Collingwood: The nearly man, and now the greatest

He continues to astound his many critics with sheer willpower

For an hour or so on Friday night Paul Collingwood was a prince of the batting arts. He danced two paces down the pitch and flicked a six over mid-wicket as if he was Sachin Tendulkar. Warmed up, he produced a cover drive for four that could have been struck by Ricky Ponting, and pulled another six which Sanath Jayasuriya might have equalled but not surpassed.

Here was footwork, timing, power. But the main constituent was sheer grit, a bloody-mindedness that is Collingwood's alone. There will never come a day when a batsman plays a stroke that suggests to the observer it comes straight from the Collingwood canon – unless it be an unwieldy shovel over mid-wicket.

Any player of the future being compared to Collingwood will be the object of a much greater compliment. "That lad reminds me of Colly" will be a testament to toughness, determination, single-mindedness, dedication, fitness, desire. Above it will be a paean of praise to one who has made the utmost of his talent, has squeezed it dry and then pressed it some more. He will probably have to come from Durham.

When Collingwood started out on his England career eight summers ago, nobody, least of all himself, would have entertained the thought that he would become England's most capped one-day cricketer. He looked not only out of his depth but almost embarrassed to be there. He made scores of 2, 8, 0 and 9. In the last two innings he was dismissed by Waqar Younis and Glenn McGrath, two greats of the game with whom Collingwood seemed to have no right to be sharing a field or even a sport.

If England reach the final of the Champions Trophy, a distant prospect but not quite as ridiculous as it seemed before they opened their account on Friday night against Sri Lanka, Collingwood will probably make his 171st appearance, overtaking Alec Stewart. Only three players have made more runs, only five have taken more wickets.

Collingwood made himself into an international cricketer. Perhaps he was fortunate that England stuck with him; perhaps he was fortunate their next assignment in the winter of 2001 was against Zimbabwe. But he came through with a battling 36 in his first innings there (caught behind by Andy Flower, now England's coach) and has been part of the fabric ever since.

He has defied critics time and again, not least in Australia in early 2007. England were hopeless, Collingwood looked as if he would never score another run. In the space of six days he produced scores of 106, 120 not out and 70. They were not so much career-saving as career-defining.

This is how Collingwood has perennially responded. When the doubts have been stacking up like gathering storm clouds he has swept them away with a burst of sunshine from nowhere. He will not countenance the idea of being rejected by England. He wants to play every match.

In Johannesburg he walked into a press conference laughing like a drain at your correspondent's musings. In an all-too-quick player-by-player summation of the one-day series against Australia (and in truth the latter part of the Ashes) the verdict on him had been fairly damning. A tired player on the slide, it had read. Collingwood found the proposition as objectionable as he thought it misguided. On the slide, on the slide? He aimed, he said, to get another three years yet out of his international career. He probably will, too, despite the recent evidence.

Although his valiant second innings of 70 at Cardiff enabled England to sneak the draw in the First Test, without which the Ashes would in all probability not have been recaptured, he was badly out of form for most of the series. The trouble is that when he is out of form, he looks grotesque.

All the jaw-jutting obstinacy cannot mask the primitive nature of the bottom-handed lunges, the pokes outside off stump, the prods to short leg. When Collingwood is like this, it is as though he is offering the exact opposite of a batting masterclass. How not to bat in seven uneasy stages. He could set up a consultancy.

If it is surprising that he has played more one-dayers for England than anyone else – and led the side 25 times – it would seem to many that his 53 Test appearances represent the eighth wonder of the world. He waited and waited on the fringes for his chance.

The truth was that nobody but him presumed him to be quite good enough. The "but him" was all that really mattered, and it has kept mattering. It is tempting to suggest there is an element of self-delusion in Collingwood's continuing belief in himself as a Test batsman.

Not a bit. He knows only too well that what he lacks in natural gifts he has to compensate for with application. And he keeps doing it. Remember Edgbaston 2008. He was in one of his thinnest trots and he made 135. Collingwood all over. Drop me if you dare. It was like that on Friday night - 46, 0 for 24 in eight overs, Man of the Match for the 13th time. Fresh as a daisy. Going nowhere.

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