THE PAT CUMMINS I meet in Sydney’s Alexandria is one most of us aren’t used to seeing. Wearing green shorts, a beige T-shirt and clogs from hip US label Malbon Golf, the 30-year-old looks like he’s just showered after a training session and thrown on some casual but curated basics—he has been to the gym this morning, he tells us later. He looks comfortable, a man at ease with himself, an impression that only deepens as he mixes easily with our crew of photographers, stylists and assistants, winning over the team in seconds. But that’s what Pat Cummins does.

As he sits in the grooming chair ahead of his Esquire photoshoot, Cummins begins to transform—his hair is styled into an imperious helmet; his eyebrows are clipped. Donning a trench coat, his now impeccably slicked locks and strong chin give him the air of a ’40s matinee idol, a leading man if you will. Then he puts on some designer specs and suddenly he’s less Cary Grant and more Clark Kent—fitting, perhaps, for a man who’s unfailingly polite, humble but capable of a certain kind of heroism, diligent as well as dashing, princely yet principled. And one who, after a year of towering success, is at the peak of his powers.

Yet as tempting as it is to saddle Cummins with superhuman potency and cast him as a saviour—of Australian cricket, of Australian sport, of the country at large—it would be unfair to him, a little silly and probably ill-advised. His manager, Judie, calls him “Perfect Pat”; the grooming artist gasps at the thickness of his eyelashes; and the photographer remarks, “It’s so weird that the best fast bowler in the world is so bloody good looking”. Amid all the gushing, it’s a little surprising no one mentions his Windex-blue eyes.

But to build up Cummins any further would only harvest a desire to pick him apart, to knock him off his pedestal. For as popular and likeable as Cummins clearly is, there will always be those who wish to cut a tall poppy down, especially in the social-media age, and particularly when the poppy in question is one who has actively sought to break the mould in terms of what an Australian captain should say or do. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine Allan Border or Mark Taylor on the cover of Esquire.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
Trench coat, $5,900, and pants, $1,890, both by Burberry; sweater, $369, and shoes, $579, both by BOSS; ‘312’ glasses, $280, by Carrera. Photography: Georges Antoni. Styling: Grant Pearce.

Cummins seems determined not to let the noise that surrounds his occasional utterances on matters outside of cricket (more on those later) distract him from what he wants to achieve. He’s less an iconoclast than he is a man with a vision, purpose and goals. He’s conscious of the power his position holds and the platform he enjoys. The famous line about the Australian captaincy being the second-most important position in the country after the PM may be hackneyed and hyperbolic, but the role does carry responsibilities. For Cummins, at least, those don’t end with what he does on the cricket field.

“I feel a real responsibility as a captain, as an Australian player, to leave cricket in a really good place,” he tells me later, back in shorts, T-shirt and clogs, as we chat across a kitchen table. “But the same with other causes. You’re an adult, you’ve got a voice, kids look up to you. I feel like there is some level of responsibility to try and do what’s best.”

It’s not a responsibility Cummins has any intention of fumbling.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
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BY ANY MEASURE, 2023 will go down as one of the most successful in the history of Australian cricket, as the team claimed the World Test Championship, retained the Ashes and won the limited-overs World Cup. The unlikely treble was achieved by a team that boasts some all-time greats—Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Cummins himself. It’s also one that plays its cricket hard but fairly, an approach personified by its increasingly talismanic skipper.

Whether they intend to or not, Australian captains define the culture of the teams they lead and ultimately the era they play in. Ian Chappell’s anti-authoritarian streak manifested in an aggressive on-field posture, shared by many of his players. Border’s everyman grit helped a weak team through tough times. Steve Waugh tapped into baggy-green folklore, using the revered cap as a symbol to invoke pride and dominance.

How would Cummins like his era to be remembered?

“For my teammates and players, I want them to look back and say they were the best years of their lives,” he says. “That we had a lot of fun. I hate it when people retire and go, ‘Geez, I wish I wasn’t as uptight or stressed the whole time’. I want [the players] to understand how cool the job we have is, and that we should be enjoying every moment in each other’s company, which I think we do a really good job of.”

