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Collingwood's crew mistake toughness for simple bullying

England need to learn how to finish a fight, not start one

When push comes to shove, as it were, England are in a confused state. They are desperate to play tough cricket because they do not want to be anybody's soft touches. This is as it should be because big-time cricket, particularly but not only Test cricket, is a demanding business.

But England continue to mistake toughness for bullying. In seeking to display their credentials as competitors to be reckoned with (at every opportunity) they are in serious danger of becoming boorish. Maybe it is because they recognise that they are not yet terribly good and that an uncompromising attitude will help them to be better.

Toughness, they should know, is the least of their virtues. Presumably the team psychologist has confirmed to them by now that many of their recent actions leading to the events of last week have succeeded only in revealing their insecurity – and it's not so deep-rooted.

That is perhaps the explanation for their refusal to reinstate the New Zealand batsman Grant Elliott after he was knocked to the ground and run out last Wednesday when trying to sneak a quick single. The argy-bargy might have been accidental but something like it was always likely to occur given the way England disport themselves.

The excuse was that the aftermath happened in the heat of the moment, which always seemed tenuous considering that nearly two minutes elapsed between Elliott being knocked down and eventually leaving the field. But it has transpired that umpire Mark Benson asked Collingwood, as he placed two avuncular hands on the captain's shoulders, if he wanted to withdraw the appeal bearing in mind the spirit of cricket. The last seven words were the key part of the question.

If this unsavoury incident grabbed most of the attention it was not the extent of England's culpability. Collingwood's four-match ban, the first England player to be suspended, was not for transgressing the spirit of cricket. He appeared before the beak because England failed to bowl their overs in the time allotted for the second time within a year.

Failing to bowl the overs in 210 minutes might not seem an abhorrent offence, although TV directors with time slots to fill might have been irritated. And anybody blind to the spirit of cricket is unlikely to be acquainted with Section J, part 4 of the ICC Code of Conduct, in which the regulations are stipulated. But England and Collingwood had already pushed Section J to its limit. There had been the breach at Bristol last year for which Collingwood was punished and he would have known any similar infraction within a year would attract a ban.

But there were also the shenanigans at Edgbaston a mere two weeks ago when England, it was clear, deliberately slowed down the over-rate to make sure New Zealand did not have a decent tilt at victory. The team and their captain escaped censure, but it must have been a near thing.

Slowing down the rate slows down the flow of the game. It might demonstrate the determination of the fielding side to get everything right but it betrays insecurity, the fear of getting on with it because they also fear what might happen.

Collingwood has been directly in the line of fire, which is a pity because no one has played genuinely tougher one-day cricket for England in the past five years. It was always a concern that a player such as he is – gutsy, not quite in the top bracket, absolutely determined to make the most of his talent – would be Sergeant Major rather than General material.

In his way, Collingwood has evolved as rather a canny captain but the feeling persists that his are the tricks of the cunning old pro rather than the innovative natural leader. The difference is sometimes not that great but it is that between winning and losing.

The cut of this England's jib was forged under Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain (though Hussain's dramatic and righteously apoplectic commentary on the Sidebottom-Elliott kerfuffle indicated that he would not have allowed the appeal to stand). They had to be tougher than they had been hitherto. There were times under Fletcher when the macho posturing was a little overbearing and that has not dissipated under the stewardship of Peter Moores. An eminently likeable man, Moores is also of the cricketing hard school.

When he was coach at Hove, the idea of a nice day at Sussex by the sea became a thing of the past. It is a thin dividing line but maybe it is that between starting a fight and a refusal to back down from one. If England want to mix it with the big boys, they need to learn that.