The 'tenacious little redhead' does it again
In Johannesburg in December 1995, when Jack Russell and Michael Atherton came together in a final-day stand that not only saved the second Test against South Africa, but also set a benchmark for English defiance, a single painful memory provided the mantra that carried them to the close.
"Remember Bridgetown" was Russell's eternal cry, as he fidgeted through his overs, and implored himself and his partner not to give away the game. The ghost he sought to lay was the fourth Test in the Caribbean five years earlier, when his five-hour 55 had hauled England to the brink of salvation against West Indies, only for a Curtly Ambrose shooter to breach his defences in the final hour of the match, and set them up for a traumatic 2-1 defeat.
Today Paul Collingwood had a similar skeleton rattling in his closet - and his was even fresher in the memory. Adelaide in December 2006 was his touchstone, a game - in his own words - that had "ripped the guts" out of him in defeat, when not even a first-innings double-century and a lifeboat-manning 22 not out second-time around could rescue England from a defeat that traumatised their campaign.
Defeat today might not have been as painful for England as a collective, given how little of the match they had actually commanded, but for Collingwood personally it would have been a low without compare. At the close of the fourth day he had blinked with slight bemusement when a journalist asked him how "soul-destroying" their three days in the field had been, the implication being that it takes more than a few hours of hard yakka to crush his fighting spirit. To have come so close to rescuing this Test, however, only to give it away - as he feared he had done with what turned out to be 69 deliveries of the match remaining - might just have prompted a more crushed response to the same question.
Collingwood was magnificent in his defiance today. The Australians still find it hard to rate him in public - it doubtless suits their purposes to keep his qualities as downplayed as they are in the estimation of a fickle English public and media, who forever seem to be ushering his career towards the exit, and Ricky Ponting's praise for his performance had to be prised with a crowbar. Privately, however, they cannot help but admire the mongrel he brings to England's game. He's the closest thing to a little Aussie battler that England can produce from their dressing-room.
"He played very well, and did exactly what was required for the team," said Ponting. "He gave himself every opportunity to do the best job that he could. It shows a lot of courage to face the majority of the bowling through the course of the afternoon. He did a great job, and deserves a pat on the back."
For 245 deliveries, spread over five-and-three-quarter hours, Collingwood prodded and poked with that pugnacious crease-bound style, dispensing with frivolity and digging his team out of yet another hole. There's no way he will ever receive the credit he deserves for fronting up for England at the moments they most need his grit, and it was strangely appropriate that even in his Athertonian hour of glory, he still wasn't the story of England's day, given how far the final pair of James Anderson and Monty Panesar were left to haul their side.
But in his last 12 Tests, dating back to his career-saving century at Edgbaston last summer, when his form was hanging by a thread and one mistake was sure to be curtains, he has scored 989 runs at 61.81, with four centuries and a 96. There's nothing more he can do to be a hero to his team.
"He just brought his character into the performance today," said a grateful England captain, Andrew Strauss. "He is a tenacious little redhead, that is what he is, and that's how he plays. He never takes a backward step, and he fights. He keeps fighting and that's kind of how he got his path into the Test team, and it's the only way he knows. In circumstances like that you always expect him to do something along those lines, and I suppose it just underlines his value to the side really."
Collingwood's Test average is now a doughty 44.84, and Lord's will be his 50th Test. It is a milestone he deserves to relish, because he has somehow been regarded as a stop-gap, right from the moment he was recalled to play in his first home Test at The Oval in 2005, as a replacement for a man who watched longingly from the stands throughout this game, Simon Jones.
The Aussies reacted with bemusement and scorn when he was rewarded for his efforts in that outing (scores of 7 and 10) with an MBE, and it was a fact that Shane Warne in particular took great glee in reminding him of throughout that Ashes whitewash. He personally has never yet beaten the Australians in any of his seven Tests against them, and today came perilously close to becoming his sixth setback in a row. But all such slights came coursing through his veins today, as he took it upon himself to teach his England team-mates exactly what passion is required to go toe-to-toe with a nation that never takes a backward step.
Strauss and his batting colleagues, Kevin Pietersen among them, could only watch and admire from the dressing-room, as Collingwood set the standard for a very impressive rearguard. Graeme Swann took his blows manfully and showed that his feat of not being dismissed in Tests since December was no fluke, while James Anderson, flaky with the ball and tremulous in front of the cameras, showed yet again that he has a character beneath his diffident veneer, as he carried his run of duckless Test innings to 50 not out - a world record he protects with pride.
And then there was Monty Panesar, quite possibly the most mocked tailender in the country. Even he was touched by Collingwood's fighting qualities - blocking the straight ones, leaving the wide ones, and refusing to yield for an instant - as he credited the influence of his "cricket buddy" on his performance. "We've been working on a few things, and while I was out there I was just trying to get my thoughts in that way, and we kept communicating which helped us to be calm in that situation."
Collingwood deserves this day more than any of the players in the England team, and he is also the likeliest to use the experience the most wisely. When Australia escaped with a draw at Old Trafford in 2005, it was suggested they celebrated the moment too hard, and gave England confidence that they still had their measure. Collingwood has never yet felt comfortable enough in his career to allow such thoughts to hold sway. England ought to be a grounded unit, going into a vital Lord's Test on Thursday.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo