Jonathan Agnew celebrates Paul Collingwood’s Test career and looks ahead optimistically to the World Cup
PAUL COLLINGWOOD knew the time was right to go. On the third evening of the final Test at Sydney, with England’s historic victory all but guaranteed, he paid a visit to Hugh Morris’s hotel room. Morris, the team’s managing director, had not necessarily been expecting Colly to call but he was not surprised either. And he made no attempt to talk Collingwood round when he said he wished to retire from Test cricket. Everyone knew the time was right.
It might have been Collingwood’s natural instinct to cling on and fight for survival. After all, that is the quality he brought to the England batting line-up during his 68 Tests – gutsy, determined, good old northern grit. Very few players can genuinely claim to have made the most of every bit of their given talent but Collingwood certainly did – and a bit more besides. In an era of flatter, dry pitches and lightning fast, re-laid outfields a Test average of 40 is no longer the benchmark that it used to be. Colly’s account closed at 40.56 with a workmanlike strike-rate of 46 runs per hundred balls, mostly eked out with bottom-hand jabs through the leg side and back-foot forces through cover point. He was more aggressive against spin, famously lofting Shane Warne over his head to reach his double-hundred at Adelaide in 2006 – surely the pinnacle of his career.
A battler in form is admirable. A battler out of form is ugly and Collingwood’s form on this tour must have frustrated him. Only 83 runs at an average of 13.83 when all those around him were filling their boots. He was the only batsman in the team not to play above his career Test average and, had England not been winning, he would probably have been dropped before the end. By choosing to go when he did he went out on the highest possible note and without tumbling through the selectorial trapdoor come the summer.
If Colly’s batting lacked glamour, this was more than compensated by his brilliant fielding, which remains undiminished. In a competition on ABC radio to select the composite team during the final Test Colly versus Mike Hussey was the only position I could find to which an Australian had a real claim over his English counterpart. The contrast in runs scored by the pair in the series was obviously not a contest – Hussey’s 570 came at 63 – but the impact of Colly’s fielding could not go unrecognised. He played a huge role in destabilising the Australian team with brilliant catches to dismiss Ricky Ponting cheaply in successive innings – first at Adelaide with a reflex catch low to his left off Graeme Swann and then one-handed to his right at third slip off James Anderson at Perth. They may yet prove to have sealed Ponting’s fate as Australia’s captain. Has a better all-round fieldsman than Paul Collingwood ever appeared for England?
These are skills that Colly will continue to take with him into the limited-overs arena, where he still has a vital role to play. Indeed, it is the task of this touring squad now to go on and prepare adequately enough in the interminable one-day series that followed the Ashes to win the World Cup on the subcontinent. It will be a colossal challenge for the team management and a test of the players’ stamina to retain their drive and focus for such a long time – and explains the ECB’s entirely sensible desire to separate Ashes tours and the World Cup from 2013.
“Few players have made the most of their talent but Collingwood did”
But winning the World Cup for the first time is not beyond this team. They gave the Australians an object lesson in every department of the game, all of which, with the exception of occupation of the crease, remain relevant to one-day cricket in India, where England play all but one of their qualifying matches. The new standard that England have set at both catching and ground fielding surprised even the Australians, who have led the way for the last 20 years but for no longer. England’s brilliance is the result of hours of hard work and the innovative ideas and routines of Richard Halsall who, let it not be forgotten, was headhunted by Peter Moores, as was Andy Flower.
Reverse-swinging the white ball could also prove decisive on the sub-continent and again England are ahead of the rest, with the possible exception of India. Anderson was operating ‘in reverse’ as early as the 10th over at Melbourne as England showed there and particularly in the second innings at Sydney that, in the right hands, reverse swing can be devastating. Brimming with confidence but overseen by the measured calm of Flower, this team might give us further reason to celebrate this winter.
Jonathan Agnew is the BBC’s cricket correspondent.