A week ago in Bristol, Paul Collingwood made an implausible leap at backward point. What happened next was being routinely described a few minutes later as the catch of the century.
"I didn't think it was as good as one I took against West Indies at Headingley last year, and that didn't get quite that response. I think some of it's to do with camera angles," Collingwood said quietly, modestly, as though it was all part of the routine for him.
Indeed, it is. Collingwood is a point fielder the like of which England have never seen. Those breathtaking catches to dismiss, respectively, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Matthew Hayden are imperishable, but they are only part of the Collingwood package. He makes unlikely stops and guards a huge area throughout a one-day innings.
"With the Hayden catch, I knew I was going to catch it as soon as he hit it," he said. "The one off Sarwan was much more down to reaction. I was closer to the bat for a start, and Sarwan really rifled it in a way that Hayden didn't quite. And Headingley is a poor seeing ground, so that added to it as well. But I'm not saying I wasn't dead chuffed with both of them."
Collingwood is a three-pronged cricketer, a man who brings to the team all the elements of the game. He fields, he bowls, he bats. That catch at Bristol, of course, heralded a remarkable week for him. Two days later at Edgbaston he produced statistically the greatest one-day all-round performance in the history of the game by scoring a century and taking 6 for 31. Only one player before had reached three figures and taken five wickets in the same match, and since that was Viv Richards we are talking big potatoes.
It is all well and good to suggest that it was only Bangladesh whom Collingwood put to the sword. But Bangladesh had played 108 one-day internationals before, and no individual had performed like that. Collingwood was nicely content. "Nobody's ever done that before, it's a record and it's something that I'll always remember, a night like that." But then he added immediately: "Now I want some runs against Australia. You've got to want to do it against the best."
Collingwood was elevated to the England one-day team in 2001 as part of that year's attempt to rebuild the team and introduce new blood. Although he had made an immediate impact in county cricket by taking a wicket with his first ball and scoring 91 in his first innings, he was utterly out of his depth. It was only his dedication, his competitive instinct, and the unwavering support of the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, which allowed him to survive. "We were playing two fantastic teams that summer in Australia and Pakistan and I hadn't got a clue what I was doing," he said. "It was all played at such a different pace and intensity and there wasn't much of a strategy in place. We were well behind.
"But things are much different now. It turned round for me in Zimbabwe that winter, when I was really nervous before going but got a few runs and thought that I could do this. The team know what they're doing now. We're not intimidated, and we have a flexibility which is crucial in one-day cricket. We're not the finished article but we're getting there, about 10 or 15 per cent off where we want to be. The idea is that we get it by the time the World Cup arrives.
"Look, we want to win the NatWest Series and the NatWest Challenge because it's laying down a marker against Australia for the Ashes. It gives momentum, but do you think that if we lose the NatWest Series final this year and win the World Cup in two years anybody will remember the first result?"
Nobody in the team embodies the flexibility of which Collingwood spoke more than the man himself. He is now batting at No 4 in the order again after being at No 6 as the so-called "finisher" in the winter before then being pushed down to seven. They demand very different approaches.
"I was as pleased as punch when they told me I was going to have a go at No 4. It gives me the chance to get in early, to play a long innings and really to express myself. That's what I want to do. But we can change things. If we get off to a really good start, a flier, then the idea is that Freddie Flintoff will go in before me." As indeed Flintoff did at Trent Bridge last week. Collingwood went in at five in the 25th over to make his hundred.
So while he has become an integral part of the team, he has also been expected to change his role repeatedly. The support of Fletcher could be said to come at a price, but maybe Fletcher knows what his man is capable of. "He has got a good future," he said of him after Nottingham, singing his praises.
There is just a hint of frustration in Collingwood's voice that it is invariably him who has to adopt and adapt. He started off as batting all-rounder, but his bowling then diminished in importance before being called on regularly again last winter.
"It made a difference without Flintoff. That made me the fifth bowler instead of the sixth. There are days when my bowling is going to be more important than others, and at Trent Bridge it suited me. I've got three types of slower ball and I work on it all the time. Some days they're going to pick them and you're going to go round the park, but I'm mixing it up all the time."
The advent of Kevin Pietersen has forced the latest batting change. Pietersen is a finisher of a different kind. Collingwood, at least, is now happier with his game than at any stage in his career. He is better at every facet of it. When he says that he feels he can make runs against any attack in the world he means it. He points out that he has already made his mark against Australia. Doing it at No 4 may be a taller order.
There is no question that Collingwood has the support of the team's more vaunted players. Marcus Trescothick, for instance, was quite categorical, in talking about the decision-makers in the team last winter, that Collingwood was one of them. They trust him and they know that failure on his part will never, ever be for the want of trying.
He was in the touring party throughout last winter but in truth never had a sniff of a Test place. He was always around, though, always part of things, and it was never forced.
At the end of the South Africa tour he had a stag night before being married a few days later in the south of the country. There was not a happier night on tour and everybody was happy for him. He wore a safari suit and a pith helmet and chewed the fat with everybody. He spoke about his delight and pride in bringing over his mum and dad from Durham. His dad gave him the passion for cricket and Paul once said: "I really believe I was put on this earth to play cricket." It means a lot to him.
Yet he is slightly unfulfilled, and he may remain so. He has played 73 one-day matches but only two Tests, in Sri Lanka two winters ago. It was his declared aim to be in the Test team for the Ashes, and with each passing day that prospect is becoming more distant. He has been passed en route by Robert Key, Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell and now Pietersen. If he is bitter he does not display a trace, the ultimate team player.
"Kevin has played some phenomenal innings for us, he works hard and deserves his chance. I still think there's a chance for me to play. I feel ready to get runs all the time now, I know my game. It might not be this year but anything can happen, and if it's not this year I won't be giving up."
He works with a passion. The fielding sums him up. He will begin a session two yards from the bat, then move seven yards from it. By the time he goes to a more conventional point position his reactions are sharpened. It is what enables him to take those catches. Similarly, he has fervently developed those slower balls (while also striving for an extra yard of pace) and can hit the ball in areas that once eluded him.
In Collingwood, it is possible that Fletcher spotted something of himself, a gifted sportsman without being a world- beater who was willing to make something of every ounce. It is generally thought that Fletcher would have liked him in the Test team more often, and that when Michael Vaughan broke down at Lord's last year Mark Butcher was asked to open. When Butcher refused, Collingwood missed out, Strauss was called up and the course of history may have changed.
In truth, Collingwood probably is not quite good enough to perform constantly at the highest level. Ten hundreds for Durham in nearly 200 first-class innings at an average of just above 30 does not bespeak a star performer. But that is not the point. He has something in him, a blend of talent, belief, perseverance, character if you like, that other cricketers do not. And it is that combination that enabled him to take the catch of the century and produce the best all-round exhibition there has been.
Paul David Collingwood
Born: 26 May 1976 in Shotley Bridge, Co Durham.
Teams: Durham, England.
International career: England Test debut v Sri Lanka, December 2003. Two Tests. Batting: 89 runs at average of 22.25. Bowling: 16-2-37-0. Catches: 6.
One-Day Internationals: debut v Pakistan, June 2001. 74 matches. Batting: 1,572 runs at 32.08 (h/s 112no). Bowling: 34 wickets at 39 each (best 6-31).
Also: played grade cricket in Australia in 2000-01 and won the Jack Ryder Medal. In 2003 Ashes squad. Missed most of 2004 season with knee injury. Viewed as the best fielder in the world; was given England central contract in 2001.Reuse content