January 12, 2011

The ultimate overachiever

Has anyone surpassed expectations as much as Paul Collingwood has?

We all have our favourites and betes noir, players and teams who defy and exceed expectation and those who infuriate, disappoint, dismay and even anger, who let themselves down and worse, much worse, let us down.

We look at their careers, form and achievements and judge them almost exclusively, either flatteringly or cruelly, according to the narrow dimensions of statistics. This is especially true in Tests, where shortcomings are more easily exposed, convictions harder-held and verdicts more damning. The mantra is timeless: Yuvraj Singh / Graeme Hick / Carl Hooper is / was an inexcusable underachiever; Paul Harris / Ashley Giles / Mudassar Nazar is / was an inexplicable overachiever. The first is an insult that crassly ignores the good, the second the most grudging of backhanded compliments.

The basis for such emotional and often unreasonable responses to the vagaries of fate's fickle finger is potential. Perceived potential, that is. In terms of espying promise, there are two principal questions we ask of any aspiring world-beater: do they have 1) a satisfactory quota of the necessary skills and 2) the mindset required to improve and compete? The first answer is usually as plain as day, the second normally as clear as mud. As a consequence, assessing who is likely to succeed is akin to tackling a golf course festooned with vast bunkers and miniscule fairways.

To some it boils down to the difference between talent and skill. In the Times last week, Mike Atherton astutely quoted the late Walter Winterbottom, England's first national football manager (and my boyhood neighbour). Whereas talent is the capacity to do the things that most professionals should be capable of, he reasoned, skill is the ability to do them when "someone is trying to boot you up the a***".

But how do we define skill? Harry W Johnson came up with a mathematical definition - "skill = speed x accuracy x form x adaptability" (he may have been referring to pistol shooting, but the broad point remains universal). Tony O'Reilly, who found fame as a rugby union winger and fortune as chairman of Heinz, went a stage further. "Technical excellence, however great," he claimed, "is all but useless, unless fired by the dynamism of the human spirit." Wherein lies the rub. An equation for success might therefore be talent + skill + application x heart + soul.

Misjudgements, therefore, are all too easy to make. For instance, everything about Philippe Henri Edmonds, Cambridge graduate, artful slow left-armer and accomplished maverick, screamed world-beater: the easeful, supple action, the command and variety of flight, the expansiveness of turn, the accuracy and control, and, above all, the sheer brain power. He certainly began with a bang, twirling his way to a five-for on debut, against Australia at Headingley in 1975, emboldening those of us who witnessed and relished his formative years with Middlesex and were convinced he would not only fill Derek Underwood's seven-league boots but become the first English spinner to amass 300 Test wickets (never mind all the runs he might thump).

Instead, while there were spasms of fulfillment - against Pakistan in 1977 and 1978, in India in 1984-85, and in the Ashes series of 1985 and 1986-87 - his impact on the international stage was fitful and, ultimately, disappointing - he won far fewer caps than his abilities portended, and didn't even get halfway to 300 scalps. Inevitably, there were contributory factors: he missed one tour after ricking his back getting out of the car, his wife Frances penned two splendid but decidedly non-reverential tour diaries, and even Mike Brearley found his intellect and temperament too problematic, even threatening.

The bottom line, nonetheless, was that our expectations were grossly inflated. Being easily bored and dissatisfied, Edmonds probably achieved as much on the field as he was ever likely to. Restless souls are never satisfied with excelling in one discipline, and are thus rarely able to apply themselves in the single-minded manner required of the sporting achiever. Here was a chap wont to read the Financial Times in the dressing room and spend lunchtimes on the blower to his stockbroker. Indeed, notwithstanding recent allegations about dodgy dealings in Zimbabwe, he has been much more successful in the business world.

When I asked him to nominate an arch-underachiever, one fellow scribe touted Lawrence Rowe. Having embarked on his international career with a double-hundred and a single one, he attracted greater expectations than most, but the Jamaican at least had a decent alibi, namely the deteriorating vision that eventually persuaded him to take the rebel rand.

