"Bennie put his arms on my shoulders and said: 'You've got to make a decision right now'. He looked in my eyes. I said, 'That's pressure for you'. It was quite a funny moment."
Paul Collingwood is sitting in a quiet corner of the Lord's Museum recalling the moment he told umpire Mark Benson he would not withdraw England's appeal after New Zealand's Grant Elliott had been run out. Elliott was prone at the time having collided with Ryan Sidebottom during last month's one-day international at The Oval.
Not many people thought it funny. Collingwood is used to having his ability questioned but this last fortnight his character has been doubted. His decision was "not cricket".
His response is similarly defiant. The one-day England captain is surrounded by artifacts honouring the game. There can be few places more redolent of the Spirit of Cricket – Lord's even hosts an annual lecture dedicated to the subject. If Collingwood is abashed he does not show it. "I go with gut instincts out on the park and that is what I went for at the time," he says. "In hindsight it was the wrong decision."
Collingwood admitted as much immediately after the game but the criticism was nevertheless fierce. The "gut reaction" defence has been dismissed as Benson gave him the chance to recall Elliott but Collingwood says: "In decision-making I like to think things through and there was not enough time to do that. I had to go on instinct. Until you experience such a situation, in a tense game in a series which could have gone either way, it is very hard to make a judgement on someone. Of course I will learn from the experience."
Being at the centre of a media storm has been difficult. "You are told not to read stuff, and to keep away from it, but you always find out," he laughs. "Someone texts you or calls up and says 'Did you see what so and so wrote?' The public reaction has not been too bad. I speak to club cricketers, a few Aussies I know, a lot of people have said: 'I would have done exactly the same'."
The mention of Australians is pertinent. "I played club cricket in Australia from 1996 to 2001, and I played in South Africa. They are tough cultures. I've had [Australians] David Boon and Mike Hussey as captains at Durham. Who knows if that pushes you towards a decision like that?"
Collingwood adds: "It has been a tough couple of weeks. I always knew when I took the role on there would be times when it would be tough. You talk about defining moments, after something like that you can go downhill and be grumpy, or you can say, 'I'm going to show people I am up for the challenge and really make it a motivation to go out and do even better'."
That is usually his response to adversity. As a junior he overtook more naturally talented players by dint of his work ethic, competitiveness and eagerness to improve himself. He forced his way into the Durham side, then, in 2001, the England one-day team, where he began with scores of 2, 9, 0, 9, and no wickets. Again he persevered and in December 2003 was on hand to make his Test debut against Sri Lanka in Galle when Nasser Hussain went down with flu. He was again in the right place in September 2005, replacing the injured Simon Jones in the fifth Test of the Ashes triumph. It was only his third cap but his appearance won him the MBE. That his contribution amounted to 17 runs meant the award prompted much derision when England unsuccessfully defended the Ashes a year later, but Collingwood responded with a career-best 206 at Adelaide.
Tomorrow will be his 32nd consecutive Test – though at present he is serving a four-match ban from the one-day side for overseeing slow over-rates. Yet the prospects of playing 33 on the spin are in jeopardy. He still averages 40.95 in Tests, but since his fifth Test century at his home ground, the Riverside, against West Indies early last summer, he has failed to pass 66 and averages 32. Now the large shadow of Andrew Flintoff looms on the horizon. Does he feel the pressure?
"I am always under pressure. Everyone said right from the start I was not good enough." He adds: "We all know Freddie will come back into the side, and you don't want to be the one left out. That drives you even harder to succeed. Playing international cricket, international sport, is a pressurised situation. It will certainly not make me go out into the middle and tense up, hopefully it will enable me to go out and score runs.
"I've always been one who says, 'You have to work harder', but you have to get away from the game between Tests, really re-energise yourself when you can. That is important to manage. You would ideally love a three-four month break [but] that is not possible."
Not in the current schedule. "Usually", he notes, "when your mind and your body is telling you, 'You need a break', you do pick up an injury. Thankfully I've been fit enough to get through everything [though he has needed cortisone injections in a troublesome shoulder injury]."
Not that he is complaining. "It's been excellent. If anyone had told me I would play 30-odd Tests off the reel it would have sounded ridiculous back in 2005. It's great to be involved all the time, you never want to give your space up, you work hard all through your career to play for England and once you get that spot you want to keep it.
"I do have talent, but I would say I am not as good as some of the cricketers out there. You bridge the gap by playing to your own strengths. If you stick to them it is amazing how far you can take it. That has been my philosophy right through my career, throughout life: stick to what you know best and believe in it. If you don't believe in it, you don't have a gameplan. That's what I do. Stick to the shots that work for me and wait for the bowlers to bowl it.
"In the last year or so I have had to scrap my backside off. Whether I have been mentally tired or not, I'm not sure, but at least I have scrapped and put in the innings when they are needed. Hopefully there are defining moments when you come out of that and you are back to square one again with all the freshness. That can happen and I do feel I am back to that stage."
To relax he plays golf. "As soon as I get on that first tee-box, it doesn't matter what's happened, I get away from it completely." He is, of course, still competing when golfing. "My brother was four years older than me," he recalls. "When you have a brother who is better than you at everything you want to be better at it than him. That competitiveness I built up over the years from an early age has always stuck with me, so when someone puts you down you fight back even harder. That is pretty much the philosophy I go on."
I get a taste of that myself when I begin a question by harking back to his 32 average over the last year. "I mentioned you are averaging 32 at the moment..."
"I'm averaging 40 at the moment".
"Well since that Riverside Test..."
"You can say an average since bloody any time."
