Pat Cummins claimed 4 for 59 in India's first innings by the end of the third day's play © IANS
Pat Cummins claimed 4 for 59 in India’s first innings by the end of the third day’s play © IANS

Pat Cummins had made his debut in the ‘other’ Test of Australia’s 2011-12 tour of South Africa. This was not the Test where they were bowled out for 47. This was the Test that followed, at New Wanderers, the one they do not talk about, because the drama of the first Test had been too much for the world to absorb. A Test where the lowest score was 266 was supposed to get buried behind the impact of another, just like nobody talks about the Chennai Test (despite its narrower victory margin) of 2000-01. Interestingly, the Johannesburg Test was decided by a 2-wicket margin as well. FULL CRICKET SCORECARD: India vs Australia, 3rd Test, Ranchi

Pat Cummins was a fresh-faced boy at that point. I used the word ‘boy’ because he was 18. Ian Craig was the only man (boy?) to have played Test cricket for Australia at a younger age. Craig’s premature debut was not his fault: they — selectors, media, critics, all of them — had tagged him as “the next Don Bradman”, putting pressure on him even before the career took off properly.

Craig had lasted a mere 11 Tests. He averaged less than 20 with bat. Cummins had played a solitary Test till the ongoing Border-Gavaskar Test at Ranchi. Unlike Craig, Cummins had been off to a spectacular start.

The dismissal of Jacques Kallis stands out as the outstanding memory of the Johannesburg Test. Cummins had played on the patience of the great man, pegging away at a line on off, bowling just short of a length, perhaps even shorter. And then, there was the deceptive bouncer that came out of nowhere, bowled at a pace almost too quick for a teenager.

A bouncer had whooshed past Kallis. Yet another had come at his throat. Lesser men would have been caught at short-leg or thereabouts. Kallis had taken a hand off and had let it drop at his feet. Some of them left Kallis. Some of them came in. Kallis left. Kallis played. Kallis missed.

And then came the peach, kissing the edge of a groping bat and flying to slip. Cummins had not merely dismissed Kallis: the teenager had out-thought King Kallis.

The rest was a blur. Bending his back to the fullest, Cummins had let them fly one by one to finish with 6 for 91.

His role, however, was far from over. Chasing 310, Australia were 292 when Dale Steyn took the eighth wicket. Out walked the teenager. He scrambled around for singles. Then he hit once back to Steyn’s left, and… Steyn grassed it. The ball reached the fence. Cummins survived the over.

Cummins was back on strike with 4 to win. Imran Tahir hit him on the pad with a googly. Not out, the umpire said. They reviewed. Not out, said the television umpire as well. And Cummins pulled the next ball for four.

There was no way anything could have gone wrong for Cummins after that. A 6-wicket haul (7 in the match) and the winning hit in a crunch situation to level a series: surely this kid was one for the future?

The homecoming

Unfortunately, no. Mitchell Johnson re-emerged as a fire-breathing, moustachioed monster from somewhere. Ryan Harris, almost twice Cummins’ age when that Johannesburg Test was played, rose in stature. Peter Siddle, a tireless beast who could function for days without losing focus, continued to bulldoze batsmen out of the way. James Pattinson, brother of a forgotten man who had once played a Test for England, kept playing hide-and-seek.

And by the time that quartet faded out (Pattinson may still be lurking somewhere, I suspect), the fire-breathing batsman-slaying Mitchell Starc had arrived with his package of pace, swing (both conventional and reverse) yorkers, slog-sweeps, and stress fractures. Sharing the new ball was Josh Hazlewood, a man whose numbers broadcasters love to show in comparison with Glenn McGrath’s. The third man, Jackson Bird, had no such credentials, but was steady nevertheless.

Where was Pat Cummins, the Perseus Australia had once marked out as the gorgon-slayer, amidst all this? True, he had been making stray appearances in limited-overs cricket. If the databases are to be believed, he had even played for Kolkata Knight Riders (he did?), but where was that boy who had once taken the world by storm, who had tormented Kallis with one of the fiercest displays of fast bowling Johannesburg has witnessed?

Starc and Hazlewood had arrived in India to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Hazlewood did his bit at Bengaluru with a six-for. Starc hit some swashbuckling strokes and got Virat Kohli at Pune, and bowled a brute of a mini-spell at Bengaluru. Then he injured himself.

