Pat Cummins’ controversial year as Australia captain

Pat Cummins was a wizard in Australia’s captaincy when he wondered if his eyes were too big for his stomach.

He’d been nudged into the job following Tim Paine’s shocked retirement over a sexting scandal and shoveled into the oven of the first Ashes Test days later at the Gabba in Brisbane in December 2021.

Cummins and whether a fast bowler should take the captaincy had been the subject of heated debate for about a year, something not seen since Ray Lindwall – in a Test – in 1956. Even a figure as respected as Allan Border was adamant he shouldn’t, fearing the extra burden would tarnish his reputation as the world’s top bowler.

As Cummins left the field for lunch that day, he wondered if Border was right.

“I hate this,” he thought to himself. “I think I made a mistake.”

As Cummins recalls today, “That first spell was awful. I wasn’t very good at bowling. My mind was concerned about field placements and other things. Then I cast another spell and I was fine. But I understood why other people thought I shouldn’t take on the captaincy.”

Those two hours represent the last known time that Pat Cummins doubted himself. He took five wickets in the first innings and two more in the second as Australia wiped out England in four days before retaining the Ashes later that summer. Since then he has led his country in series away against Pakistan and Sri Lanka and at home against the West Indies and South Africa and is yet to suffer a series defeat as skipper.

Pat Cummins stands by his views on climate change, even if his popularity has suffered.

Pat Cummins stands by his views on climate change, even if his popularity has suffered.Credit:Louie Douvis

The 29-year-old needed an unshakable belief in himself after being caught in a maelstrom of angry and irrational comments about his thoughts on climate change.

Cummins has twice denied that it pressured Cricket Australia chief executive Nick Hockley to drop a sponsorship deal with energy company Alinta over its carbon footprint. CA too. An Alinta spokesman confirmed on Friday: “The end of our sponsorship was finalized and announced months ahead of the most recent reports. They had no influence on our decision.”

“I don’t even know what ‘woke’ means. If anything, some people would say it’s a good thing. It’s a label, it means nothing. You explain you woke up. You don’t explain yourself, you woke up.’

Pat Cummins

And yet, for some, it’s not enough, although that’s hardly surprising. Once the genie is out of the bottle, especially on a topic like climate change, it becomes impossible to rein in the narrative.

A Sky News presenter called him a “climate disaster clown” with “extreme left views”. On social media, he was branded “Captain Woke,” the catch-all phrase many people say about anything in the absence of an actual argument.

The most absurd of accusations came during the rain-plagued Sydney Test earlier this month, when he was branded ‘awakened’ for stranding Usman Khawaja on 195 in the hunt for an unlikely win.

“I usually get ‘Captain Planet,'” laughs Cummins. “That’s what some buddies say. I don’t even know what “woke up” means. If anything, some people would say it’s a good thing. It’s a label, it means nothing. You explain you woke up. You don’t answer, you woke up. It resurfaced with the Black Lives Matter stuff against the Windies when we took a knee. If someone thinks that’s a bad thing, that five minutes of our lives is the worst thing that can happen to them, we don’t care.”

Cummins tells me this outside the Clovelly Hotel in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, not far from where he lives. I had interviewed him in the same location in 2017 as he was making his way back from the stress fractures in his back that had plagued the early days of his career.

Pat Cummins on his comeback in 2017.

Pat Cummins on his comeback in 2017.Credit:AP

At this point, hardly a negative word had been spoken or written about Cummins. The caricature drawn of him last year barking at Hockley for sponsorship or calling for Justin Langer to be fired is certainly at odds with the man I met that day.

But people can turn their backs, especially someone as bombastic as broadcaster Alan Jones, who was once a big Cummins supporter.

In August 2020, Cummins appeared on Jones’ now-defunct Sky News program via Skype. “Well, a bit of a cricket king,” Jones coaxed in his introduction. “People are saying he’s next in line to lead Australia. Knowing him, he’s the last to think about it…”

In October 2022, Jones gored Cummins on his YouTube channel, telling him he was “wrong” about the climate and that “he should keep his political views to himself.”

