Craig Cumming: ‘It’s the game that I love’ (part 2)

Cumming pt2

Read part one of the interview with Cumming here.

It might’ve taken an injury to Michael Papps, but Craig Cumming had done well after getting a shot in five-day cricket: 74 on debut, promise against Sri Lanka. After that summer, however, having re-emerged as a one-day option and done alright in Test cricket, Cumming suddenly found himself on the outer. New Zealand’s selection policy at the top of the order was, to put it mildly, scatterbrained – as a piece previously published on this website demonstrated.

Between Cumming’s debut – in March 2005 – and the end of 2008, 14 opening partnerships were used by New Zealand in Test cricket. Only one of these was given enough time to make over 200 partnership runs, and the most consecutive Tests granted to a partnership was seven.

Cumming was out pretty much as soon as he was in, and it wasn’t any kind of immediate return.

In one-day cricket, the drought was even longer for Cumming – after those two games against the 2005 Australians, he didn’t play ODI cricket for four years.

“I didn’t perform well enough in one-day cricket, it was simple as that. And then when I went to the middle order, I felt like I started to know what I was doing, I started winning games for Otago. Looking back on it I would’ve loved to have had more opportunities once I had made a few technical changes and mental changes, because I think I was twice the player I was than when I played [for New Zealand]. But that’s the reality of sport, that’s what happens. I have no regrets at all, absolutely no regrets, but at times you’d like more opportunities – but so would every cricketer in New Zealand, you just have to realise that.”

But the most prestigious format was where Cumming definitely had his most success: although he didn’t hit huge runs in his first season in the Test side, the 74 against a full-strength Australia, and a dogged 47 against Sri Lanka should have been enough to keep him in the side to tour Zimbabwe – surely?

“I went to Zimbabwe as the incumbent after those five Tests. I felt pretty good, I got 115 in a warm-up game before the first Test, and for some reason I couldn’t hold my spot – they picked James Marshall to open the batting with Lou Vincent, who had just scored a double-hundred batting at four, then he got made to open the batting. I went through a period there where I was pretty down on things, and couldn’t work out why and what the rationale was.

“I think a lot of us at that time, while we probably didn’t perform enough, there was always that mental doubt of ‘we don’t perform [once], we get dropped’ and that was created through maybe inconsistencies in selections. I suppose that’s what the selectors are there to do, and if you score more runs, you get picked – but it’s not easy, and that’s one of the great strengths of this New Zealand side now, they’re consistent with their selections, they allow guys to believe in themselves. Maybe a few of us would have liked a bit more of that, but that’s the way it goes.”

And so Cumming signed off from Test cricket for a full 602 days with 47; not quite Dizzy’s double, perhaps, but still a rather surprising omission. When he returned, in late 2006, he proved his point – twin 43s against Sri Lanka made him the only batsman to make two solid scores, and was then undone in the second moment by two good deliveries. His second innings dismissal, facing Muralitharan, was an absolute peach.

But then came South Africa: essentially, the beginning of the end for Cumming’s international career.

“The first Test I just remember it being torrid. The ball was flying around your nose, them wanting to basically hurt you. It was really tough.”

So, the toughest cricket he’d played? “Yeah, yeah absolutely.”

Then came the bouncer.

“I was really disappointed, because the first Test was torrid and I didn’t know how I was going to compete. I’d actually done all the hard work in the second Test, got through to lunch, hit two fours after lunch, and I actually felt like I could score runs, not just survive. I’d been working hard on my technique with Mark O’Neill, who was the batting coach, from Australia.

“Then I got hit, and I felt really let down. I felt like I let the team down as well. It shattered my cheekbone, and I came home.”

Having got through the initial difficulties, and pushed past what he’d managed in the first Test, the injury was a disappointment: “I’d showed a bit of mental toughness, a bit of physical toughness – I had a few bruises. I was in a position where it could have been a defining moment – you could have been out the next ball as well, but these are the things that were running through my mind in the hospital bed after surgery.”

After the two home Tests against Bangladesh, that was it – Cumming didn’t play another five-day match for New Zealand, and only one further ODI. But he was never really out of contention.

“I went on the tour to Sri Lanka [in 2009] as a back-up batsman, as an opener but also as a middle-order player because I felt like I played spin pretty well. I’d scored a lot of runs, really, from a First Class point of view, but I couldn’t quite get that opportunity, and came home, and I suppose the key moment was when we played Pakistan in a home series after that Sri Lanka tour.