The focus on enjoyment, on the wellbeing of players, on having fun while acknowledging your good fortune to play a game for a living, is both refreshing and thoroughly modern. It’s also almost guaranteed to raise the ire of some former players, who came up in times when respect had to be earned and hard-edged aggression was both the modus operandi and a point of pride.

The joie de vivre Cummins espouses is certainly an attitude that’s easier to maintain when your suitcases are getting weighed down with silverware. Of last year’s many triumphs, Cummins rates the World Cup victory as the highlight. “By a mile,” he says, his face lighting up at the memory. “The odds were stacked against us. You’re playing in India, it’s really tough foreign conditions. We’d dealt with injuries and other setbacks throughout the tournament.”

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
Coat, $5,100 jacket, $3,600, sweater, $1,900 and trousers, $1,350, all by Giorgio Armani; sneakers, $190, by New Balance. Photography: Georges Antoni. Styling: Grant Pearce.

It’s true that the victory seemed unlikely at the beginning of the World Cup. After the first two games, the campaign looked doomed, with heavy losses to India and South Africa. The team looked old and slow, struggling to adjust to conditions they have always found challenging. Slowly but surely, though, they found their groove, finding ways to win in unlikely circumstances, most famously against Afghanistan, when the enigmatic Glenn Maxwell played possibly the greatest one-day innings of all time. Cummins provided measured support at the other end, contributing 12 off 68 balls, as he and Maxwell added 202 runs in an epic eighth-wicket stand.

Watching that remarkable game as a spectator at home, a sense of fatefulness began to take root. In a knockout tournament you need a bit of luck, of course, but also a touch of the sublime. You began to wonder if it might just be the team’s tournament. Cummins began to wonder the same thing.

“Maxie dragged us out of it and that’s when I kind of thought, Geez, we keep finding ways to win,” he recalls. “I started to have a bit more belief, and I think the whole team had belief that in those moments when someone needs to stand up, people were standing up consistently. I felt like we were just going to navigate through whatever we needed to.”

Last year’s trifecta of triumphs represented a feather in the cap for Cummins, the results seeming to have silenced many of the armchair critics and media pundits who greeted his appointment as a fast-bowling captain back in 2021 with raised eyebrows. The appointment marked a break from tradition for Australia, which has traditionally preferred batsmen to occupy the role. Many wondered if Cummins could shoulder the mental and tactical load amid long, energy-sapping spells.

While Cummins admits he had plenty to learn coming into the role, he says he never saw being a bowler as a handicap to leadership. “The focus is always on the challenges of trying to bowl and manoeuvre a field, whereas actually there’s a huge number of pros that could be spoken about,” he says. “Our whole [bowling] crew is trying to work out ways to get wickets. And as an on-field captain, 99 per cent of the work’s done in the bowling innings. I think those skills transfer really well between the captain and a bowler.”

Jacket, $1,899, sweater, $369, and trousers, sold as part of a suit, $2,599, all by BOSS; ‘308’ glasses, $270, by Carrera. Photography: Georges Antoni. Styling: Grant Pearce.

Cummins’ tactical acumen certainly got a workout during the Ashes, when England’s revolutionary, hyper-aggressive Bazball tactics seemed to unnerve the Aussies at times, though they managed to retain the urn with a 2-2 series scoreline.

That series would also test Cummins’ diplomatic skills, with various controversies, especially the infamous stumping of Jonny Bairstow, igniting a firestorm that put cricket on the front and back pages and at the centre of the zeitgeist in a way it hadn’t been, probably since the 2005 Ashes series. I put it to Cummins that the combative nature of some of the on-field exchanges made the game more appealing to casual fans.

