Pat Cummins, Test cricketer?

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‘I feel I have not lost any pace’ – Cummins

It’s the first week of December and Christmas trees are being put up in houses all over Australia. Excited kids are waiting for the morning of the 25th. Some won’t have the patience. They’ll go hunting for presents hidden in wardrobes, or lift the sticky-tape on a piece of wrapping paper, take a peek at what’s inside. And on Christmas morning they’ll regret it. A moment of impulse and everything is spoiled.

It feels a little like that in Australian cricket right now. What do we want? Pat Cummins. When do we want him? Now! And indeed, Cummins is ready to play his first internationals in nearly 15 months, as part of Australia’s attack for the Chappell-Hadlee campaign against New Zealand. These three ODIs mark his international return from yet another long lay-off due to stress fractures of the back. At most, he will bowl 30 overs across six days with a white ball.

And yet there are rumblings that he should be rushed back into the Test side, perhaps for February’s tour of India, but maybe even in the pink-ball Test against Pakistan at the Gabba. On Inside Cricket this week, Brad Haddin was adamant that Cummins should be in contention for Brisbane if he came through the Chappell-Hadlee series fit and in form.

“If he gets through these three one-dayers … traditionally these day-night games [Tests] haven’t been going five days and the quick bowlers might only have to bowl 16 overs in a day,” Haddin said. “If you use him right in a Test match, he only has to bowl four-over spells.”

Darren Berry, the former Victoria captain and ex-coach of South Australia, voiced a similar opinion on SEN radio on Friday morning: “Surely he plays the three days and if he’s up, and he fires, straight into the Brisbane Test.”

Notably, those who are closer to the Australia setup are more measured. National selector Mark Waugh, on the Inside Cricket panel alongside Haddin, said that while Cummins had performed well during the Matador Cup, and bowled at good pace in club cricket and two Futures League games this summer, he still had something to prove.

“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s just see him get through these three games,” Waugh said. “Look, I’d love to pick him for Australia in Test match cricket, who wouldn’t? But he’s got to show that he’s ready and he’s fit.”

And captain Steven Smith, asked this week whether Cummins might be a chance for the Test tour of India in February-March, conceded that it was “possible”, but added “he’s obviously got to play some Shield cricket first and see how he goes”.

Cummins’ only Test appearance was in 2011 where he was Man of the Match for a match haul of seven wickets in Johannesburg © AFP

And here’s the thing: Cummins hasn’t played Shield cricket for a long time. A really, really long time. When Cummins last played a Sheffield Shield game, not only was Smith not yet the captain of Australia, Michael Clarke wasn’t either. It was March 2011, and Ricky Ponting was leading Australia at the World Cup in India and Sri Lanka.

When Cummins last played a Shield game, Jackson Bird had not even made his first-class debut. Bird now has nearly 250 first-class wickets.

When Cummins last played a Shield game, the Big Bash League didn’t exist.

In fact, since that time Cummins has played only five first-class matches. One was his memorable Test debut against South Africa in November 2011, when he took seven wickets and was Man of the Match in Johannesburg. Then came a bone stress injury in his foot. Then came stress fractures of the back.

In mid-2013, he added two more first-class games for Australia A on a tour of Africa, before once again being sidelined by a back injury.

In mid-2015, he was sent to England to replace the retired Ryan Harris in Australia’s Ashes squad, despite not having played a first-class game for two years. He played two first-class tour matches, and lo and behold, suffered another back injury.

So long ago was his spectacular Test debut, and so often has he been in and out of Australia’s short-form squads since then, that it is easy to think Cummins is older and better prepared than is the case. In fact, he is still only 23 – still of an age where fast bowlers are susceptible to bone injuries – and in his entire career has played only eight first-class matches.

Rushing him back for the Pakistan Tests – or even for the India tour, given he may have only one Shield game before the squad is chosen – would surely be a short-sighted selection. Does anyone really believe the dry pitches of India, where the fast men will toil long and hard for any reward, would be the smartest way to bring Cummins back?

“It’s great to be back,” Cummins said in Sydney on Friday, ahead of his ODI return. “Longer-form cricket, I’d say it’s pretty unlikely. I haven’t played first-class for a while. Certainly hopefully I can play some first-class this year. I’m sure it’d need to be Shield before I start thinking about anything else.”

Notably, Cummins also said that on this return from injury he felt more comfortable as he was not being rushed on to an Australian tour: “Knowing I wasn’t going to fly straight back onto the next tour and having to bowl as well as I was 12 months ago – just having a bit more time has made a big difference.”

It is exciting that Cummins will be back in Australian colours over the coming week. But back in Australian whites? How about getting him through half a Shield season first? If Australian cricket wants Cummins playing the long game, it may have to play the long game itself.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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