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December 1, 2006
After his century at Brisbane in last week's first Test, Justin Langer told the assembled scribes how grateful he was to have been "under the pump" throughout his Test career. "I've had a lot of distractions and people questioning my ability," he said, "but it's meant that I've had to eliminate all those distractions and become very mentally strong."
A variation on the same theme could apply to Paul Collingwood. England's perpetual understudy has risen above the doubters to become the linchpin of their batting, no less, and yet still it seems he doesn't quite fit. Today's nuggetty knock of 98 not out was typical of the man. At times, in partnership with Ian Bell, he became so immersed in the business of survival that his vigil seemed almost counterproductive. And yet he endured, in the manner that few of his team-mates have come close to matching. And that, ultimately, was all that counted.
"Mentally, I think he's a gutsy cricketer, and I think that's the difference between him and others who have gone out there in the past," said Bell, who added an invaluable 60 to England's cause. "He gives it everything, and he's not frightened of tough situations. He's shown already on this tour that when it's tough he'll get in there and fight for England."
That's because Collingwood, like Ashley Giles, has been fighting public perception much longer than he's been fighting the Australians. He is the fall-guy in England's batting line-up, the man who makes way when everyone is fit and available, and that inherent insecurity is what keeps him honest in even the toughest of situations. "I'm feeling more secure than I have done in the past," he said at Lord's last summer, and that was after reeling off the small matter of 186 against Pakistan.
Collingwood is now in his sixth year as an international cricketer, and yet at no stage has he been allowed access to the comfort zone. His Test debut, in Sri Lanka in 2003-04, came as a replacement for Nasser Hussain. His recall at The Oval last summer, after 24 Tests on the sidelines, was as a poor man's Simon Jones. His retention in Pakistan came about through a combination of Michael Vaughan's knee injury and Andrew Strauss's paternity leave. And his omission for Brisbane would have been a done deal had Marcus Trescothick not flown home early.
But in the midst of his uncertainty, he has finally started to forge a tidy Test career. This is his 13th consecutive Test since his breakthrough game at Lahore, exactly 12 months ago. On that occasion he scored 96 and 80 in a desperately lost cause, and responded to the realisation that he had blown a golden opportunity by creaming a glorious unbeaten 134 against India at Nagpur, in his next Test. He's still two runs from achieving a similar feat at Adelaide, but the mental fortitude of the man is already on full display.
Australia still think he's weak though, which is something of a paradox. He was suckered by Warne's mind games at Brisbane, and Stuart Clark today admitted that Australia would be climbing straight into his head when play resumes tomorrow morning. "Batters get a bit tense in the nineties," he warned with a glint in his eye. "Hopefully we'll go there in the morning and keep him out there for a couple of overs and get him out."
All of a sudden though, Collingwood epitomises England's position in this series. He's the man with his back to the wall; the man who - along with Bell in 2005 - didn't quite fit in in the Trafalgar Square celebrations and the mass awarding of MBEs. When Andrew Flintoff instigated a team meeting on the eve of the game, and called for his players to show a bit of "fight", you can bet it was Collingwood's inspiration that he was seeking to draw on.
In England last summer, it was all too easy - a fit and focussed squad with a sprinkling of destiny guiding their steps. This time it's different. It's a bar brawl, not a breeze. That should suit Collingwood down to the ground. He's not a man who is used to getting things easily.
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