Some have found it immeasurably harder to forgive other purported underachievers, such as Vinod Kambli. A schoolboy prodigy who once shared a record stand of 664 with Sachin Tendulkar, he set off with two 200s and two further centuries in his first seven Tests, yet played his last five-dayer at 23. In addition to blaming indiscipline and overt flamboyance, there was also - as Rahul Bhattacharya tellingly cited - an obsession with the width of his bat handles, which in turn suggested a brittle mind as well as an overbearing ego. It is these same flaws that may yet see some condemn Kevin Pietersen for underachievement.

IDENTIFYING OVERACHIEVERS IS NO LESS SUBJECTIVE, but these creatures, of course, are far more worthy of note and celebration. Who, at first or even third glance, would have suspected that Chris Martin, with his un-menacing approach and almost dainty leap before delivery, let alone his lack of pace, would amass nigh-on 200 Test wickets, spend more than a decade as New Zealand's lone consistent seamer, and still be a regular at 36? Or that Paul Harris, the anti-Edmonds, the spinner who imparts turn by way of variation, would have spent half a decade as South Africa's premier slow bowler? Or, going back half a century, that Ken Mackay, master of the slow grind and the miserly dibbly dobblies, would succeed Keith Miller as Australia's premier allrounder and be an integral cog in the game's premier Test unit for nearly eight years?

To quote the late Walter Winterbottom, England's first national football manager, whereas talent is the capacity to do the things that most professionals should be capable of, he reasoned, skill is the ability to do them when "someone is trying to boot you up the a***"

But has anyone surpassed expectations to the same degree as the discerning redhead's redhead, the anti-KP, Paul Collingwood? Not from where I'm sitting. Here is a bloke who, having fully earned his spurs in the abbreviated game, was uniformly disparaged and dismissed as a Test prospect. Eight years and 67 caps after that undemanded debut in Galle, with 4000-plus runs, 10 tons, England's first double-hundred in Australia for 70 years and an average of 40 shortly to be enshrined in Wisden, you'd be horribly hard-pressed to find a journalist - or even a coach - who can now sit back and blithely tell you he saw any of that little lot coming.

In many ways Mackay, fondly known by the strictly ironic nickname of Slasher, is the player "Colly" most readily recalls. The technique has always looked awkward at best, inadequate at worst (with typical and almost intoxicating candour, Collingwood has all but admitted as much himself). The bowling is clever but primarily defensive, the demeanour unprepossessing, the apogee of humility. Only in cordon and covers, where he richly deserves to be commemorated as the most dedicated, agile and prehensile outfielder his country has ever produced, has he flourished the mantle of greatness.

How, though, could you not warm to him, not rejoice in the unexpected heights or lament his decline? Just once has he offended sensibilities, failing, as captain, to recall Grant Elliott after the felled Kiwi was run out during an ODI. Beyond that, there can have been few more sheerly likeable, even loveable, sportsmen. Becoming the first Pom to hoist a global trophy could not have happened to a more deserving candidate.

England's finest-ever performer in the limited-overs arena (fuelling more significant victories than Botham and Flintoff is possibly his foremost feat), his all-round deftness and feistiness have been underpinned by an aggression and enterprise he seldom permits himself over the longer haul, emphasising the selflessness as well as the adaptability. Yet he has stood tallest and staunchest with back pinned to wall and boot up a***. Those Test-saving stints in the sentry box in Cardiff, Centurion and Newlands are the stuff to which statistics can never do justice, the stuff of which quiet but lasting heroes are made.

Has a cricketer ever done more to turn base metal into gold? Not that these eyes have seen. Steve Waugh, that archest of competitors, advised Andy Flower that Collingwood was "the kind of player you could build, or rebuild, a side around". To Bob Willis, no liberal bestower of praise, he is the symbol of "the new England". The embodiment of the spirit and work ethic, of the catching and the chasing and the diving, of the they-shall-not-passing and never-say-dying that personify the collective effort: that is his legacy.

It has been painful, squirmful, watching Collingwood struggle in recent months; in many ways, his decision to retire from Tests came as a blessed relief. Now he can devote those still-considerable energies to doing what he does best. Inspiring England's first World Cup triumph is beyond neither credulity nor reach.

The words of Van Morrison resonate long and loud:

I shall search my very soul
For the lion...
Inside of me…
Listen to the lion
Inside of me

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