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March 19, 2008
Success breeds success in international sport. The England camp is a much more relaxed place now that the team is back to winning ways. The players have their families in tow and have taken over a marina on the northern side of Napier, where the third and final Test gets underway on Saturday. According to Paul Collingwood, the confidence gained from their 126-run victory in Wellington on Monday has reinstalled them as series favourites. "If we put in the performance we can do," said Collingwood, "we should win."
England's Wellington win was not without its flaws. Their catching was appalling and the top six batsmen once again made starts without threatening to build a big innings. But, having endured nine barren months since their last Test victory against West Indies in Chester-le-Street, Collingwood was content to be thankful for small mercies. "We still have areas to improve on, but we'd have taken that performance at the start," he said. "We have a hell of a lot of positives to take into the next game.
"It was a massive relief, and great to win," said Collingwood, who joked that there'd been a few cobwebs gathering on the team's victory song-sheet. "That's what we play the game for. We'd gone a long time without a Test win so that starts preying on your mind, but I'm used to that over the years with Durham. It's just one of those things. You've got to be confident in your ability to put in the big performances. You have to back yourself to go out there and do that, and there were some top performances last week."
Most of those performances, however, came at the bottom end of the team sheet. Tim Ambrose's debut century was the stand-out batting performance, while the three seamers - James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom - all excelled in helpful conditions. Collingwood was the pick of England's specialist batsmen with a brace of half-centuries, but he knows full well that, on what is expected to be a flat and friendly track, the watching public will be expecting some centuries this week.
Collingwood, however, warned that the more an issue was made of England's lack of hundreds, the harder it would be to end the drought. "You can put too much pressure on yourself," he explained. "You play your best cricket when you're relaxed and reacting to the ball, and enjoying yourself with a smile on your face. You play your worst when you think 'I must do this, I can't do that.' That's when you start doing things wrong. If you say 'I mustn't drop short because he'll smash it,' that's what you end up doing. That's how life works, on a cricket pitch anyway."
Of the top six, only Alastair Cook has managed three figures this winter, and that innings came in a dead rubber at Galle before Christmas. Collingwood himself hasn't made a Test hundred since June, while Kevin Pietersen - normally so dominant - has gone 10 consecutive innings without so much as a fifty. "We're just one big ton away from opening the floodgates again," said Collingwood. "It's up to one of us to go out there and do that."
Apart from the reintroduction of Andrew Strauss at the expense of Ravi Bopara (and the odd rejig in the batting order), England's top six has been unchanged since the Headingley Test last May, a situation that contrasts starkly with the treatment meted out to Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard after their failures in the first Test. But Collingwood denied that the players were stuck in the comfort zone.
|Of the top six, only Alastair Cook has managed three figures this winter. Collingwood hasn't made a Test hundred since June, while Kevin Pietersen has gone 10 consecutive innings without a fifty|
"With the records they have, they've proved they can play against different bowlers and in different conditions," said Collingwood. "We've come up against some good bowling, certainly in the India series [in July and August] when they were swinging it both ways, and in Sri Lanka, which is a difficult place to score hundreds. I wouldn't put it down to desire or concentration or anything like that. We believe we are better players than that."
Owais Shah is England's reserve batsman in this series, but he was overlooked for Bopara in Sri Lanka, and seems to have slipped further down the pecking order without actually doing anything right or wrong. "Nobody's position is safe, but that's always been the case," said Collingwood. "There's always going to be people waiting in the wings, and you need to do your job in the England side or your position is in doubt. That's healthy for the England cricket team. As long as we win Test matches, hopefully we'll stick together as a batting unit and keep developing in different conditions."
Looking ahead to the Napier Test, Collingwood hinted that England's approach with the bat would be more purposeful, but stopped short of promising a run-fest. "We'll score as quickly as we feel we can without taking a risk, that's generally what we've tried to do," he said. "The first goal is to get 400 on the board to put pressure on the opposition. How quickly we score them goes down to how well they bowl at us. We're not going to be reckless and go out and say we'll score at four and a half an over. The pitch dictates that.
"I wouldn't say there's more pressure than usual," he said. "It wasn't going to be a canter coming over here. They bat right down to Nos. 7 and 8 and they've got a lot of skill in the bowling, so they are a tough side to beat. We were expected to come over here and steamroller them, but that wasn't the kind of thoughts in our minds. We knew we'd have to play well and play tough cricket, and we got well beaten in the first game."
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?
Alastair Cook did not bat like a leading man but the crowd applauded him for simply not failing
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