ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

The ultimate overachiever

Has anyone surpassed expectations as much as Paul Collingwood has?

Rob Steen

January 12, 2011

Comments: 30 | Text size: A | A

Paul Collingwood sharpens his hand-eye co-ordination during England's practice session, Bristol, July 9 2010
Colly: none more likeable © Getty Images

We all have our favourites and betes noir, players and teams who defy and exceed expectation and those who infuriate, disappoint, dismay and even anger, who let themselves down and worse, much worse, let us down.

We look at their careers, form and achievements and judge them almost exclusively, either flatteringly or cruelly, according to the narrow dimensions of statistics. This is especially true in Tests, where shortcomings are more easily exposed, convictions harder-held and verdicts more damning. The mantra is timeless: Yuvraj Singh / Graeme Hick / Carl Hooper is / was an inexcusable underachiever; Paul Harris / Ashley Giles / Mudassar Nazar is / was an inexplicable overachiever. The first is an insult that crassly ignores the good, the second the most grudging of backhanded compliments.

The basis for such emotional and often unreasonable responses to the vagaries of fate's fickle finger is potential. Perceived potential, that is. In terms of espying promise, there are two principal questions we ask of any aspiring world-beater: do they have 1) a satisfactory quota of the necessary skills and 2) the mindset required to improve and compete? The first answer is usually as plain as day, the second normally as clear as mud. As a consequence, assessing who is likely to succeed is akin to tackling a golf course festooned with vast bunkers and miniscule fairways.

To some it boils down to the difference between talent and skill. In the Times last week, Mike Atherton astutely quoted the late Walter Winterbottom, England's first national football manager (and my boyhood neighbour). Whereas talent is the capacity to do the things that most professionals should be capable of, he reasoned, skill is the ability to do them when "someone is trying to boot you up the a***".

But how do we define skill? Harry W Johnson came up with a mathematical definition - "skill = speed x accuracy x form x adaptability" (he may have been referring to pistol shooting, but the broad point remains universal). Tony O'Reilly, who found fame as a rugby union winger and fortune as chairman of Heinz, went a stage further. "Technical excellence, however great," he claimed, "is all but useless, unless fired by the dynamism of the human spirit." Wherein lies the rub. An equation for success might therefore be talent + skill + application x heart + soul.

Misjudgements, therefore, are all too easy to make. For instance, everything about Philippe Henri Edmonds, Cambridge graduate, artful slow left-armer and accomplished maverick, screamed world-beater: the easeful, supple action, the command and variety of flight, the expansiveness of turn, the accuracy and control, and, above all, the sheer brain power. He certainly began with a bang, twirling his way to a five-for on debut, against Australia at Headingley in 1975, emboldening those of us who witnessed and relished his formative years with Middlesex and were convinced he would not only fill Derek Underwood's seven-league boots but become the first English spinner to amass 300 Test wickets (never mind all the runs he might thump).

Instead, while there were spasms of fulfillment - against Pakistan in 1977 and 1978, in India in 1984-85, and in the Ashes series of 1985 and 1986-87 - his impact on the international stage was fitful and, ultimately, disappointing - he won far fewer caps than his abilities portended, and didn't even get halfway to 300 scalps. Inevitably, there were contributory factors: he missed one tour after ricking his back getting out of the car, his wife Frances penned two splendid but decidedly non-reverential tour diaries, and even Mike Brearley found his intellect and temperament too problematic, even threatening.

The bottom line, nonetheless, was that our expectations were grossly inflated. Being easily bored and dissatisfied, Edmonds probably achieved as much on the field as he was ever likely to. Restless souls are never satisfied with excelling in one discipline, and are thus rarely able to apply themselves in the single-minded manner required of the sporting achiever. Here was a chap wont to read the Financial Times in the dressing room and spend lunchtimes on the blower to his stockbroker. Indeed, notwithstanding recent allegations about dodgy dealings in Zimbabwe, he has been much more successful in the business world.

