'The perfect moment for me to go' - Collingwood
Paul Collingwood believes he has chosen the perfect moment to end his Test career, as England close in on an unprecedented third innings victory of their tour of Australia, a result that will go a long way towards erasing the bitter memories of the 5-0 whitewash of four years ago, and bring Collingwood's own career full circle after the role he played on his home Test debut at The Oval in 2005, in the game that ended Australia's two-decade-long dominance of the Ashes.
Speaking on the day he made his impending retirement public, Collingwood described his feat of playing 68 Tests as an "over-achievement", and modestly stated that England's ambition of becoming the No. 1 team in the world will be that much more attainable without him blocking up an end in the manner that he has made his trademark in the course of the past five years.
"In many ways it's a sad moment, but I honestly think it's the right time, and in many ways it's the perfect moment," said Collingwood. "This is what I've been playing the game of cricket for, to be in a position against Australia in Australia like this. I know I haven't contributed with the bat in this series, but I'm a very, very happy man."
At the age of 34, Collingwood knew he was on borrowed time at Test level. His last meaningful innings was against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in July when he made 82 alongside Eoin Morgan, the man most likely to take his place in the middle order. Since then, his returns have been disappointing, with 83 runs in the whole Ashes campaign including a final, frenetic innings of 13 on the third day at Sydney.
However, the desire to make amends for the whitewash four years ago, when his career-best 206 at Adelaide was not enough to stop the Australian juggernaut, made him determined to extend himself for one last series.
"This series has been a special series for me," he said. "I think 2005, playing at The Oval, was a special game, and a special moment, but although I haven't scored the runs out here I can barely take the smile off my face. It's been something that I've been waiting for, for a long time. The last time we were here four years ago, I actually managed to score runs and we got beat 5-0. This time I much prefer it this way around, let me tell you!"
Collingwood's fighting qualities have earned him plenty admirers in the course of his Test career, even though he has been written off at the highest level almost as often as he has battled back to produce a career- or match-saving innings. Right at this moment, however, Collingwood believes that the same qualities that helped hold the side together in the difficult years that followed the 2005 triumph are holding them back right now, as their stated goal of becoming the world's No. 1 Test team draws ever closer.
"That's one of the reasons why I'm moving on, to be honest!" he said. "Honestly, this team can go as far as they want to. As you can see from this series, our batting has gone from strength to strength. They can take a lot of confidence from the way they've played out here, but they can still progress and they are very eager to improve all the time. The work ethic that they have is fantastic, and that's one of the things I'll miss, but I'm very much looking forward to watch them in the future. They can be a very special side."
"Obviously my form hasn't helped, but I'm very realistic," he added. "At the same time there are some great young players coming though, but if I wanted to progress and stay in this England cricket team, I was going to have to work very hard on technical things, and whether I've got the time and the ability to stay up with this England cricket team, I'm not too sure.
"I'm very, very satisfied with the contributions over my Test career," he said. "It mustn't be easy to watch for some people at times, but I've fought hard, given my all, and as I said, this is the perfect moment. I've played the last year just to get into this series, and to be involved in a great England cricket team like it is at the moment, with some special players and some special characters, it's a very proud place to be. I can safely say I've made the right decision at the right time."
"A lot of people might find it difficult to believe I'd stay in the team that long. It's taken a lot of effort, in many ways I've over-achieved, averaging 40. In many ways I've scrapped it out. I've had my ups and downs but I wouldn't change a thing about how my career has been. Some of the players I've played with in that England dressing room have been exceptional, and I can safely say that the environment we've got in that dressing room is a very special place. That's why it's hard to leave, but it's definitely the right time."
Collingwood has long had a reputation for putting the team first, and his delight at toppling the Australians was unmistakable, and not remotely dented by his personal shortcomings with the bat. In his opinion, it is the culmination of a mission that began on his first tour of the country in 2002-03, when the challenge was to transform England's expectations against opponents that at times seemed invincible.
"This is what we were trying to build towards," he said. "At the time there wasn't the belief we could beat Australia, and it was a culture that we had to turn around. It didn't work last time around, but I honestly believe we have skilful cricketers in England, and we've got a culture that believes we can beat anyone in the world.
"I think that part of the game, the mental side, the belief, is a huge part, and creating a culture like that in the dressing room is more important than a lot of the technical work you do in the nets. These guys have worked long and hard for that, but they can get better as well, and go from strength to strength."
Matt Prior, who scored his first Ashes century on the fourth day at Sydney, said that Collingwood would be greatly missed within the England dressing room. "The part of a cricketer you don't see is the part away from the cricket ground," he said. "Everyone will know the stats and the important innings he's played, the great catches he's taken and the wickets he's taken. But it's what a bloke like Colly brings to the dressing room, he's definitely been one of the catalysts of why this team is where it is right now, and why the team spirit is like it is."
Collingwood admitted his motivation for making his announcement mid-Test was to scotch the whispers that had already begun to circulate, and also because he secretly believed that England might have won with a day to spare. And while he said that he had not intended to make a fuss about his departure, he admitted to feeling goosebumps in the final half-hour of the day, when England were pushing for victory with the Barmy Army in full cry.
"I'm a softie really, to be honest," he said. "I always said I wanted to bow out in England in front of English fans, but that felt like home tonight, with the atmosphere that was out there. It was very special. Someone said to me yesterday, I might not be too bothered about a massive swansong, but a lot of fans might be. When you look around the ground, you deserve to have those lasting memories."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.