England January 9, 2010

Hail Colly, you brave pickle-jar lid

Defiant English rock

Paul Collingwood rues not having been born in the days of timeless Tests © Getty Images

It is said that if you open any book by Cardus to any page, you will find what it is that you are looking for. By whom is it said? Well, by me, just now. Such is the genius of the great man’s writing, you may not even known what it is you are looking for until you find it. This morning, for example, I picked up my battered copy of The Summer Game, allowed the pages to fall open and came across the following:

“No lover of the game has a ghost of a reason for protesting against true and natural obstinacy at cricket.”

Quite right, Neville, straight out of the middle. As everyone knows, not losing is the essence of cricket. And the key to not losing is sheer, unvarnished, pig-headedness. Duncan Fletcher talks a lot about coming to the party. But he’s only telling us half the story. Cricket isn’t about coming to the party, it’s about refusing to leave the party, even when the other guests have gone home, there is nothing left to drink and the police are hammering on the door.

Ah, you might say, but what about Pakistan? Surely, they lost in Sydney precisely because they were trying not to lose. Not true, say I. Pakistan lost because they were trying to be too clever. Mohammad Yousuf has been incorrectly portrayed as a cautious skipper. That is a naïve view. His innovative in-out field (two men in, nine men out) was designed to puzzle Hussey and Siddle, which it did, to such an extent that they could only stagger the occasional bewildered run or 90.

But it was too clever. Pakistan were trying to fashion a delicate creation, a victory soufflé, when what they needed was something altogether stodgier and Durham-like. What they needed was a dose of Collingwood. Now, admittedly, the ginger-haired one is not a guru of grind - like, for example, the great Chris Tavaré . Tavaré’s Zen-like style has never been surpassed. He was rather like a knitter who only knows how to do scarves and so goes on row after row, knit one, pearl one, block one. Unfortunately, there is only so much scarf, or indeed Tavaré that you need.

But if Tavaré was the blocker’s blocker, Collingwood is a natural stonewaller, a man who only starts playing when the rest of the team have checked out of their hotel. Whilst Australians are at their best when sniffing victory, the English cricketer tends to rise to the occasion only when victory is completely out of the question. I was not privileged enough to see Ken Barrington play but my father speaks of him as a steadfast occupier of the crease. He was a rock, a cliff face; immovable, impassable.

By contrast, Colly is a lid on a jar of pickles. Not as awe-inspiring as rock face, I’ll grant you, but just as capable of defeating even the boldest opponent. No matter how hard you wrench, or pull or hit it with the blunt end of a screwdriver, the Collylid cannot be popped. You grunt and groan and roar with exasperation until in the end, your arms are tired, your hands are red raw and you drop the jar on the sideboard absent-mindedly, whereupon the lid pops off with a sigh. But it’s too late. You don’t care about pickles any more. In fact, you can’t bear the sight of them, and so you stomp off muttering something about lid-tampering.

I’ve never played cricket with Paul Collingwood, not even in my dreams, so I don’t know what it is like to see him plop your very best deliveries back into the dust like fizzled out fireworks. I imagine it isn’t much fun. I expect that when he closes his eyes, Dale Steyn can even now see that Colly crouch, that tap-tapping of the bat and that bow-legged forward poke from a shuffleboard player’s back lift. Block, tap, block, leave, block, tap. Repeat 276 times. Wrestling crocodiles was nothing compared to attempting to dislodge the obstinate Geordie.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England