Paul Collingwood knows a thing or two about breaking into a successful England team. Having spent the best part of two years carrying the drinks after playing his first two Tests against Sri Lanka in 2003, the Durham stalwart was famously brought in to replace the injured Simon Jones for the crucial fifth Test in the 2005 Ashes series.
Collingwood was ridiculed in Australia after he was awarded an MBE despite posting scores of 7 and 10 at The Oval, yet became a linchpin of England’s middle order over the next six years. Now basking in the warm glow of his personal Indian summer, having helped his beloved Durham complete another County Championship title this week – their third in six years – Shotley Bridge’s finest is convinced he has seen the future.
“Nobody has really nailed it down yet,” he responds to a question about England’s troublesome No 6 spot. “Jonny Bairstow has been given the opportunity at the moment but I would have thought in the next couple of years you’ll see Ben Stokes come through. He would obviously take a little bit of the workload off the three seamers as well because he’s an all-rounder. Ben’s got a great opportunity. He’s got power and is a really strong guy who loves the competitive nature of the game and that’s what you want. He’s a really talented kid.”
Before anyone accuses him of bias towards a county colleague (and fellow redhead), it should be noted that Stokes was brought up in New Zealand and moved to Cumbria aged 12 when his father Ged – a former rugby league international – was appointed as coach of Workington Town. His accent is a bit closer to Collingwood’s Northumbrian lilt these days, having attended school in Cockermouth and been snapped up by Durham’s Academy, but after scoring nearly 600 runs and taking 37 wickets in the County Championship at an average of 25.35, the 22-year-old is an outside bet to feature in England’s Ashes party when it is announced on Monday at Lord’s.
Five wickets and a quickfire 27 – albeit in a losing cause – in the deciding one-day international at the Rose Bowl last week will also have helped Stokes’ chances, although his mentor is quick to dampen any comparisons with that other great all-rounder whom he shared an England dressing room with for so long.
“I wouldn’t say he’s the new Freddie [Flintoff] just yet,” says Collingwood. “The thing is, you don’t want to get them in too early and for them to be exposed. But eventually, when he really works out his game 100 per cent, I think he’s someone who will be in the England team for a long time.
“Ben is still only 22 so he has lots of work to do still but he has all the attributes – he’s a good fielder, he can swing the ball both ways and he can bat at six. It would be like having two players in one. But at this moment in time they [England] have got the right team and I think they’ll do well in Australia.”
England teams have usually travelled Down Under more in hope than expectation, yet after the exploits of this summer and the 3-1 victory on Australian soil in 2010-11, Andy Flower’s squad will be heavy favourites this time. Collingwood is not the type to follow Glenn McGrath in predicting a 5-0 victory for the tourists, instead admitting “the best Australia can hope for is a draw”.
However, with the current top three of captain Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Jonathan Trott posting just a single century between them in the home series, he is wary that there could very easily be a sting in the tail.
“It’s a different ball game altogether in Australia,” Collingwood said. “The pressure there will be massive but I think everyone will have to put their hand up at certain points during the series. There may be a time if one of the players doesn’t perform that they may have to change it but I think these guys have got the skills and mentality to make it work.
“I think Joe Root is a fantastic cricketer and he is in the right position at the top of the order. He’s one of the guys in the future who could really push for Alastair Cook’s [centuries] record and that’s how lucky we are to have him.
“The big thing will be that England will believe they can do it because there are a lot of players who were involved in 2010-11 and the mental side is a crucial factor.”
Australia’s victory in the ODI series may have provided a glimmer of hope for coach Darren Lehmann. They now face a seven-match ODI series in India before returning home to begin the build-up to the Ashes series.
Veteran opener Chris Rogers was one of the few success stories for the tourists this summer and Collingwood believes they missed a trick by opting for youth over experience in replacing the great Ponting/Warne/McGrath generation.
“It’s funny because Australia haven’t been through this for 20 years or more so they’re not used to it,” he reflected. “England have been through it so many times where you have to rebuild and you have to get the right characters in, rather than just picking the most talented people.
“Something doesn’t add up for me – how can they lose players like Simon Katich, because he is exactly the kind of person who can stand up and provide crucial experience. But you’d expect them to come back fighting because it’s in their nature.”
Paul Collingwood was speaking on behalf of Chewits Sport Courses, which run throughout the UK during school holidays and are designed to give children of all abilities the opportunity to enjoy being active. For more information, visit chewitspremiersport.org