Backward point who is nudging England forwards

Paul Collingwood is an awesome fielder but his contribution to the England cause is far greater, as Paul Newman discovers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

You only have to listen to Paul Collingwood describe the final balls of Tuesday's ICC Champions' Trophy semi-final to appreciate what beating Australia meant to England. Even winning today's final against the West Indies might not match the euphoria of such a comprehensive victory over Ricky Ponting's team, which ended a run of 14 successive one-day defeats at the hands of the old enemy.

Collingwood, now almost a veteran in England's youthful side, played in seven of those defeats, including the World Cup disappointment in Port Elizabeth last year and a frustrating VB Series final in Melbourne five weeks earlier, when the Durham all-rounder watched at the non-striker's end as Brett Lee tore through the tail to give Australia an improbable five-run victory.

At Edgbaston this week, however, Collingwood faced his first ball from Lee knowing that England needed just six runs for victory and had wickets and overs in hand. "Brett Lee's a fantastic fast bowler and it's quite a sight when he's running towards you," Collingwood said. "I knew the first ball would be a yorker or a short one. It was a yorker [a no ball, whipped away to leg for two runs]. I was expecting the short ball he bowled next, which I ducked. I thought: 'If he does that again, I'll go for it.' The good thing was that it was an easy-paced pitch. Sure enough, it was a short one and I was able to pull it for four.

"To hit the winning runs was very special. There were a few of us who were desperate to turn the tables on the Aussies and you only had to see the look on the faces of our players to know what it meant to us all."

It might seem odd to describe the fresh-faced Collingwood as an old hand, but with 58 one-day internationals under his belt, only three other players in the England squad (Marcus Trescothick, Darren Gough and Andrew Flintoff) have more experience. Only Trescothick and Flintoff can beat the 28-year-old's five man-of-the-match awards.

While eyebrows were raised at his selection for this winter's Test series in South Africa, few would deny Collingwood's worth in the one-day side. Duncan Fletcher, the coach, is his biggest supporter, appreciating his wholehearted commitment and willingness to learn.

Collingwood has built his reputation as a "bits and pieces" player, a batsman who can deflect and nudge to keep the scoreboard ticking over, an outstanding fielder who has become one of the world's best in his specialist position at backward point, and a bowler whose steady medium pace can offer useful support to the front-line attack.

As England have made progress through the summer Collingwood has cemented his place at No 6. His innings of 80 against Zimbabwe included three sixes, proving he is more than just a steady accumulator of scampered ones and twos. His one-day international average is 35, more than respectable for a player who often reaches the crease when there is a crisis or when quick runs are needed.

"I'm in a position now which I know is mine," he said. "In the past I've been chopped and changed around a bit. Now I know this position's mine and I can really get to know how to handle it. I've learned when's the time to really go for it and when not to. I know that generally I'm not going to be going for the big shots like Freddie [Flintoff]. I'd love to be able to smack the ball all over the place like Freddie, but my job's to nurdle the ball around. It might be a bit boring, but if you do it well, it's extremely satisfying."

While Collingwood says he is "just delighted to be involved" with England, he would probably like to jettison the jack-of-all-trades reputation. "I love batting," he said. "Making my first England hundred in Perth a couple of winters ago was a big thing for me. It proved that I could hold down a position as a batsman. I want to be an all-rounder, but I'm a batsman first. Whatever comes on top of that is a bonus.

"I've always known that my bowling wasn't as strong as my batting. I try to improve it and, hopefully, in the future I can bowl a full 10 overs. The problem for me is that I don't get the ball until it's 25 or 30 overs old and it doesn't swing any more, which is my strength."

The one area in which nobody doubts Collingwood's abilities is his fielding. He has held a series of spectacular catches in the last year, none more so than his effort to dismiss Ramnaresh Sarwan at Headingley. Television technology showed that the ball took just 0.64 seconds to reach Collingwood after the West Indian batsman had smashed Trescothick's long-hop, yet the Durham man dived high and to his right to take a brilliant one-handed catch. "What was particularly pleasing was that I'd come closer to the bat to try and cut out the singles," Collingwood said. "I wasn't far from the bat at all. It was also very pleasing because it's not very good viewing [sighting the ball against the background crowd] at Headingley.

"I love fielding and I love practising. We've started doing some drills lately with Duncan Fletcher. He's been whacking the ball at us from very close range. I drop a few and get hit on the wrist, but it definitely improves your reaction time. It means that when you're out in the middle, 15 yards from the bat, the ball sometimes seems to come to you in slow motion."

If practice makes perfect, so does experience, which is the one quality England perhaps lack. They have been winning by comfortable margins recently, but in the past have often lost out in tight finishes.

"That comes down to experience," Collingwood said. "When you look at someone like Inzamam [the Pakistan captain] you realise he has probably played more one-day internationals for Pakistan than the whole of the England team put together. I think we are getting better in those tight situations, but the fact is there's no substitute for experience. If you've been in that situation plenty of times before, you know how to deal with it. We're still learning, but the good thing is that we are getting there."