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Pat Cummins raises a fist in triumph after hitting the winning runs.
Pat Cummins raises a fist in triumph after hitting the winning runs. Photograph: Visionhaus/Getty Images
Pat Cummins raises a fist in triumph after hitting the winning runs. Photograph: Visionhaus/Getty Images

Pat Cummins answers critics with one of greatest Ashes captain displays

Hounded by sections of the media for political correctness, Australia’s leader made vital contributions with bat and ball

In the moment after striking the winning boundary at Edgbaston, Pat Cummins looked to have taken his celebration cues from Usman Khawaja. Charging down the pitch for a second run that became obsolete as the ball ricocheted into the rope, he embarked on the turning circle of a semi-trailer back towards Nathan Lyon at the far end and started throwing his gear away as he went. Bat? Didn’t need that any more. Bear hug? That was far more pressing.

It was emotion bursting out in its purest form, something instinctive. “I can’t really remember any of it, to be honest,” he told BBC radio, eyes and mind and limbic system still adjusting after the adrenaline bath of those final overs. On one part, though, he was very clear. “Never thought of a draw,” he said about the over when he clubbed two sixes off Joe Root, dynamiting the target down to 37, making the chase seem possible again after Alex Carey’s wicket.

If there was intensity in the finish, there was a tempering of it through most of the lead-up. As the partnership with Lyon came through its dicey early stages and solidified, Cummins kept flashing a smile at his longtime teammate, reassuring him with word and gesture, making it seem like this spectacle that had its onlookers in agony could be fun in the middle of the crucible. Perhaps it was. The people waiting outside the lion’s den may have spent a more anxious night than Daniel.

As captain, Cummins has been all about equanimity. After Australia had been smashed by India in Nagpur in February he was as breezy as possible, speaking of disappointment, but also enjoyment at a challenge to take on. After the next defeat in Delhi, he wasn’t there, already heading to the airport to get home to his family.

We didn’t know at that point that his mind was on matters of life and death, as per the recurring reminder that the peaks and troughs of existence give perspective on the insignificance of sporting results. Cummins was living that contrast and no doubt still is. But that perspective seems to be something innate to him to begin with, not something that was a recent lesson learned.

Even before the need to balance personal grief with a sporting task of such pressure and profile, Cummins has not had it easy at the top. He came into the job with no notice as his popular predecessor, Tim Paine, made an unexpected and undignified exit, then found he had a target pinned to him as the head coach, Justin Langer, followed suit. Cummins had been in the job a matter of weeks, but Langer’s exit that had been brewing for more than a year was squarely blamed on him.

Given Langer has supporters at the extreme fringe of Australia’s media, what followed was the painfully simplistic mental positioning of old-school cliches about the virtues of toughness versus a supposedly soft modern‑day approach. In short, because Cummins has lent his voice to addressing the climate crisis and suggested shouting at players is not a great motivator these people on the sidelines said he didn’t fit into the stereotype of Australian masculinity.

Pat Cummins hits Joe Root for six
Pat Cummins hits Joe Root for six in a pivotal over. Photograph: Matt Impey/Shutterstock

In that lane of thought, where correlation and causation are one and the same, any results that followed were put down to this. Beating West Indies and South Africa at home? Didn’t count, they were no good. Beating Pakistan or Sri Lanka away? Just wait, all this political correctness will bring them down at some stage. Two Tests lost in India. Ha. There it is. Would never have happened under Langer, the man who coached two series defeats against India, at home. Bouncing back to win and draw the next two in India? Let’s not mention that.

A few months on, over the past week at Edgbaston, here was Cummins again. Being whacked for being too soft after he set defensive fields to counter England’s inevitable opening blast. Not taking a wicket in the first innings, either. Coming out to bat after a poor few years, averaging 11 since early 2019.

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In that second innings of the match he made a vital 38, taking Australia almost to parity when they might have fallen short. In the third, he took four for 63, the first wicket opening the door on night three, searing through Ollie Pope with the perfect yorker on morning four, taking out Ben Stokes when the opposing captain was set to take the game away, and wrapping up an annoying last-wicket partnership. He said before the match that he usually bowls at 95% pace for more control, but that yorker especially looked the full three figures.

His final act required everything. Courage, calm, concentration, the heart to take on the game when he could have gone safety first, knowing that escaping the hole they were in would not be helped by more digging.

Punching his fist in solidarity at the yellow-clad Australian spectators, quieting the seething Hollies Stand. In one of the great performances by an Ashes captain, there was one moment to roar and many either side of that to smile.

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