A man worth more than numbers
Long after he has retired from all forms of the game, not just the five-day version from which he has stood down today, Paul Collingwood will be remembered as a cricketer who was greater than the sum of his parts. Others may have been blessed with more talent, but when it came to dedication - to his team-mates, to the cause, and to the quest for his own self-improvement - he was a man with few equals in the world game.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates this better than his contribution to England's 2010-11 Ashes campaign, a series that will be recalled as a triumph long after his own tally of 83 runs in six innings has been forgotten. Collingwood's own contributions fell short of the levels he had sought, but nevertheless his mere presence in the team was a reminder of the disciplines required to succeed at the highest level. After all, he had embodied England's ultra-professional approach long before the rest of the set-up followed suit.
Collingwood had character, and that was his defining trait. For three consecutive winters until his eventual Test debut against Sri Lanka in November 2003, he toured the world as an uncomplaining understudy, soaking up the experience and never once grumbling about his lack of opportunities. Two years later, with an Ashes to be won and a critical vacancy in England's line-up following the injury to Simon Jones, it was Colly to whom England turned, for they rightly believed he had the gumption for such a big occasion.
He made 7 and 10 in that Oval contest, figures that led Shane Warne to pour scorn on his subsequent acceptance of an MBE from Buckingham Palace, but numbers alone will never tell the full Collingwood story. He survived 72 vital minutes on that nerve-shattering final day, a period of consolidation that enabled Kevin Pietersen - one of his favourite batting partners - to turn the tables on the Aussies. And earlier in the match, he fronted up with the quickest spell of bowling of his life, and should by rights have had Justin Langer caught in the slips … but the ball reached Marcus Trescothick almost before he could react.
It's been like that all throughout his career - the fractional contributions that add up to a solid body of evidence when reviewed as a whole. The three scores of 74, 26 not out and 40 with which he helped save the Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town Tests in 2009-10, for instance, add up to five runs fewer than the 145 that he made against Bangladesh at Chittagong back in March to register his 10th and final Test century. Even when he surpassed himself at Adelaide in 2006-07 with his brilliant 206, he was grotesquely overshadowed in the final analysis. That fact alone would not have bothered him in the slightest, but England's traumatic defeat cut him to the quick.
There is a sense in which Collingwood surprised even himself in forging such an admirable Test career - 4259 runs from 115 innings (with a very remote prospect of one last hurrah) at the steady average of 40.56. But it was his personal recognition of his limitations that compelled him to extend every facet of his talent to the max. Like Ashley Giles before him, a cricketer whom Duncan Fletcher adored for his professionalism, he had no option but to give his all in every situation, because he was not blessed with the sort of genius that could rely on inspiration alone. But in doing so, he actually made himself into an inspiration.
As a Test cricketer, he played a vital role in bringing together two eras of English cricket, to such an extent that they may, in the fullness of time, come to be recognized as a single entity. First came his role in the rise of Michael Vaughan's 2005 Ashes winners, which went beyond those efforts in the final Test at The Oval. In the preceding ODIs, in which England fought tooth and nail to claim a share of the series and serve a warning that things would be different, Collingwood's influence was immense, from the staggeringly brilliant catch in the gully to remove Matthew Hayden at Bristol, to his subsequent role in rushing to the defence of Jones, after his errant throw at Edgbaston had struck Hayden on the shoulder.
But his role in the aftermath of that Ashes victory was in many ways even more vital. In the dog days of 2006-08, when England's progress was derailed by the departures of such key players as Vaughan, Jones, Trescothick and, intermittently, Flintoff, Collingwood kept the home fires burning by forging himself a career in the middle of the Test line-up, and refusing to allow the standards around him to plummet.
At Cape Town last winter, when Ian Bell finally came of age as a Test batsman, it is no coincidence that Collingwood was there alongside him for much of his famous rearguard. A baton has been passed in the past 12 months, with the former young guns of England's team taking over as the agenda-setters - men such as Bell, Alastair Cook and James Anderson, all of whom have benefitted from the knowledge that, when all else failed, Colly would be waiting to pick up the pieces.
Even during his crowning glory at the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, Collingwood was little more than an elder statesman, calling the shots while his well-drilled team-mates did what they had been trained to do. But when, in the final at Barbados, he had the honour of hitting the winning runs against Australia, the manner in which he was pursued from the crease by his ecstatic team-mates told a tale far greater than his score of 12 not out from five balls. No-one in the team had earned the right to be triumphant quite like he had.
Likewise on this Ashes trip, Collingwood has not needed to pick up many pieces because of the excellence of the men around him in England's batting order, but that's not to say he's been a passenger in the team, far from it. His final delivery of the first innings at Sydney - and maybe even of his Test career -bowled none other than Michael Hussey, the kingpin of Australia's batting and the one player capable of posting a formidable first-innings total. Collingwood finished that innings with figures of 4-2-5-1, and the satisfaction of a job well done. His numbers, as previously mentioned, have rarely done him justice.
If there is to be a defining image of Collingwood's final Test series, however, it will surely have to be his outstanding pluck at third slip to remove Ricky Ponting at Perth. At the time it felt like the series-defining moment, with Australia reeling at 17 for 2, and so perhaps it was. Australia may have rallied to win the Test and square the series, but Ponting - crucially - could not follow suit. Had he found his form at the same time as Australia posted a win, the challenge at Melbourne would have been all the greater.
That Ponting take was one of nine catches in the series for Collingwood, the most by any outfielder on either side, but both athletically and symbolically it was the best of the lot. It told the tale of a player who would stretch to his absolute limits to do his job for the team.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.