We won’t get a ‘yes’ to the question of whether Pat Cummins is Test captaincy-material in the next month — but we could very well get a ‘no’.
In fact, he himself has flagged it as a potential “dealbreaker” if he can’t execute tactical decisions during the ‘break’ overs of bowling spells.
On Monday, Cummins will lead NSW against Victoria in a 50-over clash at North Sydney Oval, his first-ever match as captain. While the world number one Test bowler has captained in Australian warm-up games and Under-16 games as a kid, the upcoming Marsh One-Day Cup is his first real test.
Cummins will lead former Test captain Steve Smith onto the field on Monday and, perhaps more intriguingly, will be calling the shots when fellow Test quicks Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood return to the NSW squad.
Speculation of the next Test captain — perhaps the biggest on-field role in Australian sport — has continued to linger given the uncertainty of Tim Paine’s future beyond next summer’s Ashes series.
A distinct lack of options has meant the only real candidate considered is Cummins.
Talk of Smith’s return has cooled, outsider Travis Head is currently out of the XI and Marnus Labuschagne’s elevation into the conversation has been purely on run-scoring ability. If toastie-gate taught us anything, it’s that the young man is a long way off.
As such Cummins is the only genuine hope, but doubt remains.
Cummins has said he does not know “whether I’ll enjoy it, whether I’m no good at it, or whether I find it manageable.”
He has also expressed doubt over his ability to make sound tactical decisions in the ‘break’ overs during a bowling spell where he would typically have a rest at fine-leg.
“Just the nature of not having to totally switch on, you take the opportunity to switch off (in normal circumstances),” he told ESPNcricinfo last week.
“That’d probably be the biggest change, but whether that’s a dealbreaker or not, I’d have to try it first I think.”
It’s a legitimate worry, and perhaps the primary reason why fast bowlers typically don’t captain Test match sides. That is, they are committed physically and mentally to taking a wicket at the other end, a preoccupation that might see them miss key signs that a largely stationary slip fielder (typically a batter) might not.
Ray Lindwall was the last quick to captain Australia, in a sole Test way back in 1956. More recently, Courtney Walsh (West Indies) and Shaun Pollock (South Africa) have taken on the role.
But overall, captaincy remains a domain almost solely occupied by those in the top seven of any given XI.
“Taking that extra step to be a decision-maker, it might be a small step or a big step, but keen to give it a crack and see how it goes.”
If it is a big step, however, and one too far for Cummins to overcome alongside his bowling duties, where to then?
While Cricket Australia might play it down, the next Test captain remains a concern at headquarters. And it’s why they will be eagerly watching and waiting for feedback from the upcoming domestic 50-over series.
It would take a significant weight off Cricket Australia should Cummins pass with flying colours, because in many ways he represents the ideal Australian captain.
Level-headed, the ultimate competitor and universally respected, Cummins also ticks the off-field boxes — a considerable aspect of the role — comfortably better than anyone else in Australian cricket.
Pleasingly, he has already flagged a willingness to delegate.
“Just because someone is captain doesn’t mean they’re not allowed to lean on other resources, and something about my teams, whether it’s NSW or the Aussie team, there are lots of experienced guys there who’ve played a lot of cricket,” he said.
“You’re certainly not out there by yourself, like all leaders you’ve got to delegate at certain times, give certain people certain roles.”
Plenty of cricketing norms have been thrown out the window in recent years, many of which have driven the game forward.
Perhaps Cummins could become the latest disrupter, and it’s why we’ll be watching the back-end of this domestic season with intrigue.