You tend to go into other series pretty much knowing what is going to happen – if you play well you are going to win, but the Ashes…" begins Paul Collingwood, and then he pauses, as if the roller-coaster of his own experiences against the old foe is careering around his mind. "It brings that extra pressure, extra nervousness. The speculation and intensity is another level. For a lot of players it is a really nerve-racking time. It was always that first day, singing the national anthem, all the build up to it. You are desperate to get into it, get out on the park and get the competitive juices flowing."
Collingwood knows what it is like to win the Ashes and lose them, to have moments of exquisite triumph, moments of utter dejection, the full cricketing gamut; a double hundred in a losing cause, a rearguard action that led to a winning one and even at the end it was a churning mix of emotion – victory accompanied by tears.
"The Ashes," suggests Collingwood, "are like the Olympics – that's what it means to everyone."
Collingwood played the last of his 16 Ashes Tests in Sydney in the fledgling days of 2011, six years after his first. It was the final match of the last series between the sides, in which England earned a first Ashes win in Australia in 24 years and Collingwood had decided it would be his last as an England Test player.
"I was very emotional," he says of that final day when England completed an innings victory. "I was wearing my glasses all the time in the field because there were times when I was in tears. None of the boys knew it – I hadn't told them that I was about to retire. There were times when it was real emotion – this is your last game of Test cricket for England, something I had always wanted to do.
"I remember walking in every single day through the groundsman's entrance and looking up at the cross of St George and just being proud, being proud of having played for my country. There were loads of emotions but knowing you were leaving Australia with the Ashes and having won them convincingly was a great feeling."
Collingwood played his first Ashes Test in the last game of the historic 2005 series, partnering Kevin Pietersen for 72 minutes of his epic innings at The Oval, 72 minutes of Shane Warne rabbiting in his ear. There was even longer in the middle in Cardiff four years later – 344 minutes of a resistance that was improbably completed by Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar. In between those was England's catastrophic whitewash Down Under. That it also included Collingwood's career-best 206, made against Glenn McGrath and Warne, a regular critic of Collingwood's, did little to diminish a chastening experience. "I'm very proud of scoring 200 against Australia [in Adelaide 2006] with the bowling attack they had but that was one of the most mentally tough tours I have ever been on," he recalls. "They really drilled us. They were ruthless. It became very tough."
His varied Ashes experiences, and that tour in particular, have instilled in him a wariness of Australia and an insistence that the current side – no matter its trials and tribulations, from David Warner's bar-room brawl to a whitewash in India – will pose a threat to England, both here and, in particular, back there this winter.
"I find that a ridiculous comparison to make – oh England won out there [in India] and Australia got absolutely annihilated," he says. "It would be silly to write Australia off because of that. It is completely different conditions. In India you rely on spin, you rely on reverse swinging the ball and scoring big runs. Australia's spin-bowling department is not as strong as England's. The way they reverse swing the ball is not as good as England but those two skills will not be tested as much in English conditions. The skills of swinging the ball around with the Dukes ball and bowling fast in good areas will be a skill you need in English conditions, which they have an abundance of.
"They are a dangerous side. Look at that seam-bowling department, they are going to cause a lot of problems. England are a good batting line-up when they are on song but [Australia] have some serious pace and it's not just pace – they swing the ball around as well, and certainly in English conditions they can be a handful. When you have a team that can take 20 wickets they are going to be dangerous.
"It's whether they can score enough runs. But if someone like David Warner, who has a point to prove, comes off, or Michael Clarke has a good series, or Shane Watson – you can go through their team and they are actually a competitive team, especially in conditions where those seam bowlers come into their own. They are going to be dangerous."
When the players trot out of the pavilion at Trent Bridge this morning and line up for the anthems, Collingwood, who is still playing for Durham and beginning a coaching career, will be in front of the TV, as he was when the 2005 series began.
"I miss it, of course I do. When you come out of international cricket you find it hard to replicate the intensity and the adrenalin. It's an amazing environment to be involved in so you miss those times, the big crowds, playing the game. But I love watching England – they have moved on even in the couple of years since I stopped playing Test cricket. I think they are a highly skilful team now. I would love to be involved with England in some way in the future but at the moment it is just great to watch them."
Paul Collingwood is an ambassador for Yorkshire Bank, who are giving away 150 cricket bats via their Giving Bat to You campaign at: www.facebook.com/YorkshireBankCricket
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