Recency bias affects almost everything in life, but cricket is especially cursed. It lives with both recency bias and its opposite, nostalgia bias, at the same time. While there is a new GOAT identified every day, we also run the risk of not recognising actual greatness while it is still amid us.
That’s perhaps why Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins are perhaps not spoken of in the same breath as, say, Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie. In the cricket circles in Australia, there is even frustration that these three get selected whenever they make themselves available in limited-overs cricket even though they play very little of it. Or maybe they are just too woke for certain people.
Consider the body of work, though. They have now won two ODI World Cups (Cummins was in the squad but didn’t feature in the XI in 2015), a T20 World Cup, a World Test Championship, have kept the Ashes ever since they got together, and are the men behind the second-most dominant Test side at home in their time.
The only blip on their careers is losing two home series to a generational Indian side, and not winning a Test series in India. That’s not because they are any less as bowlers, but because India have almost been unbeatable at home, were better than their depleted side during the 2018-19 tour, and the 2020-21 series could have gone either way.
The trio will want to be around to correct that blip but they have already done enough to cement a legacy across formats in an era when so much cricket is played that it is difficult to imagine fast bowlers playing all formats, let alone win world titles eight years apart. It is a tribute to their fitness, their workload management, their commitment, their priorities, and of course their skill.
They are an irrepressible trio. Starc is direct and the most attacking: full, fast, at the stumps, swinging the new ball, reversing the old one. He holds the best strike rate among those who have taken 200 ODI wickets and seventh-best in Tests. Hazlewood doesn’t have the pace but he has the impeccable control of length, the ability to put the ball exactly where he wants to put it.
Among the six bowlers ahead of Starc in terms of strike rate in Tests is Cummins, the complete fast bowler. He has pace, he swings the ball, he seams it, and he bowls perhaps the meanest bouncer in the world. Like the hyperextension of the other complete fast bowler in this era Jasprit Bumrah, he also has another “gift”, a partially amputated middle finger that apparently gives him a great grip on the ball.
For some reason, they were never considered a real threat in these World Cup knockouts. You can sort of see why they would give that impression. Starc was not picking up wickets at 10 and 19 apiece as he did in the last two World Cups. Hazlewood was accurate and miserly but No. 16 on the wickets’ tally in the league stage. Cummins was doing the grunt work in the dirty overs, averaging 43, going at 6.15 an over. They almost lost defending 388 against New Zealand, conceded 291 to Afghanistan, and could hardly take a wicket after reducing India to 2 for 3 in their first fixture.
Who would fear such a bowling attack?
Anyone given the right conditions, that’s who.
It was one of those freak things where they didn’t get the right conditions in the whole league stage. The new ball didn’t swing at their venues. Mumbai and Lucknow went ahead and made them look even poorer with the conditions changing dramatically when Australia came out to bat. There wasn’t even reverse at their venues. In a candid press conference before the semi-final, Starc said as much.
Then came the semi-final, which coincided with a sudden depression in the Bay of Bengal. A cloudy day, floodlights in the afternoon, South Africa chose to bat because they had only one option, and all three showed their class, taking eight wickets between them for 97 runs. Starc swung the new ball, Hazlewood nibbled it, and Cummins again did the dirty work of bowling bouncers and cutters once the movement died down.
The final was going to be different. The photo of Cummins taking the photo of the pitch told a story. It was almost a collector’s item for Cummins, also the captain. The pitch was dry on the edges at a spinner’s length and expected to have no life in the middle. In other words, kryptonite.
And yet, it was all going to come down to the three quicks if Australia had to have a chance against the marauding Indian side. The only perceivable way for them to win was to insert India, restrict them, and then hope the pitch quickens up in the evening as it did in the match between England and New Zealand at the same venue.
Restrict India – that’s easy to say. To do it, they would have to firstly withstand the onslaught of the quickest batting side in the powerplay with no new-ball movement to work with. Then they would have to get past the most consistent batter, the Player of the Tournament, as it turned out. They would also have to make their spinner look better because he isn’t a great match-up against the Indian middle order.
Cummins was at the heart of it all. He chose to field despite the threat of the Indian spinners on a slow pitch. The slowness actually brought Australia into the game. From ball one, they didn’t have a deep third for Rohit Sharma, the quickest and most prolific batter in that phase of the game. The deep point instead let them bowl defensively. In the first two overs, that fielder saved five runs.
As expected, Rohit charged at Hazlewood to try to disrupt his length and succeeded. Pretty quickly, the bowlers started testing the middle of the pitch. A cutter appeared as early as the fourth over. The first ball Cummins bowled was a slower one. Coming into this match, Cummins had bowled a higher percentage of cutters than anyone. It tells you the kind of conditions they had to deal with.
Two wickets came not with magic balls but one short ball that skidded on and then the catch of the tournament. Cummins again took on the job of bashing the middle of the pitch in the middle overs. And he got his fielders to throw the ball every chance they got. They even conceded overthrows but the throws were mandatory. They were going to get it to reverse. India had done the same at the same venue, and this was an even drier pitch.
Cummins kept switching the bowlers at the other end. Overs 16, 18, 20 and 22 were bowled by four different bowlers. One-over spells from that end continued till the 24th. These were the lesser bowlers, and he didn’t want the batters to be able to line them up.
Then Cummins bent his back to draw bounce from the surface that surprised even Virat Kohli, which led him to play with a diagonal bat. “There’s nothing more satisfying than hearing a big crowd go silent,” Cummins had said before the match.
Moody: Cummins’ field placements were a masterstroke
Tom Moody showers praise on Cummins’ leadership in the first innings
Sure enough, once the ball got reversing, Hazlewood and Starc came back with renewed threat. They both moved the ball against the angle, Starc at higher pace, angling it in from around the wicket and then swinging it away to take edge of KL Rahul, who was batting on 66 and was the only one who could take India to an above-par total.
Reversing it against India in a World Cup final would have felt extra special after their helplessness during the 2018-19 Test series because they couldn’t even think of reverse in the fallout of the Newlands scandal whereas India kept getting the old ball to move.
Between them, the three bowled 30 overs for 154 runs and seven wickets. Cummins, whose experience of bowling cutters into the pitch throughout the tournament came in handy, ended with figures of 2 for 34.
They would have had a sense of déjà vu when the new ball started to hoop around in the evening, but it turned out Cummins, the first out-and-out bowling captain to win an ODI World Cup, had read the conditions just right.
This is fast-bowling royalty setting up wins across formats and conditions. Their last two limited-overs World Cups in two years have come in Asia with just one frontline spinner. In doing so, they have smashed a few cliches. Fast bowlers can’t be captains. Test bowlers don’t make good limited-overs bowlers because you need variations. Runs on board in a final. Fast bowlers shouldn’t be nice or woke.
One conventional wisdom remains, though: you can’t ever count out quality fast bowlers. Especially when there are three of them.