May 26, 2014

The joy of Collingwood's slow burn

A swashbuckling batsman or a ferociously quick bowler can win people over in an instant. Other players inveigle their way into your affections over time

Paul Collingwood: substance over style © Getty Images

"I'd have no chance of getting into this team," said Paul Collingwood, when asked whether he might be worth a place in England's World T20 squad. Even before the side had lost to Netherlands, plenty of England fans disagreed with that statement.

Collingwood's argument that "it's no longer a nudge-and-nurdler kind of game" rather undervalues his modus operandi. He isn't the first to make the mistake of focusing on more obvious hallmarks of quality, but it's ironic that a man who spent a whole career slowly winning over the ordinary fan should seemingly have failed to win over himself.

The older I get, the more I realise that very often the cricketers I end up appreciating the most, aren't the ones with the most obvious attributes. I don't think this is a personal thing, so much as a weird form of natural selection. If an ostensibly limited player is around for any length of time, it generally means that they are doing something subtle yet important far better than anyone else and often it takes a while to notice this.

Whereas a swashbuckling batsman or a ferociously quick bowler can win people over in an instant, a player like Collingwood sort of inveigles his way into your affections over time. Like many things in life, instant appeal is often fleeting. In contrast, this kind of slow-build appreciation tends to possess solid, lasting foundations.

So what was it that fuelled Paul Collingwood's slow-burn appeal? It's not that easy to put your finger on, but clues can be found in the way he was described by commentators and journalists. The one line that always cropped up was, "He makes the most of his talent."

This was the most backhanded of compliments and everyone knew it. The subtext was that Collingwood had to make the most of his talent because there was so little of it, and as soon as a proper batsman came along, England would be moving on.

But let's get something straight: batting is about scoring runs. If you score runs, you are a good batsman. History has brought us all manner of weak-willed stylists and technically correct teasers who have flattered to deceive, so quite why "making the most of your talent" should be undervalued is beyond me.

Batting is about finding that balance between risk and reward; scoring runs while preserving your wicket. Whether you are able to play an inside-out lofted cover drive off a 95mph inswinging yorker or not, the task is essentially the same. You must work within your limitations - whatever they may be - and find a way to score runs.

We have a saying in the north of England that is intended to cut short any talk of "what might have been" following a contentious on-field event. If someone's complaining about a decision, we turn to them and say, "Look in t' book". The saying is intended to emphasise the irrelevance of anything which doesn't affect the final score. In a way it seems just as appropriate when assessing a batsman's worth.

We tend to perceive swagger and strut as being indicators, when often they are merely papering over cracks. True self-assurance doesn't require an audience

Anyone trying to argue in favour of a stylish fifty over a gritty hundred should be instructed to look in t' book. Style is not unimportant, but it is secondary.

Paul Collingwood was making the most of his talent when he reached 94 in what had seemed destined to be his final Test innings against South Africa in 2008. At that point, having worked so hard to save his career, he hit a six. To a casual onlooker, a six is just a six, commonplace these days, but with so much riding on the outcome, this shot was brassy in the extreme. It betrayed rare courage, which is another quality you cannot appreciate in an instant.

This is also true of self-confidence. We tend to perceive swagger and strut as being indicators, when often they are merely papering over cracks (or even chasms). True self-assurance doesn't require an audience. It is self-contained and manifests itself in deeds, not peacocking.

England fans squirm at any mention of Adelaide 2006, but this collective blindness conceals one of the more resilient, self-confident and admirable innings by an England batsman in recent years. Before the match, the Australian press was asking whether Collingwood was England's worst-ever No. 4. Was he cowed by being publicly questioned and ridiculed, and was he then wracked with nerves after ending the first day on 98 not out?

No. He came out on day two, reached three figures and then doubled his tally for good measure, because the real job - the job for the team rather than himself - wasn't yet done. If his second-innings display is widely considered to have been a major cause of England's fatal paralysis in that match, it should also be noted that he did at least finish as the not-out batsman.

Collingwood was the complete antithesis of the spineless Pom who crumbles at the first "g'day". For him, it was all about scoring runs; taking wickets and catches; and occasionally missing the ball often enough that your team salvaged a draw.

Every England fan will be forever grateful for his four-hour 74 in Cardiff in the 2009 Ashes, and the even more gloriously lumpen twin innings in South Africa in 2009-10 that also led to nine-wickets-down draws. The 99-ball 26 in Centurion was one thing, but the leaving/missing case study at Newlands, when he made only 40 in more than four and a half hours was something else.

His genuine lack of ego was easy to overlook when he spent tour after tour ferrying the drinks in his early days with the England squad, and it was also a quality that could later be observed - but perhaps still not fully appreciated - in his delight at winning the 2010-11 Ashes despite a lack of personal success.

At Newlands, however, that same lack of ego came to the fore as a low-key strength afforded to very few. Beaten time and again, he looked nothing short of foolish. But after the match, knowing the contribution he had made, Paul Collingwood could point to the result and simply say: "Look in t' book."

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket