The most sought-after item in an England dressing room is a 12-month central contract. It is the most lucrative and prestigious deal available to an English cricketer. Like the presentation of a county cap, it is the reward for becoming a prominent and consistent member of the team. It basically states that you have made it.
Well, this had become the case until Paul Collingwood was offered one by the England and Wales Cricket Board in September. Collingwood is a good batsman and the sort of character a captain wants in his team. Improved one-day performances over the past 12 months have made him a key figure in Michael Vaughan's plans for the 2007 World Cup. However, despite these achievements, the 27-year-old has done very little to suggest he will become a pivotal player in Vaughan's Test team.
Since the first England contracts were handed out in 2000, the only other selection to have caused such surprise was that of the Lancashire leg-spinner Chris Schofield. Questions were asked about Schofield's six-month deal, and the fortunate few to be signed up since have been key members of the Test team or regulars in both limited-overs and Test cricket. Between Schofield and Collingwood, no contracts were given to one-day specialists or youngsters with potential.
Collingwood has already admitted that his contract has put him under pressure. He feels he needs to show everyone he is worthy of the selectors' faith. Following his steady performances in Bangladesh, nobody doubts the Durham all-rounder's place in the middle order of England's one-day team, but he will only stop people doubting the selectors' wisdom when he successfully breaks into the Test side.
This will not be easy. Last summer's Test series against Zimbabwe was pencilled in as his chance. However, before playing a competitive game for his county he injured his left shoulder during a pre-season friendly. This, and further complications, kept him out until August. During his absence Anthony McGrath and Ed Smith were given chances to fill the No 5 spot, but it was only when Graham Thorpe returned to the side that this position was finally taken.
Since his one-day debut in 2001, Collingwood has impressed everyone with how he works at his game. Thorough and professional, the right-hander is a committed cricketer who gets stuck in and gives as good as he gets in the middle. At the moment his style is better suited to one-dayers, but the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, a huge fan, believes he has what it takes to make it as a Test cricketer.
In the field he is outstanding. Hannan Sarkar will vouch for this. Twice in the recent one-day series the Bangladesh opener lost his wicket because of Collingwood's athleticism. The first of these was through a brilliant catch at short extra cover, the second via a one-handed pick-up and direct hit from cover point.
If Collingwood is to get his chance in the five-day game he will need to score runs during this week's three one-day matches against Sri Lanka. If he fails, there is a real danger that Andrew Strauss could push ahead of him in the Test reckoning. Unlike Collingwood, whose 65 wickets in 95 first-class games just about qualify him as an all-rounder, Strauss is a specialist opener. The Middlesex captain's excellent 83 in yesterday's warm-up game against the Sri Lankan Cricket Board President's XI will have done his chances no harm.
Strauss may have to wait until England's tour of the West Indies in February to stake a claim for a place in the Test side, but this innings could be enough to gain him his one-day debut on Tuesday. Should he play, it will be at the expense of Vikram Solanki, whose miserable run contin-ued when he was wrongly given out lbw for nought.
Against a side containing several players with Test experience, and following a delayed start because of rain, Ian Blackwell proved again what a dangerous striker of the ball he is. The Somerset all-rounder arrived at the crease with England on 63 for 3, but his thunderous 52-ball innings of 63 and his 110-run partnership with Strauss allowed England to set a challenging total of 237 in their 38 overs.
Before the match was abandoned because of rain, England's bowlers were given a wake-up call. In Bangladesh they were able to bully their opponents with a barrage of short balls, but here those tactics look less likely to succeed, and the main disap-pointment for the visitors was that the rains came before Gareth Batty and Ashley Giles had the chance to have a meaningful bowl.
With spin likely to play a more significant part in the three-Test series which follows the one-dayers, England yesterday named Robert Croft as the 16th member of their squad. The Glamorgan off-spinner has not played for England since the Third Test against Australia in 2001, but in his 21 Tests he has become something of an overseas specialist: he has taken 35 of his 49 wickets while abroad.