In early June of 2001, Paul Collingwood was selected for England's one-day side. Since his career batting average in all forms of the game at the time was in the mid-twenties, it was nothing more than a hunch by the selectors, and a fortnight, four innings and 20 runs later it looked like madness.
Collingwood might have been sent back to Durham for good - and his own good. He had been consumed. In terms of cricket he knew Janet and John Part One, and the players with whom he was confronted were dealing in the entire bound volume set of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
"I've improved a bit since then," he said last night at a press conference where a smile played permanently round his lips, but all he can have wanted to do was whoop and yell from any available rooftop about what he had done. A couple of hours earlier, he had become only the third England player to score a Test double hundred in Australia, and the first for 70 years.
Think about that for a moment. England have played 14 series in Australia in that time and 84 Test matches, and not one of their batsmen has scored more than 188. Collingwood, unsung Colly from Shotley Bridge, went out and beat all manner of records.
Perhaps the one that puts this epic innings into context was that the previous highest score by an Englishman in a Test at Adelaide (and there have been 28 of them) was the 187 made by Jack Hobbs in January 1912.
Hobbs is a legend of the game, the first thoroughbred professional. Collingwood has had to scrap for everything that has come his way. None of it has been exactly straightforward. At the start of this tour, it was almost certain that he would be the batsman to miss out in the Test side.
Three men were vying for two places, and it was widely presumed that Alastair Cook and Ian Bell were those with the pedigree and the class. Collingwood had the chin but not the talent. He would have to go.
The departure of Marcus Trescothick altered plans radically. Collingwood was catapulted to No 4 in the Test side to preserve Kevin Pietersen at No 5. This was not received with widespread acclaim.
At Brisbane in the First Test, after being dismissed cheaply in the first innings, like everybody else, he was next door to useless for almost an hour in the second. Colly had brought Janet and John to the crease again. Cynical, seasoned observers in the press box, feeling his discomfort, wondered aloud if he was in fact the least capable No 4 to play in a Test for England.
This was looking pretty daft by the late afternoon of the fourth day, when Collingwood started unfurling handsome off-drives, which are not a staple part of his game, and using his feet like Billy Elliott, another bloke from the North-east, to Shane Warne. He was denied a hundred only when he tried one pas de deux too many.
But not yesterday. He had been 98 not out at the close on the first day. He then did his own version of Sleepless in Adelaide. "I felt like I was getting up every 20 minutes," he said. "I had missed out at Brisbane because of the nervous nineties but I felt there if I could have got to that hundred I could have gone on and got a big one. That was what I wanted to do here."
He went on and on to 150 and then past all those great players who had made big hundreds in Australia. Past Hutton, Ranji, Rhodes, Vaughan, Sutcliffe, finally past Mike Denness, who had made 188 in a dead match in 1975, until only Wally Hammond and Tip Foster were ahead of him.
What an innings it was. In its way it touched greatness because of the type of player he is. Collingwood has made everything of his talent. He was first promoted by David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, who had a soft spot for all things Durham, having been their first Championship captain. But Duncan Fletcher, the coach, soon took him to his heart. Graveney and Fletcher have not agreed on much in the past seven years, but they have been as one on this man.
Collingwood made it as a one-day player first, certain selection becoming indispensability. But his game never seemed robust or versatile enough for Tests. It remained his dream, but when he talked about it you felt a degree of sympathy for misguided ambition. A cat may look at a king. Ho hum.
He became something else, an integral part of Team England. He was tough, and the other players wanted him around the squad. That helped. Collingwood hung in.
As he hung in yesterday. Whatever happens now, he has etched - etched rather than drawn elegantly - a place in English cricket history.Reuse content