Craig Cumming: ‘It’s the game that I love’ (part 1)

Cumming

It’s early 2008, and both New Zealand openers are just barely holding onto their positions. At one end stands Matthew Bell; playing his first Test in six years, and proving something of a lightning rod for criticism.

Bell, one can’t help but feel, could have been one of New Zealand’s best with just a hint more faith from those above, a shade more consistency from the selectors’ table, and a splash more on-field confidence.

Coming back into the side, having one chance to prove himself against the hapless Bangladeshis, he’s certainly the opening bat most focused on.

At the other end is the roughed up Craig Cumming: it’s only been a couple of months since a Dale Steyn short-ball rearranged Cumming’s cheek structure, and his place is a long way from secure.

It seems as though New Zealand are taking a punt on both men. They have a chance to make international runs against possibly the weakest bowling attack above the second division of the World Cricket League, and could instate themselves into a long-term opening role.

It’s a competition within a non-competition. The prize? Test cricket against England: Hoggard, Harmison, Broad, Anderson, Sidebottom, Panesar.

Just a slight step-up from the half-volleys and half-trackers of Sajedul, Shahadat and Enamul Haque.

***

History records that, with a century in the first innings at Dunedin, Bell won. Despite a composed 42 in the second Test, Cumming lost – and that was that. He never returned to a Test field again.

If that Steyn bouncer had given the media doubts in Cumming’s capability, the memories of it certainly didn’t help Cumming’s batting in that Bangladesh series either.

“Because I had anxiety, my technique wasn’t great. I had a front-foot press that just got worse when I got anxious. When I got dropped after that [Bangladesh] Test series was a key moment for me as a player, because I changed my technique and created a pre-movement which allowed me to be balanced and still. Which I wish I’d had my whole career, but I didn’t, and after that my game blossomed and I became a better player. Out of a bit of adversity, came the best bit of my cricketing career, performance-wise.”

He’s not exaggerating either; after being dropped in January ‘08, Cumming’s career hit a remarkable new run-spree. He hit 3288 runs at the astounding average of 49.07 from the moment of his Test sacking, contrasting with his average of 33.64 prior to that moment.

“I really enjoyed batting for the next five years after that, and had success which was great – especially at the First Class level.”

It started with scores of 62 and 93 against Northern Districts and Wellington, and rose to a remarkably high pitch the following summer.

The season of 2008-09 consisted of four hundreds in seven matches for Cumming; averaging more than 65, scoring 50-plus in exactly half of all his innings that season, and secured first-innings points with 173 in Otago’s final match of the summer.

The numbers for that 173 look excellent. He made more than half the side’s runs, shepherding a batting order who – below Cumming and fellow opener Aaron Redmond – eked just 83 runs between them. He went along at a good clip – striking at 65 – and saw his team nab the first innings lead nine-down.

But it was flattery to deceive – the vital two points for the first-innings success were… well. They weren’t all that vital.

Otago, the proud home of Bert Sutcliffe, Glenn Turner, Stephen Boock and the Alabasters, had finished second from bottom – the two points had secured fifth, clawing that dubious distinction out of the hands of the wooden spoon-clad Cantabrians.

It was the case throughout most of Cumming’s time with the side: the team never quite managed to prove as good as their parts. Certainly, the bulk of the team was formed around bits-and-pieces stalwarts of the Warren McSkimming ilk, but with some very classy cricketers mixing with the dogged McSkimming types, Otago’s four-day record (having not won a Plunket Shield title since the mid-1980s) is remarkably poor.

While Cumming notes that he has no regrets from his cricketing career, he concedes that never winning a Shield title with Otago is a disappointment.

“Yeah, it is. When you talk about regrets, they’re more personal things as a player, and what you do. But absolutely, I’d have loved to win with Otago. I think winning the four-day competition is the hardest one to win, you’ve got to play well for 40 days of cricket and 90 overs a day. We got close on a few occasions, but we just couldn’t get over the line.

