Australia have some Pat Cummins questions going into the World Cup

Pat Cummins in the field Darrian Traynor / © Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Pat Cummins was again asked to reflect on the Ashes series in England.

"Batters dominated, higher strike rates, more white-ball problems you had to try and solve - felt more like a one-dayer than Test matches at different times," he said. "Which was great. Really enjoyed it."

Experience in dealing with those "white-ball problems" as England's Bazball batting line-up hurtled along at 4.74 per over might become relevant in the next month, although the field Cummins had for the first ball at Edgbaston, with three boundary fielders, won't be allowed against India in Chennai on October 8.

Not since Kim Hughes captained Australia in the 1979 World Cup, having not led in ODIs before then, have Australia gone into the tournament with a captain as inexperienced in the format as Cummins. After leading in two of the three matches against India this month, he is on a grand total of four outings as ODI captain, alongside four Marsh Cup games for New South Wales in the 2020-21 season.

Still, his appointment was not surprising, although it came at a curious juncture, five days before Australia started their defence of the T20 World Cup title last year. The selectors wanted to avoid talk about the role becoming a distraction in the wake of Aaron Finch's retirement, at a time when David Warner's leadership ban was also muddying the waters.

"I think there has been a lot of speculation and conjecture around the position," national selector George Bailey said at the time. "We are at the doorstep of a World Cup. I think it's easier to just announce it and move on from that."

Cummins' first two games in charge came against England in a forgettable series immediately after the T20 World Cup. He sat out the middle contest, in Sydney, where Josh Hazlewood captained. Cummins then missed the series in India in late March due to the death of his mother, and he sat out the recent matches in South Africa with a wrist injury sustained in the Ashes.

While some of his absences from the role would not have been planned, there was a certain broad acceptance when he was named captain that he wouldn't always be there - to the point where the significance of him leading much before the World Cup was downplayed. "In our one-day team, we do feel like we've got some strong leaders, some really experienced members of the team, and some developing leaders," Bailey said. "So regardless of Pat being there, I think we are moving away from this concept of a captain taking over and their leadership being all-encompassing."

But while not a shock, when Cummins was appointed captain of the ODI side, it was arguably a less natural fit than his Test role.

On the one hand there are the usual questions about how well a fast bowler can perform in the leadership role in a format that, if not quite as intricate as T20 or as time-consuming as Tests, involves plenty of moving parts. As in other formats, it's rare to find a frontline bowler doing the job. Among the few recent examples at the top level are Mashrafe Mortaza, who led Bangladesh in 2019, and Jason Holder, who did so for West Indies in 2015 and 2019.

Cummins has managed impressively in the Test role since he took it on ahead of the 2021-22 Ashes, leading Australia to the World Test Championship title, and has yet to lose a match at home. But there were a few cracks appearing by the end of the intense and draining Ashes, particularly when England were rattling along at ODI tempo at Old Trafford.

However, the way he coped with the hasty promotion to the Test role bodes well, because he had very little captaincy experience at all when that job came. In fact, he had been handed the New South Wales one-day job largely to ensure he had a bit of captaincy under his belt.

In this World Cup he will be well supported by senior players in the squad, not least Steven Smith and his stand-in, Mitchell Marsh. "I think that's one of Pat's strengths - he leans on other people in the squad and other leaders in our team. He does an incredible job," Marsh said before heading to South Africa.

"There's no doubt with his role as a bowler, playing every game in every format is near-on impossible, so for him to have guys that he trusts, he leans on… we've got a great friendship first and foremost, and a great relationship professionally, so I always know I can lean on him, and vice-versa."

However, there is a balance to strike. Too many voices could well do more harm than good. A few times during the Ashes, the question was asked - admittedly more often from the English side of the fence - about who was really captaining Australia in the field.

Team selection is an aspect that is potentially affected by Cummins being captain. There will be times during the World Cup when Australia are likely to field just two frontline quicks - a lot of the pre-tournament planning and tactics have been based on an allrounder-heavy model - while some venues are likely to call for two frontline spinners.

It's hard to see Mitchell Starc being left out of the side if he is fit, and as captain, Cummins needs to be in. But if you had to pick just two white-ball quicks, would one of them be Cummins? While his numbers are very good in ODIs, they don't leap off the page like his Test returns do. Meanwhile, Hazlewood is currently the No. 1-ranked one-day bowler in the world, but he could become the fall guy.

Through the impact of missing tours during Covid, and more recently rotation with a focus on Test cricket, the three had not actually played an ODI together since 2020 until the final match against India in Rajkot.

Hazlewood, who missed the 2019 World Cup injured, may have been a touch optimistic when he recently said that he thought Australia would return to the big three quicks in India, although the problems that emerged for Australia in the latter part of the South Africa tour and in India may change things. Also, if Glenn Maxwell is fit and able to take the load of second spinner alongside Adam Zampa, it could boost the prospect of Hazlewood, Cummins and Starc playing together more often. Either way, it's unusual for a captain to even be in the mix when such team-balance issues are discussed.

But regardless of how it plays out over the next few weeks, there is a strong chance this World Cup will mark the end of Cummins' ODI captaincy. His appointment was made with only this tournament in mind and the signs are the white-ball teams will be put under one captain, most likely Marsh, after this event.

However, having held aloft the World Test Championship and retained (if not won) the Ashes, should Cummins be lifting the ODI World Cup trophy in Ahmedabad on November 19, it would make for one of the more successful years by an Australian captain.