“I think, no doubt it became a bit of the narrative,” he says of the series’ see-sawing nature and the attention it attracted from people outside of cricket; both the British PM, Rishi Sunak, and Anthony Albanese, weighed in on the ‘spirit-of-the-game’ question at the heart of the Bairstow dismissal.

“I’ve never played in a series that was as well supported as that series. It was crazy the level of attention it was getting. And to be honest, it almost felt like a galvanising moment for Aussie cricket fans. It felt like the whole country was behind us.”

Despite how hostile and acrimonious the series got at times, you always felt that with Cummins at the helm, this Australian team wouldn’t overstep the mark; that they would tread the line between being competitive and cutthroat, a line that had been difficult to draw after the 2018 ball-tampering controversy forced a re-evaluation of the team’s previously hard-nosed energy.

“I think what I try and foster and what the team feels like at the moment, is that everyone can be themselves,” says Cummins of the approach to on-field aggression. “I think, in the past, there’s been this kind of archetypal Aussie cricketer that you needed to be. And for some people, that was natural, [but] for others it didn’t suit them and it didn’t bring out the best in them.”

Was Cummins one of those for whom sledging and trading barbs with the opposition didn’t sit right?

“Yeah, potentially. I never felt a huge pressure to be a certain way, but I think after 2018, we all took stock and thought deeply about how we wanted to play the game. For me, getting in the face of the opposition, a lot of the time, is actually a distraction to what I’m trying to do.”

While there’s no doubt that attitude has trickled down, Cummins says the team’s more measured approach is also reflective of the characters that inhabit the dressing room. “I think that’s our group at the moment,” he says. “They’re quite chilled, relaxed, [a] not so in-your-face group of people and you’re seeing them go and play that way. It doesn’t mean they’re not competitive. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to take the game on and be brave and have a hard edge to them. It just means that they might not be as combative and in your face.”

Not everyone likes it: Cummins was criticised by former wicketkeeper Ian Healy for overly lauding West Indies fast bowler Shamar Joseph’s match-winning efforts at the Gabba in January. But coming off the success of last year and a summer in which they won four out of five Test matches, it’s difficult to argue with the results.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
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AFTER THAT SHOCK defeat against the Windies, the tourists’ first win against Australia in 27 years, the comments section of a Fox Sports Instagram post made for some interesting reading. While many commenters, perhaps moved by nostalgia, were excited to see the once-mighty West Indies enjoying a rare success, among the comments there was also a rancorous, mocking tone. “Go woke, go broke,” wrote more than one commenter. “Karma for our team. Too preoccupied with activism on how terrible Australia Day is prior to the game. That’s what you get,” said another, in relation to comments Cummins made advocating moving the date of our national day.

Cummins has previously been derided as ‘Captain Woke’ and ‘Captain Planet’ by right-wing media commentators for his climate-change activism, most pointedly for expressing his reservations to Cricket Australia (CA) in late 2022 about its then sponsorship deal with Alinta Energy, a company that sources its energy largely from gas-fired power stations. Some blamed the sponsor’s subsequent withdrawal of its $40m sponsorship of the Australian cricket team on Cummins’ stance, an accusation CA denied.

Cummins’ willingness to speak out on non-cricket issues has been a running theme throughout his tenure as captain, distinguishing him from previous incumbents. On each occasion, a small but vocal crowd of cultural commentators invariably meet what are often carefully couched, seemingly benign opinions with a mixture of bile and sneering cynicism. That the Australian captain should stick to cricket is the general thrust of these rants; ‘shut up and bowl’ the subtext and occasionally explicit edict from angry souls on social media. Cummins’ crime? To answer questions honestly. To offer his opinion when invited to do so.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
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“You get asked a lot of questions, and I could stand there and say, ‘No comment’ at every press conference, but it would be pretty boring for everyone,” he says. “People want to know your opinion as a person, an athlete. So occasionally I put forward my stance on things that I think are important, and sometimes not 100 per cent of the population agree. And that’s fine. You acknowledge it. But it doesn’t mean you need to listen to it and pander to it.”