“I’d have loved to have done it; having done it for Canterbury, I knew how hard we used to work back then to be able to win it, and what it means to win it. […] Otago still hasn’t been able to break that, it’s not an easy competition to win, and we’re still striving to do that – I’m sure when it happens, I’ll enjoy it being a former player, because I know how hard it is, and how tough it is not to win it.”

Otago weren’t the no-hopers that their title drought and 2008-09 season suggested. They had talent, put together sporadic performances, were outstanding in limited overs cricket, and had the relentless run-scoring of Cumming at the helm. His figures for his second province are outstanding: more than 6,500 First Class runs, an average of 43, 21 centuries.

Somehow, he even found time to captain. At the top of most records for Otago stands Cumming’s name: most runs in First Class and List A cricket, second most First Class appearances (and the same in List A, until Nathan McCullum moved past him), most First Class hundreds, most games as captain.

“I suppose at the end of my career I had to pinch myself, because I never really ever imagined that would happen. In some ways, as well, you could turn around and say that when you have records for your province, you haven’t played enough for New Zealand. […] I enjoyed the hundreds, because if I was getting hundreds in First Class cricket, it meant I was doing my job.

“But I always said that longevity will give you a total amount of runs, and if you end up playing more games than the guys who have the records and do okay, you’ll eventually overtake them. Otago had a leader in Bert Sutcliffe whose record was simply superb, to even have my name mentioned in the same breath as him was an honour. It’s something that I do look back on with a bit of pride, and know that it meant when I played for Otago I gave it my absolute best.”

Cumming, however, wasn’t just about Otago – his New Zealand career was on-and-off, but definitely there, and he started his career not with Otago but with the provincial neighbours Canterbury.

As Cumming speaks, we’re standing in the tree-given shade just wide of the Pavilion End sightscreen at Seddon Park. New Zealand are hosting the challenge of Sri Lanka, and Cumming is a member of the Sky Sports commentary team – he’s no longer an instantly recalled face as a cricketer, but his media presence is growing.

Skipping back 30-odd years takes us to Timaru – a setting very different to the metropolis of neighbouring Christchurch, and the place where Cumming grew up and learned his cricket. But the details have to wait; South Canterbury pushed to one side as we watch Neil Wagner dig in a bouncer.

No collapse is complete without a comic runout, and that’s true here: Suranga Lakmal fends the ball, Dushmantha Chameera runs down the wicket despite his partner not doing so, and Neil Wagner has time to collect the throw from the middle of the pitch and run back to the stumps.

From looking like near-certs to win, Sri Lanka are 133/9.

“You were always the younger brother when you went up to Christchurch, and you always turned up there to prove a point. I wouldn’t change anything about my upbringing, I thought it was great – we always wanted to prove that point, and I enjoyed the challenge. We might not have had the new bats, pads and gloves that the guys up north did in the big centres, but the reality was that it was how well you used them. That was always our motivation, so I think it was a big help.”

Now the drones are overhead. A discussion of Cumming’s first forays into the Canterbury side – one appearance, and lots of Bs cricket – is nearly drowned out by the incessant buzzing of the latest gimmick to ‘revolutionise’ sport on television.

It was 1994 that Cumming first came into the Canterbury side, “after getting 160 in a B game”. Injuries combined with both New Zealand and NZ Youth call-ups, and a slot opened up.

“To be honest, it was an amazing experience,” Cumming says of that one-dayer. “But it was probably early for me,” and it was nearly two years before he was seen in Canterbury colours again.

“It was tough, because Canterbury always had so many New Zealand players, and they’d come backwards and forwards. There were probably five or six of us always vying for about one or two spots when the national players came back. They were good players – Michael Papps, Scott Pawson, Robbie Frew, Brad Doody, there was a lot of us vying, and you had to be performing pretty well.”

Despite the successes Cumming had after he managed to get back into the side, including representation for the Southern Conference, selection for the New Zealand Academy, sporadic appearances as Canterbury captain, and his first two First Class hundreds, Cumming decided to move south.

“[The competition in Canterbury] got to the point where it started to affect me more than it probably should have, and I started worrying about the wrong things, and started playing for the wrong reasons. It got to the stage where I thought, ‘well, if I want to make it as a cricketer, I’m probably not going to do it here’ because mentally I’d lost a bit of strength, and I decided that’s when I wanted to go to Otago.

“I thought there’d be more opportunities, and if I did well I’d be staying in the side – that was a major part of the decision, because at times [with Canterbury] you could be averaging mid-40s for the season and lose your spot in the side if Stephen Fleming came back. That was the reason for the move. But in some ways I think it helped me; it taught me a lot of good lessons in how to treat people, when I got into a leadership role with Otago.”

Cumming’s very first season in New Zealand’s southernmost metro brought immediate rewards – more than 600 First Class runs, made at an average of a fraction under 45. It was an excellent way to bring in the new millennium; and his best season, both in First Class and one-day cricket, was coupled with the opportunity to work with one of New Zealand’s finest.

“For me it was sort of last chance saloon, and I also went down there so I could do a bit of work with Glenn Turner, who was Convener of Selectors at that stage. I thought if I was going to make it as a cricketer, I had to change something. […] I remember ending that year on a high, and I felt pretty good about myself – and that obviously also meant it was a good decision to move down there. I was still living in Christchurch at the time, but then my girlfriend – who’s now my wife – we decided we’d move down there and make it permanent.”

It was evident, however, that Cumming was a more accomplished batsman over several days than he was in the confines of limited overs cricket: he himself says of his first seasons with Otago that “in the one-day game I was still learning”.

The numbers alone suggest that his selection for an ODI series in Pakistan in 2003 was an unusual one – to that point, Cumming had made 966 List A runs at the rather meagre average of 19.32.

The tour was hectic – five matches in nine days, in three cities. Moreover, Cumming’s first child was due – born two days after he arrived back home – and it left little time for nerves to take control.

He ended up playing ten ODIs that summer, with the tour of Pakistan being followed up by a return series in New Zealand.

“It was probably a little bit premature,” Cumming concedes. “I didn’t really understand the one-day game that well at that stage, I hadn’t had a lot of success at the one-day game. I was very new.”

“When I played at home, I had a tough first two games, and then John Bracewell told me to just relax. I remember in the fourth ODI I got 45 not-out, and I was facing Akhtar and co., and it actually made me feel like I could play then. In the next game I backed it up with 30-odd and I actually was quite disappointed to get out, I chopped one onto my stumps. Overall, it gave me a taste of what I wanted to do, but highlighted that I had to keep working hard and get better.”

It wasn’t enough to keep Cumming in the ODI side however; he missed out on the series against South Africa, replaced by Michael Papps, and added to missing out on the 2004 winter in England by failing to get into the side for one-day series in Bangladesh and Australia.

The home summer began by hosting Sri Lanka – or should have done, with four ODIs abandoned and the Test series postponed after the Boxing Day tsunami. The replacement opposition – the FICA World XI – played carnival cricket; everyone was happy.

Cumming, however, remained on the sidelines: it took until Australia toured, later in the 2004-05 summer, that he finally returned. Perhaps ironically, he came in for last two matches as a replacement for an injured Michael Papps.

It led into the biggest moment of his life: a Test debut. Against Australia. Australia with McGrath, Gillespie and Warne.

“I was really pleased with that series; I think I my average was okay. I look back on that first game, I made 74 and I was disappointed with how I got out, playing the pull shot – which I’d got a lot of runs from. Overall I was pretty happy actually, I thought it was a good start against what was probably one of the greatest ever sides to play the game. […] I was a grafter, I was working hard, and I felt like I could compete at that level, which was important.”

His debut innings, replacing Mark Richardson at the top of the order, saw him grind out his half-ton (bringing it up off 152 deliveries) in what was described contemporarily as a “pull-happy” fashion. His dismissal, falling to a rather blatant trap from Michael Kasprowicz, was the only disappointment from a well-constructed dig – he rode out the early nerves, and started to play with increasing confidence as the innings wore on.

“[After that], we played Sri Lanka, and I think at the end of it felt pretty happy – I had a bit of stuff to work on over the winter, which I did, and worked really hard, and was set for another go.”


To read part two of Devon’s chat with Craig Cumming, click here
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