February 18, 2009

Colly flowering

Reliant on heart and mind rather than reputation or limbs, Collingwood can be considered the ultimate over-achiever of his era

Arguably the most versatile cricketer to wear the three lions © Getty Images

Frank Keating, one of the deftest verbal portrait artists ever to bring sportsfolk to life, once described Ken Barrington as "the solid trellis which allowed the Fancy Dans to parade their blooms". The description also suits Paul Collingwood, who has emulated Barrington's devoted pragmatism and selfless bulldoggedness more dutifully than any other Englishman in the 40 years since the Surrey man's final Test froze his average at 58.67, higher than any of his countrymen have managed since World War Two. If you ever had to set foot on a live battlefield, you'd want those two by your side.

It is easier, though, to liken the doughty Durham allrounder to a bassist in a rock band, an expert mechanic shunning spotlight and glamour. More a John Entwistle-type virtuoso multi-instrumentalist than a proficient plodder like Bill Wyman, granted, but still comparatively anonymous. No Englishman in recent memory better epitomises the blue-collar cricketer, and if that is not necessarily a fashionable thing to be, it is assuredly something worth being.

Has there ever been a more reluctant star than Paul David Collingwood? Not many, I'd wager. He values his privacy more than most, declaring a love of family, soccer and golf, but precious little else. Revealingly perhaps, his entry in The Cricketers' Who's Who rather glumly eschews those customary categories "Favourite band" and "Relaxations". When he accepted an offer to write a fortnightly column it was not with the News of the World or the Daily Mail but BBC Online, not exactly a bastion of headline-making controversy. It is hard to imagine posters of this steely-eyed arch-competitor adorning too many bedroom walls.

Indeed, two years ago, in an interview published in the Wisden Cricketer, Richard Hobson asked Collingwood whether he thought he would "ever be really appreciated by the public". The inquisitee has two choices in such circumstances: puff himself up or stick with modesty and risk coming across as a self-righteous, self-pitying whinger. Collingwood, not untypically, took option two. "No," he admitted, "I don't think I ever will." Somehow, nonetheless, he gave the impression that it bothered him barely a jot, that he knew his place, accepted his lot.

Later during the conversation, however, came hints of anger, even bitterness, neither remotely unjustified. "I don't think I will ever feel comfortable as long as I play for England because I know people will knock me if there is any opportunity. I am always going to be the first person whose place is supposed to be in doubt because I am not as brilliant as a [Brian] Lara or a [Kevin] Pietersen. You'd have to be mad to want to watch me rather than those two. What gets me is that after I scored that double-hundred [in Adelaide] I read a couple of pieces still saying 'OK, but has he really got it?' It's amazing really."

And so it was, and remains. When scapegoats were demanded for the sins of Sabina, Collingwood, perversely, was second on many a chopping board, behind the increasingly timorous Ian Bell, notwithstanding the not insignificant fact that he'd made a century in India two Tests earlier, and another against South Africa two before that. Maybe it's because he so often gives the impression that he feels dispensable, does not quite feel worthy.

Which is curious, given that he is arguably the most versatile cricketer ever to wear the three lions, and quite possibly the proudest. Owner of the best all-round figures for any country in an ODI - 112 not out and 6 for 31 v Bangladesh at Trent Bridge in 2005 - he is poised to become the first Pom to couple 4000 runs and 100 wickets in one-dayers, is the only man to have scored 300 runs and take 12 wickets in Twenty20 internationals, and bows to no contemporary when it comes to defying gravity and probability in the field. Among all English run-stoppers and catch-takers, none has so consistently inspired awe. His Test record, moreover, has long since exploded the hard-held theory that he lacked the technique and the temperament required to succeed consistently in the longest format. If any player has proved that cricket is more about mind than matter, he has. The trouble is that his noblest deeds have repeatedly been drowned out by the shortcomings of others less resolutely committed.

If any player has proved that cricket is more about mind than matter, he has. The trouble is that his noblest deeds have repeatedly been drowned out by the shortcomings of others less resolutely committed

Typically, his most memorable moments have been undermined by ridicule and futility. Being awarded a gong for a walk-on role in the final act of the 2005 Ashes series made him destined to be a source of scorn Down Under. As he went in to bat in a Twenty20 international during the 2006-07 tour, a PA announcer introduced him as "Paul Collingwood MBE", much to the cackling mirth of the SCG crowd. In Adelaide a few weeks earlier he had cut, driven and nurdled his way to the first double-century for England in an overseas Ashes Test for 70 years, and only the third all told, but it still couldn't stop Australia inflicting the Poms' most dispiriting defeat for decades.

Then again, Collingwood's best has rarely coincided with any collective blooming in the five-day arena. The runs have seldom come cheap. In addition to that Adelaide marathon, he has hit two hundreds in India, 186 against Pakistan, and last summer's latest career-salvaging mission, a remarkable 135 against South Africa at Edgbaston. Yet not one of those manful efforts resulted in victory, not one. Defeat, indeed, is a more familiar taste than victory Luck, furthermore, has been a reluctant ally.

BATTING PARTNERSHIPS are curious, elusive things. You'd imagine, wouldn't you, that Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, two of the noughties' most dominant batsmen, would have a fine Test record in harness? After all, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, Pakistan's finest and best, have been the most productive duo in the second half of the decade, averaging 114.47 per alliance. Yet Smith and Kallis average just 36.57 per liaison. Smith and Herschelle Gibbs? A piffling 18.31. That England's most successful firm since September 2005 have been Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen might startle some, blowing away as it does assumptions about the need for empathy and likemindedness.

As odd couples go, Collingwood and Pietersen are up there with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau's Felix and Oscar: spiritual, physical and philosophical opposites. Yet Collingwood and Pietersen have now amassed 2209 runs in 35 duets at 64.97. Their seven century stands include 310 in that Adelaide match, England's highest stand for 21 years. Uncoincidentally, in the 43 Tests since the 2005 Ashes these two came to St John's leading the side's run-makers and averages. What was unusual, and highly encouraging, about Monday's 94-run stand was that Collingwood was the aggressor, expending 77 balls to reach 50 to Pietersen's painstaking, twitchy 130. The former always looks a better batsman when his feet twinkle and he takes the initiative, as he does in the shorter formats. On a pitch that defied complete trust, that combination of watchfulness and assertiveness was precisely what Dr Grace would have ordered. More significantly this was only the third England innings out of the last eight to top 500 without the aid of a century from Pietersen, evidence of a profoundly unhealthy dependency culture that some team-mates, one strongly suspects, are beginning to bridle at. Cold turkey is usually the quickest remedy.

Messrs Pietersen and Collingwood: England's most successful batting firm for the last three years and some © Getty Images

It is tempting to wonder whether Collingwood, rather than Pietersen, might have succeeded Michael Vaughan as Test captain but for one uncharacteristically mad moment at The Oval last June, when he declined to withdraw a run-out appeal against Grant Elliott after the New Zealander was injured colliding with Ryan Sidebottom. It was one of the more poetic pieces of justice in recent memory that Daniel Vettori's side still won the match, and with it the series. Officially it was a slow over-rate, rather than misplaced professionalism, that cost Collingwood a suspension and led to his resignation, but the opprobrium did not bounce lightly off that resilient heart.

All the signs, nevertheless, are that while he had made no secret of his ambitions to captain his country, once dreams hardened into reality Collingwood did not see himself as a natural leader. He certainly seems to lack the self-regard that demands only the peaks of attainment. Come September he was basking in the glow of a fourth consecutive 50-over win against South Africa, the sense of relief at being back in the ranks unmistakeable. "I'm smiling more and have gone back to being the happy-go-lucky guy I was prior to becoming captain," he said. "My family are certainly seeing a different me, I'm no longer sitting in front of the television muttering about who should and shouldn't be in the team. That definitely got to me about the job - the way it is always there in the back of your mind. I'd been good at switching off but as captain I was always thinking about the game. I couldn't shut cricket out of my mind and that took its toll."

Did he regret resigning just before the side hit form? "No, absolutely not," was the immediate, assertive response. Was this strident tone indicative of self-denial, of the need to stifle regret? Perhaps, but why not grant such a blatantly non-Machievellian yeoman the benefit of the doubt? Unwise as it is for a journalist ever to write such words, why not take him at face value? The rationale seemed familiar enough. "I was going through a horrible patch in regards to my Test form and felt the captaincy was the main reason for that," he elaborated. "It was draining me of the mental energy I needed to play at my best."

The clear inference is that playing at his best means being free of the responsibility that goes with leadership, and the figures bear this out. This, though, should not be a source of shame. Being captain hardly signifies the degree of commitment or selflessness. When Wally Grout spoke with reverence and awe about a Pom walking to the crease with the Union Jack fluttering behind him, he was referring not to Boycott, Cowdrey or Dexter but dear old Barrington. And dear old Ken, zen master of the malapropism, never once tossed for Queen and country.

Reliant on heart and mind rather than reputation or limbs, Collingwood can be considered the ultimate over-achiever of his era. The whole, for once, is precisely the sum of the parts. Shrewd rather than forceful, acutely aware of his limitations, here is a humble worker ant among the strutting queen bees. He has had to fight every inch of the way: to transcend that comprehensive schooling and those Tyneside roots to play professionally, to become Durham's first England regular, to confound the persistent skeptics, and above all to combat his own nagging self-doubt. That he continues to win all these battles, external and internal, demands respect of the lasting kind. To be another Ken Barrington: that's also something to be.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • simon mulligan on February 19, 2009, 19:40 GMT

    I was there when he got the 200 odd ,he is and remains the best of England ,a bloke that always gives his all. Should have bowled more in tests. We are very proud of him in the North East of England

  • Sam on February 19, 2009, 17:02 GMT

    I do have a poster of Colly on my bedroom wall. I love Colly. He's awesome. I was so happy when Durham won the championship.

  • Ritesh on February 19, 2009, 10:13 GMT

    Collingwood has been one of the most gritty England cricketers in the modern era. It's hugely unfair to call him a player with limited talents. I mean the guy has scored heavily against the best teams away from home and has always put his hand up when the team has been in trouble. It's unfair how some players get treated because they don't make batting look easy and graceful. Steve Waugh had to face this kind of treatment early on in his career. It's time Collingwood got his due.

  • iwannabe on February 19, 2009, 2:25 GMT

    Im a kiwi and die hard Blackcap fan The Elliot run out dosnt even deserve a mention. It was not a deliberate act by Sidebottom. At the end of the day Elliot failed to make it to the crease by the time the bails were knocked off. If It was deliberate or some other unfair play went on then fair enough ,but it didnt. Do we call it a catch when two fielders collide and the ball drops to the ground?

    We would love to have a player like collingwood So would most other teams Seriously if Pieterson fails who is there to pick up the pieces. The England team cant afford to drop a player like Collingwood I find it odd that Panesar gets to 'play the same test 30 times' give or take who has done nothing of note for years but Collingwood apparently plays for his career every time he strides the crease Charisma does not equal talent Sort it out England

  • mau on February 18, 2009, 18:04 GMT

    I do not agree with the often used cliche against Collingwood...you cannot perform for that long with a 40+ avg, a double hundred vs Warne, Mcgrath and Lee in Australia, with a hundreds in India ( which someone like Ponting would give anything to get one)...all this cannot be achieved without the player being supremely talented. What he may lack is the confidence and good looking technique ( at times only). There are some players who struggle at the crease more than others, something that cannot be explained..that is what Collingwood is. However he more than makes up for that with his determination, guts and fighting spirit..and add to that his brilliant fielding and steady bowling. I guess after a while it becomes insulting to the player to be called 'untalented' or 'lacks ability'. Without talent and ability of the highest order you cannot play cricket play test match cricket,Period.

  • Prince on February 18, 2009, 17:07 GMT

    What makes u guys think that Collingwood is ugly to watch ? His cover-drive does not have the copybook flourish of an Ian Bell cover drive,so he is ugly to watch ? His defence is compact;he does not have the copybook emulation of strokes,but even then,they are quite good to watch.Yet somehow his batting is termed UGLY !!!To be fair,I am not a Colly fan,but I admire him enormously.

  • Vineet on February 18, 2009, 15:59 GMT

    As a true cricket lover I always enjoy watching Collingwood play, I m not bothered if he does't have a beautiful technique or not as flamboyont as the some of other batsmen of his era... if he can put runs on board that's all should matter... and as some one has mentioned since he is not the most high profile and attractive batsmen.. a sword is always hanging over his head if team fails..

  • Gareth on February 18, 2009, 14:34 GMT

    Apart from "nurdle", the biggest Colly cliché is "limited natural ability".

    Granted, when he's out of form, he looks utterly horrible (which perhaps explains why his head hovers near the block so often when scapegoats are needed for England batting mishaps). But he scored a double hundred (clonking a back-over-the-bowler's-head four to reach it) against a truly great Australian side (and was not out in the second innings when the rest of the side imploded). I'd say that requires a fair amount of natural ability. As does successfully reaching a hundred with a six (against the Saffers in that crucial Edgbaston Test).

    What he lacks is a beautiful technique, but, at the end of the day's play, it's the score in the book that matters. It's staggering how underappreciated the guy is. If Colly had been playing 15 years ago, his tenaciousness and his batting would have made him a god.

  • sohel on February 18, 2009, 14:21 GMT

    Hats off to colly-one of my favourite cricketer in recent era..his mental strength remind me of steve waugh..he is indeed a genuine thinker n does ve excellent cricket brain..i never doubted his abilty and its nice to see him shining upto my expectations when it matters most..obviously he doesnt got the glamour like flintoff or pieterson and thereby isnt that catchy to the so called english media, but who cares? its the output in the field that matters most..and the gem is rightly picked by IPL-look at the price he was tagged in IPL (while many current stars couldnt make it under the hammer..!!)i do hope he will shine there too-ahead of flintoff n pieterson with his allround performances..all the best buddy

  • Preshant on February 18, 2009, 14:00 GMT

    I became a fan of colly early in his career as he came out as a "Jonty Rhodes" who could bowl with the scrapper attitude in batting.When he toured India in late 2005,england were in some sort of trouble at nagpur.Then came colly stroking a brilliant century and clearly emphasizing the requirement of grit over flair in cricket.Long Live Scrapping batsmen.....

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