England v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, 2nd day June 3, 2006

Attritional but essential

At present, concentration is a commodity in short supply for England. They let Sri Lanka off the hook through their fielding lapses at Lord's, and today it was the turn of the batsmen to drop their guard

Paul Collingwood: attritional but essential © Getty Images
At present, concentration is a commodity in short supply for England. They let Sri Lanka off the hook through their fielding lapses at Lord's, and today it was the turn of the batsmen to drop their guard. For all the assurances that nothing would be taken for granted in this match, the reality is another botched opportunity in a series where application has been undervalued.

There are bigger issues at stake this summer - yes, we all know it to be so. The Ashes are a-coming and key members of the squad are still fretting over their fitness, but that means that the present is all the more fraught with unanticipated dangers. Gentle little Sri Lanka - they were never going to be a threat, surely? So much for assumptions. A fascinating match is emerging from the flames of complacency.

By the close, the flashing blades of Kumar Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga had confirmed the potency of Sri Lanka's position, but for England, the warning signs had been in place from the very first over of the day. Searing pace and wily spin has formed a mesmerising partnership in the past on this ground - as Brett Lee and Shane Warne so thrillingly demonstrated last summer. And in Muttiah Muralitharan and Lasith Malinga, Sri Lanka had a combination as deadly and unorthodox as anything yet witnessed.

Though Murali's trickery was to be expected, it was the snorting aggression of Malinga that really rattled England's cage. His eight-over spell in the morning session was superb. He found lift and accuracy from his very first over, as he skidded his extraordinary round-arm deliveries into the pitch and up towards England's throats. Alastair Cook was simply beaten for pace, and even Kevin Pietersen - the unapproachable leviathan of the series - found his line to be nasty, brutish, short, and unsettling.

Panic is not a sensation that England have encountered recently - in fact, a Zen-like calm has descended since last summer, which is part of the reason this series could finish at 1-1 rather than 3-0. But having lost two designated anchormen in Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick overnight, there was only one man remaining who could rebuild the innings with a bit of old-fashioned spit and grit. Happily for England's short-term prospects, he didn't miss his cue.

Such situations are the life-blood of Paul Collingwood's career. He sits sandwiched in the batting-order between the two big drawcards, Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, and when England are on top, it is too easy to undervalue his contributions. Indeed, at Lord's in the first Test, while he was compiling a steadfast 57 in support of Pietersen's thumping century, there were more than a few spectators who just wished he would get out and let Freddie strut his stuff.

There was no such wishful thinking today, as Collingwood fended off every slingshot that Malinga winged his way, and dealt with Murali and the excellent Sanath Jayasuriya with the sure-footed aplomb that he demonstrated against India's spinners earlier in the year. For as long as he survived, which was just under four hours of dogged defiance, Collingwood was a man in control of England's destiny.

It was unapologetic stuff, for sure. Just 52 runs emerged in the afternoon session, including that sashayed six over long-on - the only boundary of his 184-ball innings. But the trade-off was that a sense of calm returned as well. He trusted Liam Plunkett to hang around, in spite of a career tally of 10 runs in four Tests, and England's eventual deficit of two runs was not to be sniffed at, given the flimsiness of their tail in recent performances.

"It was a tough day on a tough wicket," said Collingwood afterwards. "I never felt in, so I just tried to accumulate and put partnerships together. I didn't feel I could play on the up too much, because the ball was reversing and nibbling around, so I just reined things in, and made sure my scoring options were safe ones."

Collingwood grimaced when it was suggested he had played one of his typically attritional innings, adding that he'd much rather come to the wicket at 500 for 3 on a belter. And when the inevitable question about Michael Vaughan's return cropped up, he was similarly guarded, insisting he had not thought too much about it, and was focused only on securing England's series victory.

It is such pressure for places that will draw the best out of England's cricketers over the next few days. With the match reduced to a one-innings dogfight, and the series up for grabs like never before, Collingwood's example is the one his team-mates must follow. He understands the importance of the coming days rather better than some of his more secure team-mates.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo