The first thing you notice about Pat Cummins is that he is not the centre of his own universe, unlike so many in today’s frenzy of self-obsessed, social media-inspired celebrity.
You only have to ask him one question for all to be revealed: What’s the one moment from your cricket career that stands out, the one that you could frame if you could?
“I’d say the 2015 World Cup [final] at the MCG,” Cummins says.
“It was just the most amazing … 100,000 people there at the MCG, it just felt like the whole of Australia was watching and I just couldn’t believe I was in the middle of it.”
He wasn’t even playing in the match. He was carrying the drinks.
Cummins is in conversation in front of more than 500 people at The Chappell Foundation’s annual SCG fundraiser for youth homelessness.
His selflessness earns spontaneous applause. It also inspires the room to donate almost half a million dollars on the night. Cummins contributes a significant amount himself.
“I think I was the first person to high-five Starcy [Mitchell Starc] when he took that wicket,” he says, referring to what is recognised as one of the most iconic World Cup moments in cricket history.
New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum, who’d been in red-hot form throughout the tournament, was gone in the first over of the final, the early breakthrough setting the tone for Australia’s march to victory.
“I think I was 21, 22, just still a kid, and for me – it just doesn’t get any better,” Cummins says.
Creating history and becoming a leader
Six years later Cummins was named Australia’s 47th men’s Test captain, the first fast bowler in Australian cricket history to be given the mantle full time, in the midst of another cricket drama.
Tim Paine, the man who had been given the captaincy to steady the ship after the sandpapergate cheating scandal in South Africa in 2018, was caught up in a sexting scandal that had been investigated by Cricket Australia well before he was made skipper, with Paine cleared.
The scandal was made public by the woman involved, Renee Ferguson, who was facing court on theft charges from the time she worked at Cricket Tasmania, where she had met Paine. The court hearing is ongoing. She has pleaded not guilty.
Cummins recalls the night – November 26, 2021, on the eve of the Ashes — when the captaincy was handed to him.
“We were actually in quarantine in the Gold Coast. We just played the T20 World Cup, won the T20 World Cup and flew into the Gold Coast.
“My little boy Albie was born about a month earlier, so I think on day four we left the hospital, dropped him and Becky — my now wife — at home and then I headed straight to the airport.
“So, I hadn’t seen him or Becky for a month. For those two weeks in quarantine she was going to join me. That was her ‘this is going to get me through the month’, and same for me, I was pumped.
“I landed and I thought this is going to be the best two weeks focused purely on Becky and Albie, and then literally [it was] day one that [the captaincy] gets dropped [on me]. It was wild.”
It’s not hard to imagine being in that position and quite literally going wild. “Going wild” for Pat Cummins is something that appears to happen only internally.
One keen observer’s opinion of Cummins, having watched him since he was a boy, is that he is remarkable in that “he never loses his shit”.
Cummins thought he would be named captain, but the timing of these things is not according to a clock but down to the unpredictable and haphazard timing of circumstance.
“I’d been vice-captain for a few years, I thought it might be on the radar, but I really didn’t have any experience captaining at all,” Cummins says.
“And in summer we were playing the biggest series an Australian Test cricketer plays — an Ashes series in front of your home crowd — and I was staring down the barrel of being the captain in a couple of weeks.
“Half my mind was trying to be a really good dad and learning how to be a dad, and the other half was trying to work out how I was going to be a captain, and I felt like I was doing both terribly for a couple of weeks.
“And then Becky went home with Albie and I just kind of concentrated on what I needed to do.
“It kind of didn’t really hit me until I think I walked out at the Gabba wearing the captain’s blazer going for the toss.
“It brought me back to my childhood when the first ball of the summer, you’d flick on the TV, it’s always the Gabba Test match and Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting is walking out to do the toss to start the Test series.
“It’s one of those really surreal moments.”
It is a moment he had practised though, as the younger brother playing backyard cricket with his siblings, or long hours spent bowling in the hallway of the family home imagining the wickets, the cheers, the victories.
But imagining being a captain, and actually being a captain are two very different things.
“I think the previous two or three years when I was vice-captain was probably the first time that I really kind of dialled up leadership and tried to learn about different styles. I tried to absorb as much as I could.
“Tim Paine was awesome to me, Justin Langer as coach was awesome, Aaron Finch, so I felt like I had a lot of influences around.
“But honestly, I had no idea and in some regards, I think it being sprung on me took a bit of the pressure off.
“I just wanted to make sure firstly my bowling was in order and my cricket and yeah, just kind of felt especially that first series the pressure is off, I’ve been given this role, I’ve got a bit of time, just try to do the best that I can.
“You get lots of pieces of advice along the way. I think one that stood out to me was no matter what captain you start out as you always end up a better captain. So that for me was a huge pressure release.”
Langer departs as rumours swirl
Paine was gone, and not long after Langer followed. Despite having won nearly everything as Australian coach, including the country’s first men’s T20 World Cup, Cricket Australia was not willing to offer Langer a new, multi-year contract to remain as national coach.