When I asked him to nominate an arch-underachiever, one fellow scribe touted Lawrence Rowe. Having embarked on his international career with a double-hundred and a single one, he attracted greater expectations than most, but the Jamaican at least had a decent alibi, namely the deteriorating vision that eventually persuaded him to take the rebel rand.

Some have found it immeasurably harder to forgive other purported underachievers, such as Vinod Kambli. A schoolboy prodigy who once shared a record stand of 664 with Sachin Tendulkar, he set off with two 200s and two further centuries in his first seven Tests, yet played his last five-dayer at 23. In addition to blaming indiscipline and overt flamboyance, there was also - as Rahul Bhattacharya tellingly cited - an obsession with the width of his bat handles, which in turn suggested a brittle mind as well as an overbearing ego. It is these same flaws that may yet see some condemn Kevin Pietersen for underachievement.

IDENTIFYING OVERACHIEVERS IS NO LESS SUBJECTIVE, but these creatures, of course, are far more worthy of note and celebration. Who, at first or even third glance, would have suspected that Chris Martin, with his un-menacing approach and almost dainty leap before delivery, let alone his lack of pace, would amass nigh-on 200 Test wickets, spend more than a decade as New Zealand's lone consistent seamer, and still be a regular at 36? Or that Paul Harris, the anti-Edmonds, the spinner who imparts turn by way of variation, would have spent half a decade as South Africa's premier slow bowler? Or, going back half a century, that Ken Mackay, master of the slow grind and the miserly dibbly dobblies, would succeed Keith Miller as Australia's premier allrounder and be an integral cog in the game's premier Test unit for nearly eight years?

To quote the late Walter Winterbottom, England's first national football manager, whereas talent is the capacity to do the things that most professionals should be capable of, he reasoned, skill is the ability to do them when "someone is trying to boot you up the a***"

But has anyone surpassed expectations to the same degree as the discerning redhead's redhead, the anti-KP, Paul Collingwood? Not from where I'm sitting. Here is a bloke who, having fully earned his spurs in the abbreviated game, was uniformly disparaged and dismissed as a Test prospect. Eight years and 67 caps after that undemanded debut in Galle, with 4000-plus runs, 10 tons, England's first double-hundred in Australia for 70 years and an average of 40 shortly to be enshrined in Wisden, you'd be horribly hard-pressed to find a journalist - or even a coach - who can now sit back and blithely tell you he saw any of that little lot coming.

In many ways Mackay, fondly known by the strictly ironic nickname of Slasher, is the player "Colly" most readily recalls. The technique has always looked awkward at best, inadequate at worst (with typical and almost intoxicating candour, Collingwood has all but admitted as much himself). The bowling is clever but primarily defensive, the demeanour unprepossessing, the apogee of humility. Only in cordon and covers, where he richly deserves to be commemorated as the most dedicated, agile and prehensile outfielder his country has ever produced, has he flourished the mantle of greatness.

How, though, could you not warm to him, not rejoice in the unexpected heights or lament his decline? Just once has he offended sensibilities, failing, as captain, to recall Grant Elliott after the felled Kiwi was run out during an ODI. Beyond that, there can have been few more sheerly likeable, even loveable, sportsmen. Becoming the first Pom to hoist a global trophy could not have happened to a more deserving candidate.

England's finest-ever performer in the limited-overs arena (fuelling more significant victories than Botham and Flintoff is possibly his foremost feat), his all-round deftness and feistiness have been underpinned by an aggression and enterprise he seldom permits himself over the longer haul, emphasising the selflessness as well as the adaptability. Yet he has stood tallest and staunchest with back pinned to wall and boot up a***. Those Test-saving stints in the sentry box in Cardiff, Centurion and Newlands are the stuff to which statistics can never do justice, the stuff of which quiet but lasting heroes are made.

