Haddin and the other by ex-England batter Graeme Hick – will contest a four-day match, by the end of which Australia's Ashes touring party will be confirmed.
Cummins expects the intensity of competition among teammates striving to prove their credentials for the Ashes opener at Edgbaston (starting August 1) will ensure the 'Australia v Australia' concept provides optimal pre-Test preparation.
As well as some compelling entertainment at Southampton's Ageas Bowl.
He is aware, perhaps more acutely than many, of the lacklustre feeling that can regularly accompany those tour games against county opponents when there is little other than dressing room pride up for grabs.
Batting at number nine in the final non-Test fixture of the 2015 Ashes tour, Cummins had clubbed his way to 82 and was eyeing his maiden first-class century when the match was declared a draw and stumps drawn with a result neither feasible or imminent.
"I think they already had one foot on the bus, so I didn't argue," Cummins stoically observed at the timing of the agreed cessation, noting his teammates (who had already foregone the Ashes) were keen to hit the highway ahead of the last Test.
It remains his highest first-class score, and he anticipates much keener spirit when the compatriots turned competitors begin training with their respective 'Australia' outfits this weekend.
"It's been in the planning for a couple of years," Cummins said of the initiative that has been carefully designed to replicate the heat of battle that awaits in the Ashes opener at Birmingham.
"I think the lessons learned from the last couple of series was that we want a really good hit-out in conditions we can control, and with people jostling for (Test) spots.
"We've got the best thing - guys who are fighting for spots in good form - so it's not a pre-season warm-up game that might meander, or where you look after people's injuries.
"It's going to be flat-out and good fun, I think.
"This is going to be a tune-up game that's going to get us right and ready."
2019 Qantas Ashes Tour of England
Tour match: Australia v Australia A, July 23-26
First Test: Edgbaston, August 1-5
Tour match: Australians v Worcestershire, August 7-9
Second Test: Lord's, August 14-18
Third Test: Headingley, August 22-26
Tour match: Australians v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: Old Trafford, September 4-8
Fifth Test: The Oval, September 12-16