James Lawton: Collingwood has a rare gift: he can defy fiercest foes

Collingwood's backlift was as hard to chart as that of a pickpocket at Naples station
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There may have been a team who played harder and at times more brilliantly than South Africa did in Cape Town over the last five days without winning but it is not easy to recall or imagine.

Just as difficult to believe is that any bowler ever produced, fruitlessly, such a superb new-ball spell as Dale Steyn did yesterday. Or a captain who led so artfully, and batted so magnificently, as Graeme Smith did only to see the now serial survivor Graham Onions raise his hand in deliverance for the second time in three Test matches.

Yet, however much you bleed for South Africa, you just have to keep returning to the source of their grief – an England team who just a year ago were the basket case of international cricket.

No longer are they within a long voortrek of such a status.

Not under the cool and resolute leadership of Andrew Strauss, so bizarrely ignored in the voting for Britain's sports personality of a year in which he clawed the Ashes back out of the grasp of Ricky Ponting.

Not with a resolution that English cricket probably hasn't known since the blood-chilling days of Trevor "Barnacle" Bailey and the most cussedly defiant Yorkshireman of them all, Brian Close.

Not with Paul Collingwood, who breaks the spirit of some of the world's best bowlers just for fun.

Collingwood may not be in the top 50 most aesthetically pleasing cricketers – not even in his own native, champion county Durham.

He has no pretensions to style. Indeed, before yesterday's four- and-a-half-hour stint of decisive resistance, he was inviting former thoroughbreds like David Gower and Sir Ian Botham to examine an example of batting cut down to the very bare bones of functional defiance. He said it with vast relish and was as good as his word as the brilliant Steyn and the lurking Morne Morkel were all but broken by the scale of his resistance.

Collingwood's backlift was as hard to chart as an ace pickpocket's at Naples railway station.

When the South Africans excitedly celebrated the huge breakthrough of his early dismissal, he called for a referral with the assurance of a gunfighter ordering a shot of rye. Then he proceeded with his business.

His business is in the very entrails of big-time cricket. It's grafting against the odds, or perhaps supporting a star like Kevin Pietersen. When KP was on song, Collingwood was happy to play the secondary role, nudging and clipping his way out of the choir stalls of the team. In Adelaide, when England were in the process of being ransacked for their impertinence in claiming the Ashes in 2005, Pietersen and Collingwood offered the most serious resistance.

In Cardiff, in the first trial of the last Ashes, Collingwood's long act of defiance made survival possible.

So it was at the Newlands ground yesterday. Collingwood did not so much meet the challenge as inhale it. You might not cross the road willingly to see Collingwood bat or bowl – his slip catching is, on the other hand, in the very highest order of cricket spectacle – but having been drawn there for one reason or another, there is surely no one you would prefer to see if England happen to be in straitened circumstances.

In some ways it is a travesty of cricket that England now go to Johannesburg to defend a 1-0 series lead. At both Centurion and in Cape Town, they have been outplayed in large phases of the game but each time Collingwood has brought an element of defiance which has come to define the strength of Strauss's team. It means that you can harass England unmercifully, you can raise question marks against every element of their game – though this will be somewhat less easy in the case of Ian Bell after another impressive example of concentration under the threat of career implosion – but you are still left with the problem of getting past Collingwood.

He has the kind of competitive belligerence which was once the stock in trade of Close, who lost the England captaincy for no better reason than attempting to throttle a Warwickshire member he deemed a little too vocal.

At Lord's, Close braved the then most ferocious challenge in cricket, the witheringly hostile pace of Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith, then giggled back in the dressing room when team-mates gasped at the extent of his bruising.

Collingwood doesn't have to submit to quite such ordeals in a more safety-conscious age of cricket. But the suspicion must be that he would have been willing enough. Once again, certainly, he has reminded us that mere talent will never properly cover the demands required of great sportsmen. If this wasn't true, Collingwood's place at the top of English cricket might not have survived the early evidence that, if he was a superbly committed professional, he almost certainly lacked the grace notes of a Gower or the heady swashbuckling of a Botham.

Instead of any of that, Collingwood has supplied something that is most tangible when the going gets rough. He grows in such circumstances and the odds seem to reverse themselves and begin to fall in his favour.

No one, for example, could have been surprised that a wave of long buried optimism swept through the South Africans at the sight of Collingwood disappearing into the pavilion. Suddenly there were new possibilities.

Some will say that the man from Durham again profited from a South African failure to apply the killing strokes in an otherwise dominant performance. Yet the charge is not so easily applied to the Australians, who suffered the same ordeal of frustration at his hands in Cardiff last summer.

Here, no doubt, we are obliged to consider the theory of cause and effect. Collingwood's cause, supremely, is to make a virtue of having his back to the wall. His effect is the ultimately dispiriting one, to all his opponents, of saying there is nowhere on earth he would rather be.