Time running out for Collingwood
"I'm probably not the best-looking batsman in the middle, and that has gone against me in the past, but my job is a run-getter not a batsman. Sometimes people forget that it is the scoring the runs that is the most important thing, and not how you get them. That is how I've always approached it."
Paul Collingwood said those words in Chittagong back in March, as he basked in the occasion of his tenth Test century, a long-since-forgotten 145 against Bangladesh that turned a strong position into an impregnable one. At the time his achievement was dismissed as a reward for services rendered, for rare has been the occasion in which Collingwood has indulged in soft runs. Take that trio of famous rearguards at Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town, for example, where his influence in the middle had been of fundamental value to the cause. His scores in those fixtures - 74, 26 not out and 40 - were of unquantifiable consequence, even if the statistics stand out only to those in the know.
But when pressed on the subject at Chittagong, the man himself refused to denigrate his own achievement. "To get ten centuries is something I thought I'd never achieve when I first started the game," he said, as he became the 25th England batsman to reach a milestone that eluded such notables as Robin Smith and Ted Dexter, among others. It was that very determination to treat every international appearance as an end in itself, and an honour rather than a right, that turned a nuggetty county pro with a workmanlike technique into a critical component of England's post-2005 resurgence.
Nine months down the line, however, neither the "how" nor the "how many" are ticking the boxes for the doughtiest batsmen in England's line-up. Since that innings, Collingwood has led England to their maiden ICC trophy, the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, and remains an indispensable cog in a 50-over line-up that could surpass expectations in the subcontinent come February. But at Test level he's a fading force, and at 34, and with England in sight of an Ashes-sealing innings victory, it could that the final curtain is drawing ominously nigh.
In his last 13 Test innings, Collingwood has passed 11 just three times, although true to his reputation, his only innings of note was a hard-earned 82 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge, which came with England on the brink of a crisis at 118 for 4. Either side of that, however, he's been incapable of resistance. The wiles of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir proved too much for a succession of players in a particularly swing-heavy English summer, but whereas Alastair Cook in particular has been a batsman reborn in Australia, the same cannot be said of his team-mate.
Collingwood has looked ponderous in his five innings to date, with his 42 at Adelaide coming on the flattest deck of the series and with the score ramped up towards 400 by Kevin Pietersen's double-century. On a flyer at Perth, however - and in precisely the scenario for which he has habitually earned his keep - Collingwood missed a Mitchell Johnson inswinger by nearly a foot to be pinned lbw for 5, and then fell for 11 to the final ball of the third day's play, as England were hustled to a thumping defeat.
There was no clamour for change at the MCG because that is not England's way - under the leadership of Strauss and Flower, loyalty is of paramount importance. Privately, however, Collingwood must have recognised that he was facing another Edgbaston moment, a time in his career when a life-saving performance was required, just as he produced in his last-chance saloon against South Africa in 2008. Back then he had admitted that one slip would have meant he was a "goner", but he responded with a brilliantly bold 135 in the second innings.
This time, however, he couldn't do it, and he never looked like doing it either, not even on a slow deck that suited his low backlift and crease-bound style. He got off the mark with an inside-edge to short fine leg, his solitary boundary was an edge through gully, and though he threaded Ryan Harris through the covers for an attractive three, he fell without addition three balls later when he swiped a Johnson bouncer to Peter Siddle at fine leg.
Given the service that Collingwood has provided, he doubtless deserves the chance to leave on a high in the fifth Test at Sydney, and England's refusal to push him down the order for this contest suggests that they could yet allow him that grace. But with Eoin Morgan itching for a game after playing just one first-class innings all tour, the unsentimental - and, dare one say it, Australian - option would be to starting the planning for 2013 in the first week of 2011, and bid farewell to a battler whose journey in five-day cricket looks to have run its course.
And were he to miss out at Sydney, it would provide a strangely appropriate closure to a remarkable Test career. To all intents and purposes, Collingwood's true Test debut came at The Oval in 2005, when he was recalled to the team for the Ashes decider after a two-year gap between appearances, following the loss of Simon Jones to injury. A bowler would have been the logical selection, but England wanted a character for the toughest challenge of their careers to date.
Shane Warne famously scoffed at the awarding of an MBE on the strength of Collingwood's twin scores of 7 and 10 in that match, but looking back now from the safe distance of half-a-decade, it's easier to appreciate the discipline he brought to that performance, particularly the 72 minutes he endured on the final day, in which he drew the sting of England's pre-lunch collapse and provided Kevin Pietersen the ballast he needed for a counterattack.
Times have moved on since that series, however. England have regenerated and matured. Bell now demonstrates an ability to endure as well as sparkle, while Cook and Jonathan Trott showed at Brisbane and beyond that they can tough it out with the best of them. For another England nugget, Nasser Hussain, the realisation dawned in 2004 that his time had passed, and he retired upon completing his 14th and final Test century. For Collingwood, the ultimate team man, the retention of the Ashes, in the country in which he made his highest and most poignantly overshadowed century in 2006-07, would be every bit as fitting a finale. Especially with his unfinished business remaining in one-day cricket.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.