Boy of the Match

By Nick Withers

Johannesburg 2011.

 

Where has Pat Cummins been? Why hasn’t he played forAustraliauntil now? What were the selectors thinking waiting only til now to debut him? The answers to these questions probably go something along the lines of a) in nappies; b) too busy sucking his thumb; and c) it would have amounted to child labour. But crikey we’re glad the selectors didn’t wait much longer.

If Pat Cummins debut ensured one thing, it’s that there’ll never be another two test series played betweenSouth AfricaandAustralia. Jim Maxwell might have said that, but I can’t be sure. I’ve had a few late nights listening to Jim recently, as he bravely commenting as though his friend Roebuck hadn’t died a few days prior to this test.

No fewer than four South African Cricketers (Peter Kirsten, Ali Bacher, Keppler Wessels, and – our new favourite – Fanie de Villiers) did time in the ABC commentary box. Their presence marked Roebuck’s loss to the Grandstand team, but in no way accounted for it. In a recent edition of Saturday’s The Age, Flanagan said Roebuck’s commentary was possibly better than his writing. I have no hesitation in deleting the ‘possibly.’ He was missed, and Greg Baum’s appearance in the commentary box drives home the fact that he now leads an understrengthFairfax attack. It reminded me a bit ofAustralia’s bowling stocks – who’s left to choose from?

Siddle has tried valiantly for two years to regain his edge, and has been found wanting. A good test bowler, he commands a place in the team through commitment and experience more than spice and venom. Mitch Johnson has tried for two years to regain his edge.  A valiant attempt it is not. Geoff Lawson summed it up perfectly, if harshly, during this test: Johnson doesn’t have a fast bowler’s soul. I’m not convinced that Lawson had it either, so I’m happy to take him at his word; I’d have nothing contradictory to offer anyway.

Speaking of fast-bowling souls, Craig McDermott is on this tour as a bowling coach. I reckon even his soul has red hair. After second-youngest-test­­-debutant-ever-and-youngest-debutant-test-bowler-ever Pat Cummins’ impressive first innings with the ball (1/38 from 15 overs), McDermott reportedly told him that it was okay to bowl bouncers. Cummins had kept an impeccable length for a tyro, no doubt in keeping with his instructions. McDermott had the alleged discussion between the first and third innings of the test,Australia’s fielding innings. The same discussion could not have been had with Johnson for many reasons, some aforementioned.

The third innings saw the eighteen-and-a-bit-year-old come out guns-a-blazing. Derringers would have been acceptable, but when we got sawn-off shotguns, we knew to duck. Unlike Kallis. The Cummins ball pitched so viciously at his throat that Kallis ended up looking like the tyro, and Cummins the man with 270-plus wickets to his name. Kallis didn’t duck, and neither did he get one: Cummins had him caught behind a few nervous balls later for two, fishing outside off stump like a jetty-rat who’s spent too long in the sun.

With second innings figures of 6/79 from a minimalist 29 overs (hey, as a seventeen-year-old he bowled 45 in the second innings of New South Wales glorious Sheffield Shield final), the kid had surely done enough, hadn’t he? After all, every commentator known to cricket had announced him as “a great prospect” that “in no way looked out of his league” after the first innings.

“Let’s not forget that this is a kid with only three first-class games under his belt” they cried, as thought there are eighteen-year-olds around the country with bucket-loads more. After the first innings in Jo’berg, someone even had the nerve to call him a champion.

Christ, don’t put any pressure on the poor kid; the Australian selectors had trouble just picking him in the XI. I can only imagine that in Andrew Hilditch’s last Selectorial act, his was the sole dissenting voice regarding Cummins’ inclusion in the team. But perhaps – to quote John Clarke – our soon-to-be head selector, John Invariably, is already in charge; the decision reeks of a Hilditchless selection committee.

Christ, Hilditch upset more people than Allan Joyce, and he’s not even Irish. We’ve still got Ricky Ponting, who, with scores in his first three innings of 8, 0, and 0, looks like he’s put himself out to pasture and no one’s told him he’s still playing forAustralia. Then there’s Mike Hussey, whose 0 and 1 in the first test suggest he’s chewing cud as much as chewing gum. And okay, Brad Haddin hasn’t dropped much this series, but scores of 5, 0, and 16 suggest he should have been. And we all blame Hilditch.

So, Cummins’ efforts getAustraliainto a position where they needed only 310 to win the test, tie the series, and retain the trophy answers a call many have long been making: Bring in some new blood – and please, not another bloody spinner. Usman Tariq Khawaja (he’s now known around the world as UTK,) only gets a gig when someone (eg. Ponting in Sydney, Marsh in Jo’berg) gets injured. Johnson should have resigned before the last Ashes to let Copeland or Pattinson through (unfortunately Cummins hadn’t played any first-class matches to that point), and Siddle – as reliable as he is – is just plain reliable. There’s no one to replace him anyway, and if they did drop him for this series, it would probably have been for Hilfenhaus.

