Collingwood's comfort zone turning to stony ground

In his matter of fact way, Paul Collingwood is neither making light of his current struggle for runs nor letting it get him down, not visibly, at any rate. He has been there before.

Indeed, when the matter was raised with him the other day, he disarmed the questioner by referring immediately to the trough into which he slipped on the last Ashes tour, when a run of 124 runs from eight Test innings preceded a yield of 63 from his first six knocks in the 50-over series. "I've had plenty of lean spells," he said, with a grin. "You know I have."

He recalled, too, that the dip in his Test form followed a double hundred in Adelaide, and that his bad trot in the one-dayers ended with a century in Brisbane. It was an illustration of the capability which Geoff Miller, the chief national selector, was keen to stress when he insisted, on the eve of this match, that neither Collingwood nor Ian Bell need consider his place under threat, in spite of their recent returns. In the light of that comment, the three overs immediately after lunch yesterday must, for Miller, have been particularly uncomfortable.

Bad enough that Andrew Strauss should undermine England's comfortable position by giving his wicket away. When Bell and Collingwood then both came and went in the blink of an eye, without adding to the score, it was a moment, perhaps, when a cloak of invisibility might have been a handy accessory.

The question Miller must ask himself is how far consistent selection can go before it looks like stubbornness. Naming an unchanged side for the fifth time in a row for the first time in 124 years has been tripped out as something worthy of pride.

Yet the statistic that should be on the minds of the England hierarchy is that this is likely to be the 12th Test to go by since the team posted a first-innings total of more than 400, which tends to suggest that change, rather than continuity, is required.

It would suggest also that, instead of receiving comforting assurances, Collingwood and Bell should be told bluntly what is expected of them, although neither player is daft enough to think that loyalty can perpetuate. Miller and company have already displayed a ruthless side by dropping Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard simultaneously during the winter.

Collingwood is under greater threat. His nine innings so far this season, in all cricket, have yielded only 63 runs. He prepared for this match by eschewing time in the middle with his county in favour of one-to-one work with Andy Flower, England's batting coach, yet the stiffly tentative jab at the ball that cost him his wicket yesterday hardly indicated progress.

Bell's position is safer. Whereas Collingwood has not scored a Test century in almost 12 months, the longest such sequence of his international career, the Warwickshire man does at least have the memory of his 110 in Napier in March.

Yet the statistics of this series offer no such comfort. From four innings each so far, the pair's collective output amounts to 76 runs.

Duncan Fletcher, their former coach, is in their camp, calling for stability ahead of the South Africa series. Yet by then, surely, Andrew Flintoff will be available and no bowler, currently, deserves to be dropped. And if the claims of Matt Prior to return as a batsman are being resisted, those of Ravi Bopara cannot be ignored.

For the troubled incumbents, therefore, the second innings here is likely to be particularly important. They shared an embrace of triumph after guiding England across the line at Old Trafford. This time it may be one of consolation.

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