Collingwood moves from the fringe to central casting

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The Independent Online

This, at last, is Paul Collingwood's time. If one player could be singled out as England's one-day specialist, some- body with most of the necessary virtues, it is the under-stated man from Durham.

This, at last, is Paul Collingwood's time. If one player could be singled out as England's one-day specialist, some- body with most of the necessary virtues, it is the under-stated man from Durham.

He bats selflessly in the most fraught position in the order, he bowls when and where his captain wants, often to be milked mercilessly, he fields with an assured athleticism matched by a few but bettered by none. He is a one-day cricketer's one-day cricketer, and it is no slight to suggest that it is a pity he is not a slightly more talented odc's odc.

In the next frenetic fortnight he will be pivotal to England's chances of securing a win in the Standard Bank Series against South Africa. That was always likely to be the case, but with Andrew Flintoff hors de combat Collingwood's mature enthusiasm in a raw team assumes a new importance. In short, if he doesn't perform in two of the disciplines in each game, England can probably forget it.

He is schoolboyishly excited about the series. He has trekked round South Africa for five weeks as part of the Test squad without getting a sniff of a match, although he has been on the pitch often enough, for another thing about Collingwood is that he is the 12th man's 12th man.

There is no doubt that he was a surprising choice for the Test squad (whither Ian Bell, they said) but it demonstrated what the hierarchy thinks of his contribution. There is a little more to winning at cricket than how many runs you can score; when Marcus Trescothick was asked about the key off-the-field players before the recent Test series he named Collingwood without hesitation.

But it is the one-dayers he is here for. Of his 58 innings, half have been at No 6, and that is now his allotted position. It is probably the most onerous of all, demanding many different approaches.

"It's a versatile position," he said. "You have to adapt to whatever comes along, whereas opening, say, is a bit of a closed environment. It's probably the most satisfying position to bat in, but I'm still learning. You're going to make mistakes like I did in the Champions' Trophy final, when it was nibbling around a bit, I got a bit too pressurised, tried to hit one over the top and was caught at mid-on. But you have to take risks and try things, because you can't expect to pick up singles with a straight bat all the time."

Perhaps his best, though not his highest, innings for England, given the occasion, was the 66 not out he made from 73 balls in a World Cup group match against Pakistan in Cape Town two years ago. James Anderson's superlative swing bowling took the plaudits and the man-of-the-match award, but it was Collingwood's controlled innings which provided the platform. He needs more of the same.

In this series, his bowling will be required, and the good news is that he has added 10kmph to his speed and thinks he has also retained the steady control as well. "I did an exercise with Troy Cooley [the England bowling coach] in Trinidad which I think has had a lasting effect. I was bowling normally on a fast wicket and he got three of us to throw the ball as fast as we can. It showed you how much strength you have in your arm, it was probably going down at 100mph. The camera was on and this revealed that you've still got the same follow- through and pretty much the same run to the crease. It was a bit of fun at the time, but it's made me run in and hit the crease harder."

The fielding element in Collingwood's game should not be underestimated. "Another of my jobs in the circle is to be energetic and keep the other lads going and hopefully take a couple of catches." In the past couple of years at point he has taken a series of spring-heeled catches, the best seen in an England shirt.

His value, then, is clear. He has played 63 limited-overs internationals, more than all but two of the squad gathered in South Africa, but only two paltry Test matches, and it will affect him for the rest of his life if it stays like that. He had hoped to play a part in the Ashes this summer. "Maybe I still can," he said. "There's still a lot of things that can happen between now and then, but ideally you would like to be in the side for a year or so and get yourself cemented in."

He has seen both Andrew Strauss and Bell overtake him in the past year. But if Mark Butcher had agreed to open when Vaughan was injured at Lord's against New Zealand last year, Collingwood would have been drafted into the middle order. Strauss opened and the rest is history.

"I've always said that you get some good breaks along the way and you get some bad ones, and that wasn't a good one. But I don't yet see the dream fading. I'm still only 28.

"Look at some of the Aussies who are playing at 34 and 35. I still think I've got plenty of time, but I agree it will have to hurry up a little bit. The word I would use about my career as it stands is that it's OK. But I haven't yet fulfilled my dreams."

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