In the space of just a few hours earlier this week, two significant things happened to this summer’s Ashes captains: Ben Stokes was named the world’s leading cricketer by Wisden, chiefly for his transformation of England’s Test fortunes, while Pat Cummins was handed a temporary tour squad by Australia’s selectors.
The events neatly summed up where the pair stand in relation to their teams’ development.
Stokes has a very clear vision for his, and gets what he wants in shaping it. In contrast, Cummins has been encircled by question-marks for the first time in his 18-month tenure.
Cummins has a fine captaincy record, winning eight of his 15 matches since inheriting the armband from Tim Paine on the eve of the 4-0 hammering of England in 2021-22, yet there appears to be a lack of clarity about the way Australia believe they can end a 22-year winless sequence in series here.
How else do you explain the naming of 17 players for just the first two matches of five? It’s as if they are saying: ‘We believe in you 100 per cent, lads, but only for 40 per cent of the time.’
This is a tricky juncture for an Australian team who appeared to be launching another era of dominance with their historic win in Pakistan last year, only for it to be placed into context when Stokes’s side trumped it on their own visit in late 2022, while a subsequent series defeat for the Australians in India means they will relinquish their No 1 Test ranking at the International Cricket Council’s annual update next week.
That tour also saw the emergence of an elephant in the room, as Australia’s best performances came under the captaincy of Steve Smith after Cummins took compassionate leave midway through, to ensure he spent the precious last days of his mother Maria’s life alongside her.
Cummins, hugely popular within Australian cricket, always planned to go home for a few days after the second match in Delhi but stayed put after his mother’s fight against returning breast cancer moved to the palliative care stage, and his decision to miss Tests in Indore and Ahmedabad drew support from dressing room and boardroom alike.
‘Roles are important, but at times there are other things that take precedence,’ Cricket Australia chair Mike Baird said.
‘And I think we spend a lot of time losing sight of that important perspective. It’s just terrific that someone of Pat Cummins’s standing is showing to the country the importance of family and friends.
‘I think that’s exactly what a leader does. He or she points to what’s important.’
Cummins married long-time partner Becky Boston pictured last August, mother of his son Albie, and his all-round good-guy image makes him the most marketable sports personality in Australia.
Deals with Fox Sports, New Balance and Gillette are testament to that.
He is also highly principled, and a member of the Cricket for Climate group, which led him to take a stand against a proposed £25million (AU$46million) Cricket Australia sponsorship tie-up with Alinta Energy last year.
His conservationist work also saw him promote sales of 2000 seaweed compostable hoodies, the funds from which went towards funding scientists’ attempts to regrow underwater forests along the coast of his native Sydney.
But it is his on-field role that will come under its greatest focus yet against England’s fast-moving Bazball style. Cricket Down Under tends to develop at a predictable tempo, allowing Australia’s first fast-bowling captain to be formulaic in his approach.
When opponents struggle to counter the conditions, as England did in his debut series of 2021-22, the job looks straightforward. He took 21 wickets and his team won 4-0.
However, proactivity will be required to neuter Stokes and Co’s attacking style this time, bringing into focus his decision-making process, and placing an onus on Smith to support him with regular advice, without looking as if he’s undermining him and running the show.
There is also a decision to make on David Warner’s future, and an injury cloud hanging over Josh Hazlewood, which may explain why the Australian selectors have left a window of reflection to reconsider their personnel ahead of Tests in Leeds, Manchester and at the Kia Oval.
Warner was given a Test lifeline when he was named for the World Test Championship final against India and the first two Tests against England, despite hitting only one 50-plus score in 15 innings.
Hazlewood is also included despite being unable to shake an achilles issue that kept him out of the 2-1 defeat by India.
Doubts that England supporters hope will dog Cummins until the first Test at Edgbaston and beyond.
News Source: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/cricket/article-12004631/amp/Pat-Cummins-faces-big-questions-run-Ashes-baffling-squad-selection.html