Stuck outside the limelight
The Prince of Wales would sympathise. It's not easy being the heir apparent in any walk of life. But this winter must have been especially frustrating for Paul Collingwood, the anointed one in England's middle order. Last September, as proof of the esteem in which he is held by the management, he was awarded a full 12-month central contract even before he had played a Test. But Rikki Clarke's superior bowling denied him a Test debut in Bangladesh, and though he impressed in two understudy performances in Sri Lanka, it was soon back to the ranks, where he contented himself with a handful of glamour-free performances in England's one-day side.
Collingwood will not let his limited opportunities bother him, of course, which is precisely why he is so valuable. Every winning team needs a super-sub like him. In years gone by, England would have had a hot-head such as Mark Ramprakash in the corner of the dressing-room, brooding over his latest dismissal and stressing out his team-mates in the process. Instead, Collingwood passes the time with a cheerful line in self-deprecating Geordie humour - and a penchant for slapstick, if his recent broken nose is anything to go by.
Even so, his case is unusual by England's standards. The current Test squad is littered with players hand-picked during the Duncan Fletcher era. Two of them, Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, now form the cornerstone of the batting, while Andrew Flintoff might have been jettisoned long ago by a less patient coach. But Collingwood is different. Next month, a full three years will have passed since his maiden international appearance - against Pakistan at Edgbaston in June 2001, at the height of England's record run of 11 consecutive one-day defeats. But ever since that day, the spotlight has steadfastly refused to linger on him.
Admittedly he has been unlucky with injury - a dislocated shoulder almost certainly denied him his opening in the Test side last summer. But times have moved on since then, and for this summer's curtain-raiser against New Zealand, there is no longer any guarantee that Collingwood is (to use the Aussie parlance) the next cab off the rank.
Collingwood's Test debut finally came at Galle back in December, where he stepped in for Nasser Hussain, whose career was hanging by a thread at the end of the Sri Lanka series. But by the time Hussain, Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe had batted England to a 3-0 series victory in the Caribbean, the middle order had become the least of their problems, and Hussain himself is a sure bet to thrive against the Kiwis on England's sticky early-season wickets. Instead, attention had begun to focus further up the order, where Trescothick's woeful form was raising awkward questions.
He may be a man of many parts, but Collingwood is not a Test opening batsman. So out of the shadows steps Andrew Strauss, whose back-to-back sixties in this week's one-day matches have confirmed him as a man of temperament who would let no-one down if he were asked to face the new ball this summer. As for Trescothick, his belligerent one-day form demands that he retains his place in the Test side, but if fate should serve up an opening in the middle order against New Zealand, who would bet against him slotting in at No. 4? After all, with the Australians due in 2005, the time for experimentation is fast running out.
Even before the Aussies land, there is another seismic event awaiting English cricket. This winter Kevin Pietersen becomes available for selection, and like Graeme Hick in 1991, he will be an automatic pick regardless of form, at least for the duration of the South African tour.
At this rate, Collingwood is a fair bet to be still sitting on the sidelines when the Ashes get under way next summer. Of course, Fletcher won't mind too much if that is indeed the case - it will imply that England possess strength in depth in their batting. But the man they call England's one-day finisher will surely be itching to get started soon.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.