Has a cricketer ever done more to turn base metal into gold? Not that these eyes have seen. Steve Waugh, that archest of competitors, advised Andy Flower that Collingwood was "the kind of player you could build, or rebuild, a side around". To Bob Willis, no liberal bestower of praise, he is the symbol of "the new England". The embodiment of the spirit and work ethic, of the catching and the chasing and the diving, of the they-shall-not-passing and never-say-dying that personify the collective effort: that is his legacy.

It has been painful, squirmful, watching Collingwood struggle in recent months; in many ways, his decision to retire from Tests came as a blessed relief. Now he can devote those still-considerable energies to doing what he does best. Inspiring England's first World Cup triumph is beyond neither credulity nor reach.

The words of Van Morrison resonate long and loud:

I shall search my very soul
For the lion...
Inside of me…
Listen to the lion
Inside of me

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

RSS Feeds: Rob Steen


Comments: 30 
. Your ESPN name '' will be used to display your comments. Please click here to edit this.
Comments have now been closed for this article

Posted by Elanchezhian on (January 14, 2011, 6:42 GMT)

First of all once ability is determined by what they have achieved. Not, what the selectors or the critics thought they would achieve. So, there is no meaning in saying under achiever or over achiever. When some one achieves something, we should just agree to the fact that they are capable instead of marking them over achiever, which seems funny to me. Kambli failed due to his in-capability of keeping his emotions and character in check, which is also an ingredient for success. So, in other words he is NOT Capable Full Stop. Anyway writers are there to write something like this for a living and sprinkled some facts here and there. So no one to blame here.

Posted by John on (January 14, 2011, 1:50 GMT)

I have to say, I don't agree with the concept of being an over-achiever. It's impossible to play better than you are capable of playing. What players who are called over-achievers have done is to focus on getting the most out of their ability. Don't forget, Colly originally was regarded as a 'closer' in one-day cricket- someone who could come in and hit a brisk 20 or 30 at the death. He realized that wasn't going to get him a test place, so he focussed on selling his wicket dearly, with great success. He went from being a hitter to Brigadier Block; as the latter he didn't look to have much talent, but he is still a useful T20 and ODI player, where he bats much more freely. Call him a player who has made the best use of his talent. The opposite, of course, is perfectly possible; we've all seen players who looked to have all the talent in the world but couldn't use it to the full, because they didn't have the mental strength.

Posted by Dummy4 on (January 13, 2011, 23:26 GMT)

as far as im concerned Collingwood is england, he is this ashes win, and he is the world t20 winning team, he epitomises what cricket should be (barring the NZ incident, which was a result of far too much pressure on a man for whom even getting to a standard good enough to play for england required vast mental effort and strength) and i would like to cast everyones minds back to the triangular series with aus and NZ after the 06-7 disaster, where collingwood pretty much won it single handedly

Posted by Karthik on (January 13, 2011, 22:53 GMT)

@Paul Osborne: I cringe when my fellow countrymen attempt to include SRT into threads without any relevance. However, upon reviewing all of the comments posted thus far (26 of them), I didn't find many that were out of line.

Back to the article itself - yes Colly probably overachieved but like Chanderpaul, Kumble, Shastri, Steve Waugh and a few others, had loads of grit. In fact the Steve vs. Mark Waugh analysis would reveal as much.

Posted by Andrew on (January 13, 2011, 20:04 GMT)

I suspect most cricketers would roll their eyes at this article. Views can be deceiving. If you watched Steve Waugh bat for 20 mins in 1985, and then watched him bat for 20 mins in 1995, there's a fair chance you'd convince yourself that the 1985 version was more "naturally talented", yet of course its the same guy. If we'd only ever seen the 1995 model we might have been quick to judge Waugh as not hugely gifted, which would have obviously been wrong. Turning back to Collie I think this article is bordering on an insult - he also crunched his game down to succeed, and his all round skills, most notably his dynamite fielding, suggest to me that this guy is very naturally talented. On the flipside people are quick to label Brendan McCullum "talented" but i'd suggest he's no more talented than a lot of guys going around, he just plays in a very free and easy way, as indicated by his mediocre statistics.

