Collingwood revels in his revival
Series between England and South Africa have a history of shifting momentum, but rarely has there been a jolt as dramatic as the one taking place right now. England's batting collapse in the first innings was greeted with mockery, and it took Andrew Flintoff's epic assault on Jacques Kallis to dull the peels of laughter. Now Collingwood, in partnership first with Kevin Pietersen and then the plucky Tim Ambrose, has distilled that refusal to bow to the inevitable, and moved England inexorably into a position to strike back in the series.
There is still time for the mood to swing once more, and cheap wickets with the second new ball tomorrow morning will put South Africa back on course for their first series win in England since 1965. But from the early dismissal of Ashwell Prince to the late confidence with which Collingwood clouted Paul Harris for six to bring up his hundred, this was a day that belonged unquestionably to England.
But most particularly, it belonged to Collingwood, who entered the innings with a gruesome season tally of 96 first-class runs from 10 innings, but finished it with acclaim, gratitude and back-slapping. "Today was very special," he said. "Everything went my way, and it was certainly a day I'll never forget."
The character that Collingwood displayed was the very same character that came in for stick on the eve of the match, when Michael Vaughan justified his recall in terms of his effect on the dressing-room. But if his attitude is as talismanic as we have been led to believe, it's hard to see how England can possibly let this opportunity slip their grasp. Questions may remain about the batting after four wickets were shed in the first 30 overs of their second innings, but their most embattled member has answered all remaining questions about their commitment.
"It's been tough over the last few months, and I've felt under lots of pressure," said Collingwood. "Not so much from the outside, but from the knowledge you have to contribute, and you're really feeling as though you're letting the team down. I know I haven't scored the runs so far this year in Test cricket, but this was very satisfying."
Collingwood's performance began with his team in some peril, leading by 21 with six wickets remaining, but he arrived at the crease with the encouragement of his captain ringing in his ears. "Don't be reckless but be aggressive," he was told as he walked out to bat, advice that served to settle his mindset. "I quite enjoyed having that freedom from the skipper, to go out there and take the bowlers on," said Collingwood. "It's how I play my best cricket and so it was nice to go out there and try and score from ball one."
He opened his account with the third delivery of his innings - a short ball from Makhaya Ntini that whistled through midwicket, much to the chagrin of South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, who described himself as "very, very disappointed" with the day's events. "We wanted Colly feeling outside off stump and he got off the mark pulling," said Arthur. "That sums up our performance."
|From ball one I was going to be aggressive, whether it was a top-edged hook, whether I was in the nineties or we were six down, I wanted to go out there and give it a good go - Paul Collingwood on his career-saving innings|
Even so, Collingwood required more than just South African altruism to survive. He got into line and cut out the loose wafts outside off stump that had scuppered his performance in the first innings, but he wasn't afraid to trust his instincts as well - as he demonstrated with two bruising cut shots off Morne Morkel, who endured possibly the worst day of his international career to date. "Morne's talent outweighs what we got today," said Arthur, but nevertheless, his 15 overs were pummelled for 75 momentum-seizing runs.
As Collingwood's innings progressed, so his confidence returned, although the speed of his strokeplay - 61 balls for his fifty, 133 for his hundred - remained pretty constant. At first he was happy to slipstream Kevin Pietersen, whose masterful arrogance left South Africa groping for a counter-offensive. But when he holed out in sight of his hundred, Collingwood was joined once again by Ambrose, with whom - in his last significant Test contribution - he transformed the momentum of the Wellington Test against New Zealand back in March.
"I wasn't going to change my ways," said Collingwood. "From ball one I was going to be aggressive, whether it was a top-edged hook, whether I was in the nineties or we were six down, I wanted to go out there and give it a good go. I wanted to forget about the situation and watch the ball, and try to hit it and score the runs."
Collingwood's only real flicker of doubt came when he, like Pietersen, reached 94. "Brisbane flashed through my mind because I knew I was going to go down the wicket to him [Harris]," said Collingwood, recalling the moment he was stumped for 96 in the opening Test of the last Ashes series.
"That little voice says one more blow, but I thought I'd just believe in myself, and thankfully it came out the middle," he said. "But all through my career, I've got out that way - against Shoaib Akhtar [at Lahore] on 96, trying to hook him, and with Shane Warne. But it's come off a couple of times, especially for my 200 at Adelaide. It's the satisfaction of three figures - you've got to risk it for a biscuit."
Risk, however, was shelved as soon as the landmark had been reached - including the risk of over-celebration. Collingwood's acknowledgement of his century was muted in the extreme; a modest bat-wave to the dressing-room and a half-cock nod towards the riotous Hollies Stand.
"I wanted to keep the same rhythm and I didn't want a celebration to upset that," he said. "Sometimes you see people get out after a hundred, because they think they've made it and done their job. Really I wanted to stay focussed as much as I could, instead of running round like a loony tune."
That sort of reaction can wait. For now, Collingwood is firmly ensconced - unbeaten on 101 and preparing for a fourth day that could give England's beleaguered cricketers a chance for glory that had all but passed them by. "Scoreboard pressure is a massive thing," he said. "If we can get up towards 280 or 300, it is always difficult in the fourth innings. If they've got demons in their minds from series before, it doesn't matter. We've just got to do our job."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo