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