“I got a few mixed messages from the selectors at the time, one sort of told me I’d be playing, and then I got rung up and told that I wasn’t being selected, and that to be honest they were probably looking for guys a little bit younger than myself, and that’s the way the selection group was going to go.

“I suppose that was tough to hear, but you don’t get younger every day, you get older. So I just thought, ‘well, I’m just going to enjoy my cricket’ and I think I scored as many runs as anyone at that time and even the period afterwards. But what you do learn, and it’s part of growing up in life, is that you’re only as good as someone else’s opinion of you, and if that person’s a selector, well then they get the final say. That’s the way it works, and that’s a lesson in life it works, and you’ve just got to get on with it.”

Even that one ODI, during the 2009 Chappell-Hadlee series, was something of an outlier:

“That was a strange one. […] I went over there, and I didn’t play the first three Chappell-Hadlee games, then I got brought in late – Brendon McCullum had a crook shoulder – at Adelaide Oval. I think I batted six [having been batting four for Otago], and unfortunately that was an opportunity that I had to take, and I didn’t – I got a duck. I worked exceptionally hard to get that opportunity; while it wasn’t really in a position or game situation that I knew very well, as a cricketer when you get given an opportunity you have to make the most of it and I didn’t. I was playing the next game, actually, and I was keen to just relax, enjoy myself and hit the ball hard – do what I’d been doing at home. Unfortunately, it rained, got shortened to a 20-over game, and they changed the team when they knew it was going to be Twenty20 and I didn’t make the XI.”

Cumming’s career became about enjoying himself; he turned up the flow of First Class runs, and started making regular hundreds for Otago – a far cry from the toil for his very first hundred a decade-or-so earlier.

That came when playing for the Southern Conference against Bangladesh in the late 1990s, during John F. Reid’s brief experiment with a cricket incarnation of Super Rugby. The only other hundred he made before his move to Otago was his only for Canterbury – but also his career best score, 187 against Wellington.

“Yeah it was [a big confidence boost making those first two First Class hundreds], especially the first one. Because I’d played close to 20 games by then, and it always felt like a long way away – I enjoyed being in a little bit of a different environment, playing at Carisbrook was a lot of fun. It was hard work, I remember scoring a lot of singles and batting a long time.

“Then my 180 was probably the best I batted for years – I just relaxed. I remember getting into a bit of a partnership with Gary Stead, and he kept telling me ‘make the most of it, make the most it’ and we did. I think I batted for close to a day and a bit, and worked really it. Those two hundreds are two moments I still remember pretty clearly in my mind actually.”

During those early days, Cumming’s technique – as alluded to earlier – wasn’t as strong as it became later in his career.

“The problem was I wasn’t a dominating batsman, I had patience, and temperament, so I worked bloody hard for my runs. At that stage of my career, technically I think I had a few issues that limited my scoring abilities and my ability to relax mentally.”

Cumming was a grafter – he finished with a Test strike rate of 34.9, which only rose to 42.8 in First Class cricket – and while his record justifies his abilities, especially for Otago, it was as a leader that he really made a name for himself.

Of his 12 seasons with the southern province, 10 were spent as skipper: he captained his side through the players’ association strikes, to their first domestic title in decades, even the 2009-10 Champions Trophy was tackled under Cumming’s captaincy.

“I enjoyed it. It was thrust upon me pretty early, because we had some senior players leave. I made plenty of mistakes early on – I’d captained Canterbury before, and been captain through age-groups and the academy, so I was confident in my ability, but you learn heaps, lots, and I loved it. I think it helped my game. There were times where we didn’t have great sides, but I really enjoyed about ‘05 we started to build and started to play really well.

“It was a significant moment when we won our first trophy in 20 years [in 2007-08], and being the skipper of that was something I’m very proud of. It’s one of the highlights of my career, being part of that group of guys who worked hard for a long time. To give our association, and our province, and all the people in it a chance to shine and smile was really rewarding, and I loved it. I played my last season as non-captain, and I really enjoyed that too actually – it made me realise I could’ve given the captaincy up a bit earlier and just floated around, but overall I loved it and it set me up for life.”

