Paul Collingwood: Block and awe

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His flamboyance and flair may be in short supply, but his sheer grit has saved three Tests and two series in the past year. In Johannesburg, Stephen Brenkley hears him explain the mindset that has made him the linchpin of England's batting line-up

In the words of the great Bob Willis, he is Brigadier Block. He is also Corporal Courageous and Sergeant Solid. Paul Collingwood, with that familiar back familiarly to the wall, could run the whole gamut from private to fieldmarshal. Three times in England's past eight Test matches, he has walked to the crease with the team in dire straits becoming direr and three times they have somehow secured draws with one wicket left.

Only once has he been there at the sweet end, but without his fortitude, his fortune, his sheer jaw-jutting bloody-mindedness all three matches – and probably two series as well – would have been lost. The new England of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, now almost a year old, has come to embody the team ethos, all for one and one for all, everybody in it together, individual responsibility for the collective good, blah, blah. Without Collingwood it could not have left the drawing board.

For most of his 56 Test matches – "that many?" exclaim some, or "so few?" suggest others to whom it seems he has been around forever – Collingwood has been on the verge of being dropped. Occasionally he has managed to buck the fashion but mostly he has seemed one match away from being axed, except crucially in the minds of the selectors.

Most recently his place was questioned at the fag end of last season. After his heroic match – and, probably, Ashes-saving innings at Cardiff, when he made 74 across nearly six hours, his contributions dwindled. By the close of September he looked not only exhausted but finished.

Yet he has come back this winter and prevailed. By weight of runs and the clear importance and timing of his work he has seen off all his critics. Nobody talks of dropping Collingwood now. When Willis came up with his nickname for Collingwood in one of his Sky analyses he was not being complimentary. Notoriously hard to please, Willis is also frequently right on the button. Collingwood has won him and many others over.

"He has often been walking the plank," Willis said yesterday. "A lot of them in that side have had to play an innings to stave off the sack, but his contributions have been pretty special recently.

"It's a more old-fashioned way of batting in Test matches. He knows well his limitations and plays within them and he has become as valuable a member of the side as there is. It's a fierce competitive instinct and he loves the challenge of occupancy of the crease and can clear his mind of everything else.

"It's often said that international cricket is played between the ears, and his constitution up there is clearly very strong."

Collingwood concedes that his policy in such positions as England have found themselves has been more or less to block every ball. At Cardiff in the first Test of the 2009 Ashes, they were 31 for 3 turning into 46 for 4, at Centurion in the first match of this series 172 for 4 deteriorating to 218 for 9, and at Cape Town last week 153 for 4 with 79 overs left to play.

"My backlift isn't too high and I wasn't looking to score too many runs," says Collingwood, who has actually seemed to have eschewed a backlift completely. "I think it is like anything else, it is a skill, a mental skill more than anything else, not being worried about how you look or scoring runs and I think you've got to understand the situation you're in before you go out there.

"The attitude is that is anything is wide, leave it, anything short, drop your hands, and anything on the stumps, block it. You keep it as simple as possible, I'm out there to waste as many balls as possible.

"You've got to have your mental preparation done before you go out to bat, and then once you get out there you also need a lot of luck, and thankfully I had a lot of that during that Dale Steyn spell."

Collingwood and Ian Bell who, scored 78 at Newlands, seemed to be saving the match comfortably in a long, stoic partnership until a late flurry of wickets, including theirs, tilted the match South Africa's way again. Graham Onions, becoming like Collingwood, a serial saver of Tests, blocked out the final over for the second time in the series.

There were two key moments in Collingwood's innings. The first was when the review system prevented him from being out first ball because a slip catch which had been given was subsequently overturned. The second was in Steyn's enthralling, brilliant spell with the second new ball.

It lasted 36 balls, 29 of which were faced by Collingwood, at least 12 of which might have dismissed him. Collingwood, who only played in the match after passing a late test on a dislocated left index finger, was at his absolute best in those overs. He was being beaten all ends up and he knew it. But he refused to be embarrassed out.

"It was certainly the best spell I've faced," he said. "It was literally a matter of inches every time. You knew when he was running in to bowl that the ball would be in an uncomfortable area. The first over was strange because I thought I could score off him. Obviously, I wasn't in the frame of mind to score off him, but I thought I could.

"Then a bit of lacquer came off and there was more seam movement than anything else and, as you could see, I couldn't lay bat on it. Thinking about what to leave and what to play was a nightmare because the odd one was going straight. I saw the replays and it was only missing by a couple of inches so I thought, 'I've got to play at these.' It was the best spell I've faced because usually in those spells I'm out so it was the best that I've got through."

Apart from his durability – and let it not be forgotten that he is England's most capped one-day player – Collingwood has the endearing trait of being able to laugh at himself. He knows that he is not blessed with outrageous talent or flair, that it is all based on more prosaic virtues. A little game is played every so often by hangers-on accompanying the England caravan, comparing Collingwood to previous occupants of the number four or five position in England's batting order.

The names that are usually reeled off embrace Graveney, Cowdrey, Gower, Lamb and go back to Leyland and Jardine. But only Graham Thorpe has had more innings at five than Collingwood (78 to 57) and none of those illustrious men could have played the sort of way Collingwood has done lately to dig his side out of deep holes.

The three heroic innings together have lasted a total of almost 13 hours in which he has faced 532 balls, 454 from which he has not scored.