Is the criticism motivating? “Yeah, I think just from a purely performance lens, sometimes you like a little bit of criticism. That can actually pump you up a bit. You can use that as a motivator. But there are other times where it really debilitates you as well.”

We’ve seen the impact social-media firing squads can have on athletes in other sports, most notably on Naomi Osaka and Nick Kyrgios, in tennis, as well as players of colour in the AFL and the NRL. Athletes’ welfare needs to be protected, Cummins says. “You can’t expect that you’re just going to cope with a lot of hate or anger, and you’re going to be okay. I think, as an athlete, you do need to dial in, dial out.”

Cummins’ willingness to SPEAK OUT on non-cricket issues has been a RUNNING THEME... distinguishing him from previous incumbents.

It’s worth noting that rather than being some kind of radical left-wing culture warrior, Cummins’ views are generally moderate and in step with the majority of the population. He agrees that the criticism is probably a reflection of the polarisation that defines the current cultural climate and the keyboard-warrior mentality of social media.

“I think so. You say one sentence and half the people are calling you ‘extreme left-wing’, and the other half are calling you ‘extreme right-wing’, and I don’t really care,” he says. He also prefers to confront criticism face to face. “I think dealing with people, relationships, that’s the real world. Comments online and judging people that you don’t know well isn’t the real world. As much as I can, I focus on the relationships that matter and try to block out the noise of other people, if it’s not serving a good purpose.”

Cummins won’t be refraining from expressing his views on social issues in the future, if he feels that doing so could help others. That, he believes, is part of occupying a high-profile leadership position in 2024.

“If I think it’s going to make a positive difference and maybe help out some people or causes, then yeah, I would love to use that platform,” he says, nominating NBA star LeBron James as someone who’s used his position to advance causes he believes in. James, it’s worth noting, is an athlete who’s expressly refused to ‘shut up and dribble’.

“I admire a lot of people that put their points of view forward, even if I don’t agree with them because I do know that it takes bravery,” Cummins says. “LeBron’s a good example. A couple of times he stood up for people that don’t have a voice and made a real difference in their lives. I think that’s pretty impressive.”

You do have to wonder what might happen when Cummins is asked for more than just his opinion—when he’s asked to take a stand on issues that might directly affect his hip pocket, for example. Many have speculated that it’s only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund comes for cricket, as it has for golf, football and tennis. Would Cummins play in a Saudi-backed league? He chooses his words carefully, a little uncomfortable for the first time today, perhaps conscious that anything he says may find another life online. “Honestly, I’ve got no idea. I probably haven’t thought deeply enough about it and how it looks. I think it’d be pretty easy to take a side but, yeah, it’s all hypothetical.”

He’s right: it is a hypothetical question—for now. And while Cummins’ relative volubility on social issues is both instinctive and a reflection of the era in which he leads, he says he has no appetite to follow in the footsteps of former rugby union great David Pocock, or Olympic medal-winning skier Zali Steggall, and move into politics after his playing career ends. “Absolutely not,” he says, when I raise the prospect. “There’s not much [about politics] that appeals to me at all. I think making change would be amazing at some level in whatever I do. But I think having to do a lot of campaigning… I don’t think I’d jump out of bed each morning wanting to be a politician.”

Instead, Cummins would like to stay involved in cricket and explore the business side of sport—he has a business degree on his resume, having graduated in 2017. “I find listening to entrepreneurs and start-ups that there’s a lot of cross-over between that world and sport,” he says. “They’re dealing with failure a lot. You’re solving problems constantly. It’s also high pressure. I feel like that would still give you a good buzz once you’re finished with cricket.”

It’s perhaps the kind of career Cummins might have embarked on once upon a time, had his life not been transformed forever in 2011. Then, as an 18-year-old tearaway quick from the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, he briefly became that most beloved of media tropes: the overnight sensation.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
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WITH HIS HEIGHT, good looks, impeccable manners and overall projection of wholesome, clean-cut values, there is an air of the high-school prefect about Cummins. At his alma mater, St Paul’s Grammar School, in the outer-western Sydney suburb of Cranebrook, he says he was something of a “sporty nerd”. I ask him if the description still fits. He nods, grinning. “Yeah, that’s probably how I’d describe myself.”

