Saturday Spotlight: Collingwood still denied star status

First published in Sport

FOR most players, the prospect of scoring 206 against Australia and yet still ending up on the losing side would seem incredulous.

For Paul Collingwood, though, it was merely par for the course. Rarely has a cricketer achieved so much without ever threatening to cast off the cloak of anonymity that continues to shroud them.

Even now, after writing his name into the record books alongside the legendary Wally Hammond as one of only three English batsmen to have scored a double century against Australia on Australian soil, the Durham all-rounder is still viewed as a character actor, rather than a leading light.

He is the Ashes winner that wasn't, a Member of the British Empire who was honoured for compiling scores of seven and ten in his one and only Test against the Australians last summer.

He is the lesser light of the Pietersen-Collingwood combination that has provided the only resistance to Australia's relentless assault in the current Ashes series.

And, most unfairly of all, he is still viewed as little more than an honest worker, diligently compiling his scores while his more talented team-mates attempt to play their shots around him.

To other men, such a flagrant lack of respect would rankle. To Collingwood, a player who has carved a career out of silencing the doubters, it is hardly something new. After all, he has been scrapping for recognition from the moment he first picked up a bat.

"Paul had talent when he first came to Durham," explained the county's director of cricket, Geoff Cook.

"But I don't think he had any more than a number of lads who came through with him at the time.

"It certainly wasn't a case of seeing Paul in the Under-17 team and thinking, 'There's an England player of the future'. It was more a case of thinking, 'There's a player who might have a chance if he works with us'."

Born in Shotley Bridge in May 1976, Collingwood was introduced to cricket on the playing fields of Blackfyne Comprehensive School.

By the time Durham achieved first-class status in 1991, he had forced his way into the county's junior side and made a fleeting appearance for England's Under-17s.

As a bowler who batted a bit, he had obvious potential, but the first of a number of trials that would come to characterise his career was about to rear its head.

"We'd identified Paul as one of a number of players that we wanted to work with but, as a youngster, he had terrible luck with his back," said Cook. "He missed an awful lot of cricket, and a lesser character could well have decided to call it a day.

"To his credit, Paul came back and worked harder than he'd ever done before.

"He couldn't bowl as much at the start, so he did an awful lot more batting and, straight away, there were obvious signs of talent there.

"By the time he forced his way into the Under-19 team he was batting at the top of the order, and the following year he was offered a professional contract and was scoring runs in the first team."

Even then, the battle had just begun.

To some players - Kevin Pietersen would be an obvious example - cricket comes naturally, with shot-making seemingly an extension of their natural state.

To others, talent is a quality to be nurtured, rather than a constant reality of their existence.

In football, the distinction would be illustrated by Kevin Keegan and George Best. While Best simply strolled on to the pitch and strutted his stuff, Keegan, like Collingwood, worked through every waking hour in an attempt to improve his game.

"I've seen a lot of cricketers, and I can honestly say that I've never worked with someone who has the same desire, commitment and thirst to improve as Paul," said the current Durham coach, Martyn Moxon.

"He's harboured an ambition to play for England for a long time and he's steadfastly refused to listen to anyone who said it couldn't be done.

"From an early stage in his development, Paul worked out what parts of his game he needed to improve to become an international player.

"For him, that meant devoting a lot of time to dealing with the ball that pitches just outside off-stump on a good length and just does enough to trouble the batsman.

"That's the ball that does the damage in international cricket, and Paul has worked out his strategies of dealing with it.

"He's also worked out a mental strategy for dealing with it over after over, session after session."

Such a methodical, gritty approach might not sit easily with England's cricketing purists but, in Australia, it is seen to distinguish a winner from an also-ran.

So it is little surprise to learn that Collingwood himself attributes much of his subsequent success to a season spent in Australian grade cricket in 2000-01.

Mixing with the no-nonsense club players of Melbourne, he won the Jack Ryder Medal for the best performer in the entire competition. More significantly, he also persuaded himself that he possessed the mettle needed to survive in one of the most unforgiving cricketing environments of them all.

"I think Paul's time in Australia definitely helped him," said Moxon. "He came back a much more confident player, and it wasn't too long before he was playing in England's one-day side."

For a while, the limited-overs game looked like being the extent of Collingwood's international ambitions.

His ability to bat and bowl made him an embodiment of the 'bits and pieces' model Duncan Fletcher was attempting to introduce to the one-day side but, at the start of last summer, a Test place appeared tantalisingly out of reach.

The challenge was to score enough runs for Durham to force his way into the Ashes reckoning. The response was a staggering six centuries as England's supposed one-day specialist proved his ability to stay the distance.

"I don't think there's any doubt that, in some quarters, he was regarded as a one-day player and nothing more," said Moxon.

"I remember talking to him and saying, 'The only way you can change that is by scoring runs'.

"The spotlight was on him and he scored six hundreds for us, including a couple of big 190s. If that's not performing under pressure, then I don't know what is."

And performing under pressure has proved to be Collingwood's forte this winter.

While last weekend's double hundred was arguably the greatest innings of his life, his 96 in the second innings at Brisbane was every bit as impressive.

With England threatening to capitulate for the second time in the match, Collingwood was the first player to threaten Australia's dominance and remind his team-mates that they had every right to be regarded as equals.

His massive innings in Adelaide was merely an extension of that knock, with the North-Easterner combining style and substance in a 515-minute marathon that lost none of its lustre because of the trauma of the final day.

Tellingly, even the Australians were impressed.

"He's a player who has really improved his game," said Australia coach John Buchanan. "He values his wicket very highly, he's improved his shot-making ability and certainly improved his footwork against spin. We're seeing some early results of that, but he's going to have to maintain it for a whole series and that's not something that's easy to do."

Even after one of the greatest innings of modern times, you see, when it comes to Collingwood, there still has to be a 'but'.

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