I explain I was going to suggest if, as was said of Derek Randall, a brilliant fielder like Collingwood is worth 20 runs an innings, he is averaging 52. "You can talk about fielding or whatever, but it is very hard to gauge what people are giving in the dressing room, in training situations. If you could scientifically measure it you could look around the dressing room and say 'What has he given – he gets 20 runs, he gets 10..." It is very hard to measure – it might be your attitude towards a game, relaxing people in certain situations, one little thing you say – but I know I am a team man and hopefully that is added on to whatever 'stats' [he almost spits out the word] you want to have a look at. Stats are just numbers to me."
Being a "team man" cannot be easy when a few players are so obviously competing to stay in the team when Flintoff comes back. "There was a time when if you had two or three bad games you were looking over your shoulder, selection policies were a lot harsher. We gain confidence from knowing you will get a good run. That gives you a sense of security, a sense of feeling part of it. If you feel part of it you don't just say 'I will look after myself', you look after the other players as well."
As a Sunderland fan Collingwood does not like the comparison but he not only sounds like Alan Shearer, he espouses the same attitudes. While his double-century at Adelaide "will always be a highlight of my career" he prefers the match-winning ton in the Melbourne one-dayer. "That feeling, when you have hit the winning runs, of knowing you are going to shake the opposition hand and look them in the eye and say 'I've just won the game', is a feeling you can never capture and put in a box."
It felt all the sweeter given what had gone before, a losing Ashes series in which he made 104 runs in his last six innings. "It was such a tough tour. Those three months were some of the hardest in my life, never mind in cricket. I got down to such depths I thought 'Am I ever going to get out of this?' It is something I will always look back on and say 'If you can come out of that, you can come out of anything'." No wonder he could smile amid the Elliott affair.
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England v South Africa: Angus Fraser recalls classic encounters
Captains: M A Atherton (Eng), K C Wessels (SA)
Three Tests: Series result: 1-1
England were heavily beaten in the first Test at Lord's in a match that will be remembered more for the "Dirt in the Pocket" incident involving Michael Atherton. A frighteningly fast Devon Malcolm won the third Test at The Oval for England, taking 9 for 57. Fanie de Villiers hit Malcolm on the head while batting, a blow that caused him to utter the now famous line: "you guys are history." And they were.
South Africa 1995/96
Captains: M A Atherton (Eng), W J Cronje (SA)
Five Tests: South Africa won 1-0
Michael Atherton played one of Test cricket's finest match-saving innings in Johannesburg, scoring an unbeaten 185 to earn England a draw. Bad weather ruined two further Tests with the series being decided in a low-scoring match in Cape Town. South Africa took control of the Test following a controversial run out. A direct hit struck the stumps at Graham Thorpe's end and the umpire said "not out". But the angry reaction of home fans in the corporate boxes, who had seen a television replay in which Thorpe was out, encouraged Hansie Cronje to signal for the third umpire. Thorpe was given out and Cronje was heavily fined for his gesture to the umpires.
Captains: A J Stewart (Eng), W J Cronje (SA)
Five Tests: England won 2-1
A classic series was decided on the final morning when Darren Gough, somewhat dubiously, trapped Makhaya Ntini lbw in front of 15,000 delighted fans. England seemed to be heading out of the series following a heavy defeat at Lord's but Robert Croft and yours truly somehow managed to keep Allan Donald out at Old Trafford. Your correspondent then took 10 for 122 to guide England to victory at Trent Bridge, in a Test that will be remembered for the wonderful duel between Michael Atherton and Donald. Gough and Fraser shared 17 wickets at Headingley too.
South Africa 1999/2000
Captains: N Hussain (Eng), W J Cronje (SA)
Five Tests: South Africa won 2-1
The final game provided Test cricket with probably the darkest hours in its history. Wins in Johannesburg and Cape Town had already given South Africa an unbeatable lead, but unbeknown to Nasser Hussain, the England captain, Hansie Cronje, through declarations and aggressive field placing, proceeded to ensure the series finished with a positive result and not a draw to satisfy his bookmaker friends. Those of us who watched the Test on television, believing Cronje's actions in a rain-affected game to be honourable, ultimately found out that we had been duped.
Captains: N Hussain, M P Vaughan (Eng), G C Smith (SA)
Five Tests: 1-1 draw
This was another cracking series. Nasser Hussain resigned as England captain after the drawn first Test at Edgbaston, a game in which Graeme Smith, his opposite number, highlighted his potential with a magnificent innings of 277. Smith, with 259, and Makhaya Ntini, 10 for 220, inspired South Africa to a thumping victory in the second Test at Lord's and England, under new captain, Michael Vaughan, seemed dead. The next two Tests were shared and then the series seemed destined to be South Africa's when they scored 484 in their first innings at The Oval. But a double hundred by Marcus Trescothick and a comeback century from Graham Thorpe allowed England to take a first-innings lead. The tourists cracked under pressure, ensuring Alec Stewart's Test career finished on a high.
South Africa 2004/05
Captains: M P Vaughan (Eng), G C Smith (SA)
Five Tests: England won 2-1
Another belting series gave England their first win in South Africa for 56 years. It was South Africa who came back from defeat in Port Elizabeth, levelling the series in Cape Town, thanks to brilliant batting from Jacques Kallis and excellent bowling on debut from Charl Langeveldt. The Johannesburg Test, dominated by superb innings from Andrew Strauss and Herschelle Gibbs, appeared to be heading for a draw before Marcus Trescothick cut loose. His 180 gave England an outside chance of bowling out the hosts and Matthew Hoggard did just that with a magnificent 7 for 61. A wet Centurion Test petered out to a draw.
Total: England 8 South Africa 8 Draws 12Reuse content