That one-day trophy victory in 2007-08, Otago’s first since the 1980s, saw Cumming hold his nerve: while it was Brendon McCullum’s 170 off 108 balls that stole headlines, Cumming’s 86 not-out was crucial too. As far as captaincy was concerned, it was probably his most noteworthy moment.

Of his theories as captain, Cumming comments that “You listen and learn and talk,” but “you needed to know what your philosophy was, in how you wanted to play the game”.

“And then you’ve got to make sure the whole team understand that philosophy and live that philosophy. And have confidence – I always tried to make sure that if in doubt, step forward and always take the positive approach. We didn’t have huge success with Otago in four-day cricket, I’m not sure why, we had some good sides – whether or not my captaincy was a bit bland at the time, I don’t know. But one-day wise, and Twenty20, we had plenty of success and really enjoyed it.”

The team environment in Otago through Cumming’s time with the squad was notable for being highly inclusive – something that is described by Cumming as “one of the strengths of Otago Cricket”.

Jimmy Neesham, who left Auckland for Otago in 2011, notes that “there isn’t that separation between the senior players and junior players.”

“You just go into the group, and you’re treated like anyone else. And they enjoy going out and having a couple of beers as a group and that sort of thing. It’s a much more accepting culture than, I suppose, it was at Auckland at the time.”

Cumming believes that dressing room culture stemmed from the side’s attempts to give each player the best chance of succeeding:

“We weren’t full of superstars, and we never were. We tried to breed that culture where, when we started producing Blackcaps and they came back, we were their family. We were the guys that cared when they got dropped, and we wanted to care and have pride. My big thing, talking with the players as a captain and as a former player, was about having pride and passion in who you’re representing – and showing that on the field.

“I think that’s one of our hallmarks. The one thing we did change is we were known as nice guys off the park, but we were too nice on the park – and by that I mean we just played – but we got a bit tougher than that, got tougher in hard situations which allowed us to win more games than we were doing, and I think for a while there we were probably the most consistent coloured clothing side in the country. We took a lot of pride from that as well.”

In March 2012, Cumming decided he’d had enough – he drew stumps on his cricket career, 18 years on from that first one-dayer for Canterbury. It had been a long journey, with plenty of ups and a fair share of downs. And time had taken its toll – of his retirement, Cumming is concise: “It was an easy one.”

“I was 36, and got half-way through the year – and although I’d promised Vaughn Johnson, the coach, I’d give him two years, I got to a point where the highs and the pros no longer outweighed the cons of being away from home. I had a job, I had my wife and two boys, and I couldn’t justify it. And to be honest, I ran out of gas. I was running on empty. I’d played for 19 years since my debut, and I’d played a huge amount of cricket, I’d travelled a huge amount.

“I was done, and I wanted to go out while I was still good enough as well, I didn’t want to have one of those years where I struggled and then thought ‘oh, I’d better give it away because I wasn’t good enough’. […] It was just time. It was perfect timing, and I left the game in good stead – my body’s in good stead, my mind’s in good stead. And I also had plenty to do away from cricket, which allowed me to move on pretty quickly.”

These days, aside from his burgeoning commentary career, Cumming is also working for Otago Cricket. After a brief stint out of cricket entirely, he decided to return to the game. Of commentary, he says that it’s “the perfect job.”

“You’re travelling around the country, watching some great cricket, and you get the chance to talk about it. It’s not an easy job, you’ve got to learn, and hope that the listeners are enjoying what you have to say. You don’t go up there to talk about yourself, you talk about what’s in front of you. I just try and be quite analytical, and explain what’s happening and why it’s happening. If I’m able to do that, I’m doing my job. At the moment I’m loving it, and it fits well with my job at Otago Cricket where I’m the Commercial Manager. They all tie in nicely at the moment and it keeps me busy.”

But cricket wouldn’t be out of Cumming’s life, even with the dual roles: family, which was a recurring theme throughout the interview, keeps him involved with a bat and ball.

“I’ve got two boys who are 12 and 10. They play, so I coach them – not so much their teams, but I go to their trainings, and I’m involved with a lot of those kids, at the nets every second day. I love that, so I’ll always be involved in cricket while they’re growing up.

“Someway, somehow, whether it’s coaching, watching, or supporting, it’s the game that I love, and I enjoy it. So I’ll be there for a while yet.”


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