Collingwood's hard graft points the way to England recovery

Durham batsman believes Ashes fightback is possible after a double century Down Under, writes Stephen Brenkley

On the players' balcony at the Waca the other day an old England hero came to shake hands with a new one. "Well done, it should be easy for you now," said Alec Stewart. Then, swiftly realising the implication of the phrase, but more importantly the nature of the man to whom he was speaking, he added: "No, not easy, you're one of the ones who would never think that. But you will go on from here."

Easy? Stewart was right second time. Paul Collingwood, the improbable star of England's tour so far, will never take things easy because so little has come easily to him. The double hundred he scored in the defeat in the Second Test last week, which followed a radiant 96 in the First Test in Brisbane, was reward for year after year of hard graft when the fuel of self-belief must have seemed as useful as treacle in a petrol tank. It would be tempting to call it the zenith of his career, except as Stewart recognised in time, he will not be satisfied either easily or at all.

"There were times when I wondered if I would get the chance I probably deserved but you have to blank it out at times and keep going," Collingwood said, reflecting on the will it ever happen years. His Test career has been stalled - much more stop than start - because he was first labelled as a one-day player and then found his chances staunched by a combination of continuity, the balance of the team when places arose, and the advent of other players.

True, he might have been fortuitous in being awarded an MBE for his part in the Ashes victory in 2005 (one Test, albeit the clincher at the Oval, two innings, 17 runs) because all other 11 players used in the series were honoured, but it was a rare example of Collingwood being in the right place at the right time.

At various moments while he has been in or around the Test squad, players like Andrew Strauss, Robert Key, Ian Bell and Alastair Cook have elbowed him out of the way. And here's a thing: it can now be said with certainty that at the start of this tour, with England apparently selecting from a full hand of batsmen, Collingwood was to be the one discarded.

"It was openly chatted about. I knew the situation and I was realistic," said Collingwood. "I always put myself in the coach's shoes. I knew I had to do something special in the warm-up games but in my heart of hearts I was asking which one would you drop and putting the noose round my own neck."

The reference to the coach was not accidental. Duncan Fletcher has been instrumental in the progress of Collingwood's career. Collingwood is Fletcher's type of man and vice versa. The mutual respect is overwhelming, and it is everything to do with hard work and making the best of your talent and opportunities. There have been times when Fletcher must have wanted sentiment to cloud his judgement, but he never has, which was why he was preparing to ditch Collingwood again for the Ashes.

The sudden departure of Marcus Trescothick with a stress illness changed everything. Very possibly, it has changed Collingwood's life. If he is as content with his game now as he has ever been - "after the two weeks I've had I should be" - it is only because the hard labour has made it worth the wait. There were two occasions that he can recall when he thought it might not happen for him, that his dream of becoming an established international cricketer was of the pipe variety.

The first was after his one-day debut in the home triangular series against Australia and Pakistan in 2001 when four innings brought 20 runs and left him dumfounded. For weeks afterwards, he thought that he was simply not good enough. That winter, re-selected, he made a breakthrough of sorts in Zimbabwe with a nerve-racked 36, followed it with 71 not out and has never been dropped from the one-day side since. The feeling re-emerged in slightly different fashion after he failed against Pakistan in the first Test of last winter and was omitted from the second. He thought that was that.

Collingwood has a one-year-old called Sam Strauss to thank for immediate resurrection. Sam's father, Andrew, left Pakistan to be at his first child's birth, Collingwood was recalled and made 96 and 80. If it did not make him secure in the side it gave him an unopposed place in the squad.

But still there were hurdles. Hundreds against India in India and Pakistan at Lord's did not allay the doubts about Collingwood, a bottom-handed player of limited range. Everybody admired his guts, his hard-nosed approach but few were honestly surprised when he was the nominated fall guy for this series.

At Brisbane, having been out cheaply in the first innings he played for almost an hour as though the bat was a radioactive lance. It was embarrassing for an England number four but he refused to be embarrassed out.

"I went in at lunch and asked them to strap two bats together because I can't hit it with one," he said. "You have to go out there chin out, but inside I was very nervous. We had a chat about it but all I said to Fletch was 'I need to go a bit softer at the ball I think' knowing what I had to do but finding it so hard. Stuart Clark was nibbling it both ways, he was bowling down Piccadilly and I was playing down Bakerloo."

But after lunch came apotheosis. Collingwood rolled back the years to vintage England number fours. He played languid off drives, he used his feet to Shane Warne like Billy Elliot. On 96, a hundred was his for the taking, but he launched himself at Warne once too often, trying for another boundary, and was stumped by a country mile. Shades of his redemptive 96 at Lahore a year earlier when he had attempted to hook Shoaib Akhtar for six and was caught at long leg.

There are no regrets. "You ask any young cricketer if they would want to reach a hundred with a six off Warne or Shoaib and very few would turn the chance down," he said laughingly. And he made immediate amends both times. In his next Test after Lahore, in Nagpur, he made his maiden hundred, in his next Test after Brisbane, he made 206. Both scores of 96 told him he could do it - though at Adelaide he spent a sleepless night on 98 not out. The half-volley on middle and leg which he received next morning was the sort of which he would have dreamt if he could have slept.

Bad defeats have taken the gloss off these innings against Australia and there may be no way back for England. Collingwood has a counter theory. "Nobody thought I would ever score a Test double-hundred, nobody thinks we can come back. You do the maths."

Maybe his greatest asset is not that he works so hard to overcome his limitations but that he recognises them. "I feel secure in the side now but a lot of it is pure hard work. It's grit and determination that gets me over the hurdles. Hopefully, one day it will become a little easier but I doubt it." Maybe, but as Stewart observed, he will go on from here.

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