Brutal hitting. Check. Match-winning bowling. Almost. Injury. Check. Starc’s series was over.

And out of nowhere, that boy was summoned and thrown into the ring ahead of Bird. He played in Ranchi, easily the most batsman-friendly of the three pitches. This was no Jo’burg. This was a pitch where hundreds can be scored, as Steven Smith, Glenn Maxwell, and Cheteshwar Pujara have all demonstrated.

This was a pitch where you needed to earn your wickets by bending your back. You had to remind the batsman with every ball that were a bowler with none of that ‘medium’ nonsense attached to ‘fast’, whether as prefix or suffix.

There was no innocence in those eyes anymore. Despite being away from the stage for five years, despite being a mere 23, Pat Cummins re-emerged with pace and hostility and plenty of patience.

KL Rahul played out the first over. The third ball of his second over evoked memories from five years ago. The ball went for Rahul’s face, and just like Kallis, Rahul had managed to take a hand off.

No, nothing had changed. Cummins was still in Johannesburg.

Rahul responded with three boundaries in quick succession. Unperturbed, Cummins decided to outdo the Indians in pace, slipping in a slower delivery every now and then.

A snorter hit Murali Vijay on the glove. Another missed his edge. Cummins looked disheartened, but took a deep breath and went back to the mark. Vijay would score 82, but would manage a solitary run off the 19 balls he would face off Cummins.

The wicket came just before stumps, off a bouncer. Rahul realised he had been set up. There was nothing wrong with his approach. He tried to move away from the line, but the ball, as if controlled by some invisible puppeteer, still kept coming towards Rahul’s glove, brushed it, and went to an eager Matthew Wade.

Cummins had taken exactly 50 balls to strike. You can safely add five-and-a-half years to that for the sheer waiting time.

Vijay and Pujara prodded along on the third morning. Things began to look bleak. Wickets did not seem to come his way. Cummins kept probing on off, to a length, making it impossible for anyone to score off him. On the second morning he bowled 3 overs for a run.

Then came the big one: Cummins pitched up outside off; ninety times out of hundred would Kohli middle that cover-drive of his; nine times would he let it go; this was the hundredth occasion, where he was sucked into it — sans foot movement.

Was it the pace that induced the edge? Was it deliberate? We would never know. It did not matter, for the biggest thorn in the flesh was gone. True, Kohli was injured, but what if a one-armed Kohli was more brutal than a one-legged Gordon Greenidge?

It was also the first ball Kohli had faced off Cummins in his Test career.

The toil, however, had just begun. There was Ajinkya Rahane to deal with. Pujara and Rahane (a friend from Indian Oil Corporation keeps reminding me that they are technically his colleagues) had set up an Indian win at Bengaluru. There are Indians who would hail them as India’s finest in whites.

Cummins probed. Cummins bowled fast, with heart and venom. A ball almost snuck through the gate, doing Rahane for pace.

Length, straight, block. Length, outside, leave. Cricket continued on autopilot.

Then there was a moment’s lapse (I believe ‘brain-fade’ is a more fashionable word these days) from Rahane. Cummins bounced, Rahane made way before having a very late, very feeble attempt at an uppercut that was sentenced to death the moment it was conceived.

The entry “caught Wade bowled Cummins” appeared for a second time on the scorecard.

Smith rotated his bowlers, making sure neither Hazlewood nor Cummins ran out of breath. Then, out of nowhere, Ravichandran Ashwin had an inside edge that hit him on the pad and ballooned up in the air. Cummins, already in his 22nd over, had not yet completed his follow-through: he turned right and flung himself full length, but the ball did not stick.

The next ball hit Ashwin on the pad. Not out.

Next over. Ashwin kept out the first ball, a brute of a low full-toss, chased and missed the next, and pushed the third for two. Then came the fourth ball.

To be fair to Ashwin, he did his best to stay out of the way of that bouncer. As the unforgiving delivery came for his face, Ashwin moved back and tried to drop his hands at the same time. He was even ruled not out, but five minutes of zoomed replays, combined with state-of-the-art technology, detected the faintest of deflection off a glove.

Cummins finished the day with 4 for 59 from 25 overs. If anything, he had done better than he had at Johannesburg (7 for 117), on a flatter track

Seldom has homecoming been sweeter.