Sometimes he has hit fours – indeed 80 of the 140 almost incidental runs that the innings have yielded have come from boundaries – because there were so many men round the bat that the ball has sped away once it has broken through the cordon. But mostly he has shuffled around the crease, not moving his bat much and moving his feet only a little more, playing as straight as he can. Opponents know what they can expect.

As Jacques Kallis, scorer of two hundreds for South Africa in this series so far both in drawn causes, said yesterday: "To get the balance of the side you need your Kevin Pietersens, who are aggressive, and then you need your Collingwoods, who are the rock of the side, who the guys bat around.

"He has shown what a quality player he is. He has summed up situations and his experience has come into play and he has played accordingly. Perhaps at times he isn't the prettiest player in the world but you'd rather take guys that are ugly and get the runs and get the job done than pretty players who don't always produce goods."

Collingwood can hardly move for plaudits but he keeps returning to the team ethos. He was full of praise for Bell, who might have played a career-defining innings at Newlands, and he seems glad to have helped him. "When you play those kind of innings it filters through the team and I think it gives the other lads a lot of confidence that it can be achieved," he says. "Until you do something, you don't know whether you can do it or not.

"What Ian Bell did the other day was a massive hurdle for him and he came through it with flying colours. His attitude in the middle was first class and as soon as he got out there you could tell that he had the belief that he could do it, but he wouldn't actually have it until he did it."

The newly and rightly venerated Collingwood also had words of support for Pietersen, virtually his direct antithesis as a batsman, for whom things are not going well in this series. "I think that we can sometimes get a bit harsh on KP because of the way he has been in the past," he says. "He is our genius in the side in the way that he does play.

"He played pretty well at Centurion, I thought, and showed glimpses of his best there. It will affect him, of course it will, it affects everybody no matter who you are. If you go through a period where you're not scoring runs for the team it affects you, but he knows he's got the ability. He's got the talent and the mental ability, he'll be back to his best."

In the past, it might have been Pietersen reassuring his colleagues such as Colly that he would come again. A little bit of Colly perhaps wants to be KP. It is a rather startling fact that of the 14 matches in which Collingwood has had an innings of 80 or more, England have won only two. In other words, he is the patron saint of fighting causes. He looks as fresh as a daisy. "I'm putting it down to the environment we have in the dressing room," he says, "the environment that Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have created, the desire of every single player in the dressing room to move this team forward, the desire of every player to move their own games forward.

"That, to me, is what a team is all about, helping each other out, and I'm actually loving my cricket at the moment, all three forms of the game. The team ethos has certainly been non-negotiable and it's an important part of how we operate, probably the most important part of how we operate." That is Brigadier Block, CBE, defender in chief, commander of resistance forces, South Africa.

Defiant streak: Colly's stands

* Galle, 2003 With England's first innings total falling short of Sri Lanka's by almost 100 runs, Collingwood stood strong for three hours, during which he managed just 36 runs. A half century from Mark Butcher effectively took the game away from the hosts as the game ended in a draw.

* Cardiff, 2009 Colly's second-innings stand of almost six hours, 245 balls and 74 runs in the first Ashes Test at Swalec Stadium was crucial in setting up England's series win. With his side under pressure and needing to bat out the final day, Collingwood's commanding innings came to an end with 69 balls remaining, before final-wicket pairing James Anderson and Monty Panesar managed to see it out.

* Cape Town, 2010 In a bid to save the third Test at Newlands, Colly (assisted by Ian Bell) batted out most of the afternoon, scoring just 40 from his four and a half hours at the crease, to help England grind out yet another nail-biting draw.

Thou shalt not pass: England's master blockers

Eddie Paynter

In the fourth Ashes Test of 1932-33, England found themselves 216 for 6 in Brisbane. During the test Paynter was taken to hospital with tonsillitis and was not expected to bat unless absolutely necessary. Emerging from the pavilion and refusing Australian's offer of a runner, Paynter remained at the crease until the close of play. The next morning, having spent the night back in hospital, he was finally given out, after scoring 83 in nearly four hours and 238 balls and putting on a ninth-wicket partnership of 92.

Willie Watson & Trevor Bailey

Nearing the end of the Lord's Ashes Test of 1953, England faced defeat following a mid-order collapse. Watson and Bailey proceeded to bat for over nine hours, putting on 180 to defy the Australian bowlers and earn a draw. Later, in 1958 Bailey became the holder of the slowest ever half-century, taking almost six hours and 425 balls against the Aussies in Brisbane. Sadly this heroic effort couldn't stave off defeat.

Chris Tavaré

Over a 16-month period Christopher Tavaré proved particularly adept at blocking, with three notable performances. The first, at Old Trafford, in the final Ashes Test of 1981, saw Tavaré score a second innings 50 lasting an incredible five hours. He would go onto to help England win the series 3-1. Tavare then spent seven and a half hours at the crease in one innings against India in Delhi later the same year, helping England draw, before pulling the same trick in the 1982-83 Ashes. Another marathon first innings contribution, totalling over seven hours at the crease and putting on 89 runs, took England to a draw at Perth.

Michael Atherton

In the second Test in Johannesburg in 1995, the England opener posted a second innings score of 185 not out, spending 10 hours at the crease and defying fast bowlers Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock to rescue the game. Two and a half years later, again against South Africa and the fiery Donald, he cemented his reputation by spending nearly six hours at the crease, facing 277 deliveries on the way to a Test-winning 98 not out.

Andrew Evans

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