Incredibly, none of his circle of mates realised just how good at cricket their friend was and were surprised when he debuted for New South Wales just a month after completing his HSC. “They were like, ‘Oh, didn’t know you were actually that good’. And I was like, ‘Well, I didn’t really know either’.”

I tell him I find that hard to believe, given that, at 17, Cummins was rattling helmets with 140 km/h-plus thunderbolts. But it perhaps underscores the swift, ‘boy’s own’ nature of his rise. Cummins went from debuting in first grade for Penrith, to getting a Cricket Australia contract six months later, making his Test debut against South Africa at Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg in November 2011 at 18 years, 153 days, the youngest Australian debutant since Ian Craig back in the ’50s. He famously took 6 for 79 in South Africa’s second innings, hit the winning runs and was named man of the match—the type of debut kids in backyards across the land, including Cummins himself not so long before, dream about.

“I focus on the relationships that matter and try to BLOCK OUT the NOISE of other people.”

“It’s crazy when I look back at it,” he says, his gaze briefly blank as his mind’s eye drifts back to his Wanderers experience all those years ago. “I was skinny. I had a totally different bowling action. I had acne. I was literally just a kid.” A few things stand out from that debut, not least receiving his baggy green. “I just remember thinking, Oh wow, this is actually serious, I got a baggy green. I thought the jig was up, they’re going to catch me and realise I’m just a kid. But once I got the baggy green, I was like, Oh well, they can’t take this away.”

He remembers sitting in the dressing room with Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, “these greats of the game”. “I was like, Oh wow, this is Test cricket, just like I’ve grown up watching; this is legit.” And he remembers being wracked by nerves, at least until he stepped onto the field. “Once the game starts and you’ve got the ball in your hand, you’ve got a bit more control over your own destiny.”

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
Trench coat, $5900, by Burberry. Photography: Georges Antoni. Styling: Grant Pearce.

The fantastical elements of Cummins’ debut would only grow over the years after a series of injuries to his left heel and back stalled his career almost as soon as it had begun. After that one-off Test, he wouldn’t play Test cricket again for more than five years. He began to wonder if he’d ever wear his baggy green again. “I thought I was a million miles away from getting back into the Test team.”

An indication of just how far away he felt during that time can perhaps be gleaned from the fact that after meeting his future wife, Becky Boston, in a Kings Cross bar in 2013, he didn’t mention that he was an international cricketer, instead telling her he was a student. It wasn’t a lie. Becky would only find out who she was dating when she saw him wearing a bucket hat on a promo out the front of a KFC.

“I felt like I had two worlds,” says Cummins of his time in the wilderness. “One that was going overseas and playing in front of big crowds and being in front of a camera and all those things. And the other world, where I was still largely unrecognisable, unknown. Going about my life as a normal 20-year-old. When I look back, it was pretty absurd.”

At this point, the Clark Kent comparisons become irresistible: here was a hero hiding in plain sight.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
Trench coat, $5,900, by Burberry; and ‘312’ glasses, $280, by Carrera. Photography: Georges Antoni. Styling: Grant Pearce.

AS CUMMINS EMERGES from the studio dressing room after another quick outfit change, someone’s put on some upbeat dance music. Cummins begins moving his head to the beat like a chicken bobbing its neck. As he waits for his next shot, he’s asked by a member of the crew how he learned to bowl so fast.

“Steroids,” he jokes to a burst of laughter. “That helped a bit.”

While we wait for the photographer to set up, I ask Cummins about the truncated middle finger on his bowling hand. It was the result of a childhood accident, his sister slamming the digit in a door when he was three years old. Does he remember it? “Yeah, I do. I remember running down the hall screaming.” We begin speculating on what age memories form, which leads us to wonder what our kids—Cummins and Becky have a two-year-old, Albie, while I have a daughter in Year One–might remember of their early childhood.

