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July 13, 2006
After skulking absymally in the shadow of the football World Cup, England demanded a new beginning for this Test match. "No excuses," was Steve Harmison's attitude earlier in the week, when asked once again about that thorny old issue of injuries, while Kevin Pietersen, England's instant veteran who, extraordinarily, still hasn't yet completed a full calendar year as a Test cricketer, was calling upon "the youngsters" to deliver a performance to remember.
At the age of 30 and with five years' international experience to his name already, Paul Collingwood probably doesn't much care to be bracketed among the rookies, for all the connotations of youth and longevity that it brings. But, as he is surely sick of being reminded, he is very much perceived as the fall guy in England's line-up, the man who makes way when all other things are equal and the team is back to full strength. He's the man with a point to prove every time he goes out to bat.
And thank goodness for that, we all should now be saying, after his second Test century - and first in five Tests at home - helped rip the initiative from Pakistan's grasp as surely as their horrific tally of five dropped catches. As England implied in their build-up to the game, the notion of a full-strength England team is fast degenerating into myth. What we see is what we get these days, even if it means putting up with Monty Panesar's clowning in the field or the notion of Jon Lewis as the next most viable seam-bowling option.
A bit of bloodymindedness is what's needed as England reluctantly embrace their new era. The selectors may be sending mixed messages galore, not least where Michael Vaughan's captaincy is concerned, but Collingwood embodies that essential ingredient, hunger, that has been so conspicuously absent from the performances of recent months.
A bit of fire in the belly. It was what Nasser Hussain, among others, used to bring to similarly ailing England teams, and it is an attribute that is not to be sniffed at. When England last played Pakistan, at Lahore in December, it is no coincidence that the two men who impressed the most in an otherwise dismal performance were the two batsmen, Collingwood and Ian Bell, who had emerged from the Ashes with their reputations on the line. While they were at the crease, adding 175 for the third wicket, there was still an outside chance of a face-saving draw. Once they were gone, the game followed with embarrassing haste.
"I'm feeling more secure than I have done in the past," Collingwood said afterwards with his now-habitual caginess. "That last Test match in Pakistan was my biggest breakthrough, but I still have to play for my place, because there are always people waiting to come back in. You're playing for your place all the time, but all I want to do is contribute to the England cricket team. I want them to win which means going out there, doing a job and scoring hundreds."
Bell, of course, is still waiting in the wings in this match, kept from centre stage once again by the man who has succeeded him at that tricky No. 3 position. If Collingwood represents the best of British brawlers, then Cook is an entity of an entirely different sort. Both men made their maiden hundreds in the same Test at Nagpur, and now each has added a second in the same match as well. But the similarities cease to exist thereafter. Confident and cocksure, and imbued with a sense of belonging that his elder partner has never been granted, Cook is England's best reason to be cheerful for the team's long-term future.
English batsmen are not given to maturing at the tender age of 21, but even when he's not quite at his most fluent, Cook seems utterly composed. "There are a lot of natural strokeplayers in our team," he said afterwards. "I try to be one but I'm not quite managing it at the moment!" He made light of three appalling misses, on 0, 45 and 81, but retained his contentration admirably in between whiles. "We pissed it at the end," he said cheekily of the rushed single that ended a nervy wait on 99, but after missing out on a debut century at Lord's, he was not about to give up on this second opportunity.
And so the season has come full circle. England are batting and going along well, against an Asian opposition looking bewildered by the conditions and bereft without the presence of several senior pros. This was how the summer began, against the Sri Lankans way back in May, and then as now, the ease of England's progress is just a little bit misleading. It won't matter too much to the overnight incumbents however. As attention returns to cricket after that total eclipse in June, a hint of pride is back in the side. They'll need to cultivate that feeling in the coming days and weeks, because one thing is for sure - Pakistan won't be this slapdash every time they take the field.
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