Posted by Arvind on (January 13, 2011, 18:50 GMT)

A well deserved tribute for Collingwood. One interesting point that came to mind from this article are the two categories of overachievers: players who had talent but had to find perceptions over their entire career and players who went over and above what their talent level was.

There is an overlap for sure but it seems to me that Collingwood belonged to latter while some players like Kumple belonged to the former.

Two names that spring to mind that overachieved well above and beyond their talent is Shivnaraine Chanderpaul and Robin Singh. Both are left handers who I initially thought had no business being in an international team seeing their ungainly techniques, but they still managed to succeed.

One other thing- most such overachievers also tend to be fabulous fielders which helps justify their position in the side (Jonty Rhodes for example)

Posted by D on (January 13, 2011, 18:23 GMT)

Agree with one of the comments here: Anil Kumble is the ultimate overachiever. No one, I think not even his mother, thought he would take 600+ wickets and win so many test matches for India. And till the end he was not spinning the ball much.

Posted by joel on (January 13, 2011, 15:58 GMT)

I presume all those who have made derogatory comments. have never considered the consequences of an Ashes defeat and a loss in SA, probable 3-1, that would've occured without Collingwood. His 74 was the most selfless, grittiest and greatest innings I have seen in modern times, having seen most. The ability to fight for your team and country without thought for personal gain, as the way he batted made a hundred impossible, is unmatched in the current era. Most batsmen would've looked for quick runs, enjoying themselves in a losing cause, luckily for England Collingwood is neither like most players, nor like most people. His innings against SA showed a desire to play for England that I have not seen matched. Every success England have in the future can be linked back to Collingwood and the example he has set through his professionalism and hard work. In a team of underachievers, like Bell, Flintoff and Pietersen, Collingwood is both an overachiever and catalyst for future England success

Posted by django on (January 13, 2011, 13:32 GMT)

What I find strange is that I remember when he started playing for the English one day squad. He was a 'bits and pieces' player. Bowled pies and would score a few runs. He turned himself into a genuine test batsman, brilliant fielder and..........pie chucker. Aussies like me always liked Colly cause he is a self made man got everything out of himself.

Posted by Tushar on (January 13, 2011, 13:07 GMT)

Couple of names come to mind as parallels in the era just gone by. Gary Kirsten and Nathan Astle. I think that very few players have achieved as much within their limitations as these two did. Kirsten perhaps had fractionally better balance and Astle had better eye but overall these were two extremely limited players who grafted and improvised and manufactured runs where natural skills would not permit them to. From some of the old footage I have seen, Ravi Shastri comes to mind as one of those with very little talent but a lot to show for. Collingwood is perhaps the best englishman in terms of exploiting one's natural ability but there are players around the world who can indeed rival him.

Email Feedback Print
Rob SteenClose
Rob Steen Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton, whose books include biographies of Desmond Haynes and David Gower (Cricket Society Literary Award winner) and 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81. His investigation for the Wisden Cricketer, "Whatever Happened to the Black Cricketer?", won the UK section of the 2005 EU Journalism Award "For diversity, against discrimination"

    How Bangladesh is finding and developing its talent

Mustafizur, Mosaddek, Mehidy, Nazmul - where did they all come from? By Mohammad Isam

    It's time to rediscover Test-match batting

Mark Nicholas: England's recklessness in the name of positivity is a sign that the art of batting in the longest format is no longer given due attention

Is it possible for a Pakistani to be a fan of Ian Botham?

Imran Yusuf ponders an age-old question
The Cricket Monthly

    Nottingham's the charm

On tour in the UK, Firdose Moonda witnesses a fine comeback, visits the country's oldest pub, and squeezes in some yoga lessons

News | Features Last 3 days

No stories yet

News | Features Last 3 days

World Cup Videos