“I kind of know him,” Cummins says of the veteran broadcaster. “I met him a couple of times and he was a supporter, he helped me when I was younger but I haven’t spoken to him in quite a while.”

Cummins doesn’t watch Sky News – “I don’t think many do,” he laughs – and doesn’t believe the comments about him either. That doesn’t make it easier to understand.

Cummins critic Allan Jones.

Cummins critic Allan Jones.Credit:Kate Geraghty

“In my 12 years on the Australia team, I’ve seen 10 instances where players didn’t want to be involved with things like KFC, didn’t drink alcohol or advertised a sponsor for three years in a row and they find it a bit cheeky, after one fourth year.”

For example, he talks about leg spinner Adam Zampa, who is vegan.

“If they get ‘Zamps’ to eat chicken at a KFC, will he be followed?” asks Cummins. “Just eat a chicken! Just eat a chicken! Some of these things are close to my heart. I don’t think it’s irrational. I don’t think I’m shouting it from the rooftops. In terms of climate, I’ve tried to change a few things in my life. It’s a really divisive issue – and I can’t understand why. We all have a planet, if you think you can do something better, that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean you have to live in a cabin in the woods to take care of the environment.”

There’s certainly a feeling that CA and Hockley hung Cummins out to dry by not defending him over the Alinta scandal.

“I’ve sometimes asked myself, ‘Do I step on the front foot and explain myself and get frustrated that it’s not quite right? Or am I just doing it with my life?’” he says. “If you did that, you would never get out of bed in the morning. I know who I am.”

Cummins’ position on climate became a talking point when Australian netballers backed Indigenous player Donnell Wallam, who declined to wear the logo of Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting over racist comments made by her late father.

A few weeks later, a handful of Socceroos players circulated a video in support of the LGBT community before playing at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.

Cummins has been accused of leading a player revolt against former coach Justin Langer.

Cummins has been accused of leading a player revolt against former coach Justin Langer.Credit:Getty

This was followed by Langer’s resignation after CA offered him a six-month contract extension following a reported player revolt against him.

The terms “player activism” and “player power” have always been a subject of debate, even though athletes have had opinions on issues important to them for decades and continue to bring coaches down.

Surely there is a line, but?

“Players should have a voice, they are true partners in the sport they play,” Cummins said. “These are not black and white issues.”

And what about Langer? Did player power scalp him like many have claimed, including Langer himself, who was suggested on a podcast?

“So far from the truth,” he says. “It was a high performance decision, a CEO decision. We weren’t part of the decision-making process at all… We’re under constant scrutiny and I did what I thought was best for the team and for Australian cricket. If this is my North Star, it will guide every decision I make. I can sleep at night knowing I did it right.”

Amazon’s second season of The exam offers a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the Australian team, including the tumultuous departures of Paine and Langer in the space of four months. The viewer leaves the impression that the team is happy and that Cummins has slipped seamlessly into the captaincy.

Most Australian Test captains eventually impose their personality on their teams, perhaps none more so than Steve Waugh. During the 2019 Ashes series, Cummins discussed the art of captaincy with him.


“He said to get out of the way and let the bowlers shine,” Cummins recalled. “I asked when they should make big fielding changes and he said bowlers know what fields they want most of the time. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll get mad anyway. I’m just trying to keep things simple. In the last 12 months I have left some of the things that were done in the past just to be done. Additional meetings, additional training…”

Cummins has weathered criticism for managing a team that has yet to lose a series – so what happens if they start losing in the next four months?

Australia meet India next month with the first Test in Nagpur starting on February 9. The team then travel to the UK to appear in the final of the ICC Test Championship at The Oval, probably in June, before the Ashes series begins later this month.

“I could go from captaining the best Australian team to the worst,” he smiles. “These are the biggest 10 Tests you will ever play in your career and we’re running them over the next four months.”

On the day we met, Cummins was unaware that England captain Ben Stokes had been named ICC Test Captain of the Year, no doubt because of England’s absolutely offensive mindset.

Will Cummins join the “Bazball” revolution?

“I don’t think so,” he smiles. “I will never change for the sake of it.”

That much is clear.

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Ryan Sederquist

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