Pat Cummins has questioned the concept of the “perfect” Australian Test captain, saying the broader public treatment of Tim Paine made him uncomfortable about what he perceives as an “unreasonable” pressure to be flawless.
Cummins used his first press conference as the 47th men’s Test skipper to praise the leadership of his predecessor, with whom he has been in regular contact. On Friday morning, Paine announced he would take an indefinite leave of absence from the game on mental health grounds following the text message scandal which signalled the end of his tenure and now likely his international career.
“We really feel for Tim and his family,” Cummins said. “He’s just a really loved, well-respected leader for our team. He’s been incredible for me, especially since being vice-captain he’s been someone who has looked after me [and] who I’ve learned a lot off.”
“That’s consistent with all the boys and the staff up here. We really feel for Tim and what he’s going through. We love him, we hope we see him back in the team soon and just wish him all the best.”
In the hours after Paine’s manager, James Henderson, tweeted that he was “extremely concerned” about the wellbeing of the 36-year-old and his wife, Cricket Australia (CA) confirmed the worst-kept secret of the week by appointing Cummins to oversee the team’s Ashes defence, which is now less than two weeks away.
He will be supported by Steve Smith, who was the paceman’s pick as deputy and who will take on what he described as an “elevated vice-captaincy role” to assist with the challenges associated with being Australia’s first fast-bowling captain since Ray Lindwall in a one-off Test in 1956.
But while Cummins was upbeat and quick to insist the camp was relaxed before the first Test against England, starting on 8 December at the Gabba, the 28-year-old also pushed back on what he thought was a general tendency to put captains on a pedestal.
“I’d say I’m not overly comfortable all the time about that,” he said. “I think that’s probably really hit home in the last few days seeing Tim. I think a lot of the pressure and the responsibility on being perfect is unreasonable. I think it’s too much to ask of anyone. You’ve got to have permission to grow.”
Somebody well-accustomed to such pressure is Smith, who returns to a leadership position for the first time since the batter was stripped of the captaincy after the ball-tampering scandal of 2018.
“There will be some negativity from some people about it. I understand that and I get that,” Smith said in the joint press conference. “But for me I know that I’ve grown a great deal over the last three or four years. I’m a more rounded individual, and in turn I think it’s turned me into a better leader.
“I’ve been in a position the last few years playing as a leader and now the opportunity obviously to be standing here next to Patrick as a formal leader or a titled leader, I’m truly honoured.”
Smith, who captained Australia for 34 Tests, will likely assume more responsibility than past vice-captains given CA’s unprecedented decision to appoint a fast bowler as skipper marks a major departure from tradition. Cummins anticipated he would be “leaning on him hugely” in terms of tactics, with CA also confirming he would take over in the event Cummins missed a match.
“It potentially could look differently to what you’ve seen partnerships work in the past,” Cummins said. “There will be times on the field where I’ll throw to Steve and you’ll see Steve move fielders around, maybe doing bowling changes, taking a bit more of an elevated vice-captaincy role … we’ll nut out exactly how that works, but it’s going to be a real collaborative approach.”
History at least suggests such a role is unlikely to affect Smith’s batting. His initial ascension to the vice-captaincy in 2014 coincided with his upward trajectory while his average of 70.36 as captain is bettered only by Don Bradman.
Cummins has been the captaincy favourite since Paine stepped down a week ago, and CA ratified the decision at a board meeting on Thursday night after both he and Smith were interviewed earlier in the week.
“Pat is an outstanding player and leader,” the CA chief executive, Nick Hockley, said. “He has earned enormous respect from his teammates and from all corners of the game for his attitude and achievements, both on and off the field.”
The backdrop to the news is one of distress for Paine, who appears to have worn the baggy green for the last time.
“Confirming that @tdpaine36 is stepping away from cricket for an indefinite mental health break,” Henderson posted on Twitter. “We are extremely concerned for his and Bonnie’s wellbeing and will be making no further comment at this time.”
Paine last week said he remained available for Ashes selection, indicating his desire to end his Test career on the “ultimate high” of an Australian series defence at home.
He had been called up and set to bat in Tasmania’s one-day match against Western Australia on Friday, giving him a chance to play five consecutive days of cricket after neck surgery in September. But Cricket Tasmania confirmed the veteran will step away from the game.
“Following discussions over the last 24 hours, Tim Paine has advised he will be taking a leave of absence from all forms of cricket for the foreseeable future,” Cricket Tasmania said in a statement.
CA said it was committed to supporting Paine and his family during “an incredibly difficult time”. “We respect and understand Tim’s decision to have a break at this time to focus on his and his family’s wellbeing,” Hockley said in a statement.
Speculation over Paine’s place in the Australian Test team has been rife since his resignation after revelations that he had been investigated for sending sexually explicit text messages to a female former Cricket Tasmania staffer four years ago.
While he was cleared by the 2018 investigation, he said last Friday he did not want the controversy to be a distraction during the Ashes. His omission means Alex Carey and Josh Inglis will likely vie for his spot behind the stumps.