Throughout the shoot, others engage Cummins in conversations on topics he takes up eagerly. He listens intently and offers thoughtful observations. You feel at ease because he’s so at ease. You get the feeling that whether he’s with a bunch of creatives, as he is today, or blokes out on the road digging ditches, he’d mix easily and find something just right to talk about with both groups. To call this everyman authenticity a skill would be a little cynical, but it’s surely something many political operatives in Canberra wished their candidates possessed.

“There’s a lot of things you can compromise on, but there’s some things YOU CAN’T.”

You certainly get the feeling that the Australian dressing room, under Cummins, is a place where everyone feels at ease and welcome. “I love diversity in any group,” he says. “I think that brings out the best in any team. I hope anyone that steps into our dressing room feels welcome and feels like they can bring their individual self to it.”

I mention that I’d read that he and Usman Khawaja occasionally like to discuss or debate dinner-party topics pertaining to science and religion, subjects I can’t imagine too many players of yesteryear digging into. “They’re not pre-planned,” he says of his chats with his Test opener. “Ussie is a passionate guy. He’s got a lot of really strong beliefs, and he’s pretty brave in being forthright with revealing them publicly. I think we both see the world pretty similarly a lot of the time. He’s a good guy to chat to.”

As you listen to Cummins describe the team he leads, it’s clear the winning culture he’s established within his dressing room is one that must begin at the top. If he does have a clear forebear among Australian captains, it would be the great Richie Benaud, similarly talismanic and renowned for championing sportsmanship and fair play.

So, what does Cummins believe makes a good leader? It’s a subject to which he’s given a fair bit of thought over the years. “I think someone that’s empathetic, who’s relatively consistent,” he begins. “Someone that’s just a really good people manager and knows what makes people tick and how to get the best out of them and is quite individualised in their approach. You’ve got to have a pretty strong, unwavering belief in the vision that you want for the team, or the group you’re looking after. There’s a lot of things you can compromise on, but there’s some things you can’t, and you need to be consistent around that.”

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia
Jacket, $3000, T-shirt, $390, and pants, $1300, all by Dolce & Gabbana. Photography: Georges Antoni. Styling: Grant Pearce.

In the give and take Cummins describes, there’s something of the twin tenets of fast bowling, repeated ad nauseum by coaches in nets around the world: line and length. But it’s the word ‘vision’ that stands out for me, indicative of the ambition and wider sense of purpose Cummins has sought to instil in his team, not just as players but as human beings.

As we wrap up our chat and I watch him leave, I’m reminded of another online comment, this one positive, from an English fan during last year’s Ashes. The fellow, tongue firmly in cheek, expressed his befuddlement at the Australian captain’s likeable nature and air of decency, comparing him to some of the pantomime villains and taciturn characters who have occupied the position in the past.

It’s ironic that cricket, an increasingly anachronistic 19th-century game once played by aristocrats, and one struggling for relevance in the modern age, might have found a leader for the times in a man you can only describe as a gentleman. But the truth is, part of Cummins’ effectiveness as a modern captain is that he looks beyond the game. You can’t help but wonder what he could achieve in other fields.

‘It’s just not cricket’, goes the popular expression. For Cummins, perhaps the more apt phrase is, it’s not just cricket.

Pat Cummins Esquire Australia cover
Jacket, $4,500, sweater, $2,000, T-shirt, $1,500, and pants, $2050, all by Dior Men; watch, $13,000, all by Dior Timpieces.

Photography: Georges Antoni.
Styling: Grant Pearce.
Grooming: Michael Brennan.
Photography assistants: Tom Spence, Marcus Solomon.
Digital operator: Jon Calvert.

Pat Cummins appears on the cover of Esquire Australia’s March/April 2024 issue, on sale February 29. Find out where to buy it here

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