Much of the reporting focused on division in the team. Many speculated Cummins might have been on the side of those advocating for change – seen as future-proofing the side by some, undermining the winning coach by others.
“I think that was the first real big challenge for me as a leader. We won the World Cup, we won the Ashes series,” Cummins says.
“My responsibility is with my teammates, and how do I think the team is going to run the best. We spoke a lot about it over the last couple of years. We did a lot of sessions.
“Everyone was really clear on the direction we wanted to take the team. And JL [Langer] was fantastic throughout the whole time.
“There wasn’t blow-ups, there wasn’t huge factions … I just thought it was a natural time to then move on to the next phase, and it happens all the time.
“I guess with us players, someone might be part of a winning side, but we feel like it’s time for a freshen-up and that was just one of those moments.
“Obviously I wished JL all the best, I’ve still got a really good relationship with him. He was fantastic. But I think it was just one of those kind of things where it had kind of run its course.”
Redemption stories and fixing mistakes
One of the loneliest places in life is that of the recently departed leader.
Whether it’s sport, politics, or industry, having been respected, even revered, in one moment, and to become irrelevant the next is a journey few understand.
It’s a club made up mostly of prime ministers and cricket captains.
Asked whether he thinks Tim Paine, given the circumstances around his departure, will be forever the forgotten captain of Australia, Cummins replies: “I don’t know.”
“I know us players certainly won’t forget him. He’s brought the Ashes back from a series over in England, that’s huge. That hasn’t been done for 20 years.
“He’s had some real significant accolades during his time. It’s a shame that a lot of the time you kind of just want to be a cricketer and concentrate on that, but of course you can’t, that’s not reality.
“I think we all get taglines which kind of have nothing to do with cricket. For years I was, you know, the injured fast bowler, which used to frustrate me, but it’s not who you are.
“So, I think someone like Painey, firstly as a mate, you just want to make sure he’s OK.
“Again, honest mistakes. I felt like he did the wrong thing, but he tried to fix the situation as best as he could.
“You know, these are personal things, everyone has them. I personally didn’t think it was a huge deal and I really feel for him.”
Perhaps it was his family upbringing with a focus on all people being equal, or his Catholic education, that gave Cummins a strong sense of redemption.
But for somebody like Paine, or current teammate Dave Warner – himself banned from leadership by Cricket Australia for his role in sandpapergate – where does Cummins think redemption comes from?
Is it their teammates? Is it Cricket Australia? Is it the public?
“I think the most important is yourself. You’ve got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. You’ve got to be able to sleep well at night. And I guess, when it comes to me, I am my toughest critic and I want to live the life I do,” he says.
“Hopefully in our team, we try to build the kind of environment where we’re kind of keeping each other in check, but also looking after each other.
“But you know, you’ve got to take ownership of your own life, your own career, whatever it is.
“And again, hopefully in the team you know what your worth is, you hope you know that everyone else around there cares about you, and a lot of that outside noise is just noise.”
Cummins has already thought about how to recognise when his time is up. He’s spoken to others who’ve been there and the consensus seems to be around the 30 to 40 Test match mark.
It’s when tiredness sets in, when there’s a need to refresh.
“Yeah, but hopefully it’s not too soon. My goal is to try to make sure the next person is going to fit in seamlessly and, you know, that’s already started,” Cummins says.
A reader of an eclectic collection of books, committed to making change in the climate change space, and a lover of cryptic crosswords, the Australian captain is unique in the team set-up.
But, he says, the players are all unique, which gives them their strength.
“Davey Warner is an expert on everything. Talk about a fact book, he knows one fact about everything in the world. He is a brilliant leader, an Energizer bunny just always going,” Cummins says.
“Marnus [Labuschagne] – quirky, high energy again, just a 12-year-old kid.
“Smithy [Steve Smith] is Marnus kind of weird, so they get on really well. But he’ll be someone who loves cryptic crosswords for a week and he’ll do 100 cryptic crosswords in a day and then he goes, ‘Oh, that’s boring, I hate cryptic crosswords,’ and he moves on to the next thing.
“Cam Green is the sweetest young kid you’ll ever meet, just so polite, and then bowls 145kph rockets and hits it a mile.
“And then you know all the bowlers are pretty similar really – Joshy [Josh Hazelwood], Starcy, Lyno [Nathan Lyon], pretty reserved and they’re really good mates.
“We’ve been playing together for 10, 11, 12 years, we hang out a lot together, we all obviously talk the most sense.
“But it’s hard to describe because, you know, we literally spend way more time with each other than we do our own wives. We spend 10, 11 months of the year on the road.
“They all pack their PlayStations with headsets, so for me to fit in I pack my headset, my PlayStation, and I’m terrible but I do it for the banter. Everyone’s got their own interests and it’s a good mix. It’s not boring.”
It’s easy to see how Cummins slid so smoothly into the captaincy. He is unafraid to stand alone, but is equally comfortable in the mix, without the need to have the spotlight.
And what’s the one word he would use to describe himself? He lets his self-deprecating humour shine through again.
Cummins laughs. The crowd laughs. He has the room eating out of the palm of his hand.