Nine spinners have been blooded since Warne’s retirement, and I struggle to name more than five. To boot, Kevin Bloody Petersen bowls better than most of them, and he’s a batsman. If we want to improve our test cricket ranking, trying to replace Warne like-for-like has both caused the problem and distracted our focus from its reparation. Furthermore, I can tell you that the current Australian team is not the best we can field; the problem is I can’t name the eleven players who would be our best. I simply don’t know. But I would have thought that replacing Ponting and Haddin, and pre-empting the end of Hussey would be the way to go, and that I would be proven correct in the fourth innings of the Jo’berg test – the last of this series. How wrong can you be..?

Ponting (62), Hussey (39), Haddin (55), and Johnson (40 not out) all shone when the series’ previous lights (Watson, Hughes, Clarke, and Siddle) blinked out. Each played a match-winning innings, even if none of them directly won the match. No, that feat was left to a cricketer playing his fourth first-class match. With 8 wickets down, and 18 runs needed for a record-breaking fourth-innings run chase at Wanderers, Cummins arrived. His 5-for on debut might have announced his arrival as a test bowler, but he arrived as a test cricketer thanks to his batting.

The light was fading faster thanAustralia’s hopes: Billy Bowden circled like a vulture, bringing the light metre into play between every ball Cummins attended. Surely an umpire could not call the game to a halt this close to a result? Oh wait, it is Bowden…

Bowden had a terrible test match, most likely due to a terrible role as third umpire in the first test in Cape Town, where something like nine referrals were sent his way in a single innings, South Africa’s first in that match. Have were upheld, half were overturned, and if that doesn’t add up, don’t be surprised: In the first test, nothing added up.

But in the dying moments of this test, Bowden did two great things – even if he didn’t mean to, as is to be expected of him more and more. Firstly, he held the Gods of Darkness at bay, deeming them negligible for long enough to achieve a result. It’s all anyone wanted, South-Africans, Australians, humans. Secondly, he denied an appeal for LBW against Cummins from Imran Tahir; had it been given out and reviewed by the Australians, it would have remained out. As it was,South Africaappealed and it remained not out. Such are the fine, hawk-eye-drawn lines visited upon the game.

Imran Tahir had been a menace to Australiain the first innings, for no other reason than he bowls leg spin as well as anyone since Warne. His wrong-un – the delivery Warne never had – shredded the Australian lower order, bar Cummins. In the second innings he removed his fellow Pakistani non-national, UTK, and they became the first non-national pairing to be involved in a wicket since Brendon Julian (born in New Zealand, played for Australia) outed Andy Caddick (born in New Zealand, played for England). Lillee-Caught-Willey-Bowled-Dilley sounds tame in comparison, I know.

So great was the pressure that Brad Haddin’s fine innings came to an end in his usual manner (flailing outside off stump) whilst trying to win the game before either Tahir or the light snuffed out Australia’s chances. Siddle lasted five runs, making four of them himself, before Steyn took his wicket – his only for the innings. At 8 for 292,Australia’s chances were virtually non-existent, for arriving at the crease was a fast bowler in his fourth first-class match.

Rushes of blood to head are famous amongst fast bowlers, and Cummins didn’t disappoint. A leading edge for three and a couple of singles were followed by a straight drive back to the bowler. Steyn dropped him, it went for four, and Cummins was suddenly on nine.

In the next over, with just five needed for victory, Johnson took Tahir’s second ball for a single, leaving the tyro four balls to face in the over; four runs needed, darkness closing in. The first ball was a wrong-un, and Cummins padded up to it. The South Africans erupted, and Bowden moved only to refer his decision of not out. Minutes later, all that listening audience could hear was the handful of Australians cheering in the stands that was picked up by the effects microphones as the third umpire confirmed Bowden’s decision. We were listening for thump of Cummins heartbeat.

The third last ball was a beautiful follow-up that any batsman would be expected to play at before it had pitched: Cummins left it, and it flew just wide of his off stump. “I have seen it all” said the commentator who would later describe the test series as the most outrageous ever played.

Enough of this: Cummins hoicked the next ball to the boundary for four. Now the hearts were beating.Australiawon a test that, on form, they had no right to.

Cummins made history, and as such, made Man of the Match. How old is he again? Young enough to give passionate Australian fans great hope. It is likely Cummins efforts will overshadow theirs, but the deeds of Ponting, Haddin, Hussey, and the not-out Mitchell Johnson remind us never to underestimate a test cricketer, whether he looks over the hill, or as green as the dale below it.

Comments

  1. Nick,
    If he gets off the plane with a tatt sleeve and sunnies I’ll worry.

  2. Pamela Sherpa says:

    What I want to know is why Sheeds has been sleeping on the job and hasn’t recruited Cummins to GWS. He looks like a gun.

  3. I always loved Roebuck on the radio, possibly more than reading him in the paper. It was really sad to hear of his demise especially in such strange circumstances.

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