Most Loved Cricketers: Paul Collingwood

This article was originally published on All Out Cricket on November 14th 2014.

Following Brian Lara and Wasim Akram, who else could it be but Paul Collingwood?

A great of the game? A King of Cricket? Well it’s a funny thing – on the rare occasions when I have a serious point to make about cricket, it’s amazing how often that point is made using Paul Collingwood as an example. It can’t be a coincidence, and it isn’t a coincidence.

When you’re judging the value of a player, the easiest thing to do is to go to Cricinfo and bring up their profile page. You look at the average, you count the hundreds and then you slot that person into the rough hierarchy you carry around inside your head. We all know there’s more to the sport than that, but we still do it. The bigger picture’s all well and good but there’s so much information available to us these days, we have to resort to thumbnails to have any hope of managing it.

I can’t possibly hope to get this across in a mere thousand words, but I’ll do what I can. I’m going to put up some of the supporting pillars and then I’m going to plonk ‘the moment’ on the top. Hopefully then you’ll get a vague sense of what I see.

The KPIs

Collingwood seemed to excel at all those aspects of cricket which are undervalued – all the ones that are hard to measure.

If you’re running your cricket team like a soulless corporation then the key performance indicators are runs and wickets. It’s unarguable that these are what shape the game, but they’re also simplistic, reductive measurements of a player’s worth.

A run only takes its value from the context of a match and there is background to every wicket. There are players who rank highly in terms of those KPIs without contributing half as much as much Paul Collingwood. He’s the guy who does the right things even though they earn him no reward. He’s the unheralded administrator who keeps the company from folding due to directorial myopia.

The batting

“He made the most of his talent” is a frequently made backhanded compliment I have already deconstructed too many times to count. Suffice to say, making the most of your talent is what you’re supposed to do. What you actually achieve is the only thing that matters, not what you might possibly be capable of if only you did a load of stuff differently.

Paul Collingwood batted well enough. One-day international runs apparently don’t count for much in England, but no one has scored more for the national side – no mean feat when he came in down the order.

His Test record’s decent too when you really look into it. He has an Ashes double hundred and if he must also accept responsibility for the paralysis that gripped England in the second innings of that infamous Adelaide Test, he can at least offer the defence that he was the one batsman who didn’t get dismissed.

Indeed, not getting dismissed became something of a hallmark. His four-hour 74 at Cardiff in the 2009 Ashes was what allowed Monty Panesar and Jimmy Anderson their moment of tail-end defiance, while two innings in South Africa a few months later highlight how runs aren’t always the most meaningful metric.

Measured by his batting KPI, Collingwood scored 26 at Centurion. More accurately, he survived 99 balls and 159 minutes to see out a nine-wickets-down draw. At Newlands, he did it again. Forty runs is neither here nor there, but when you’re batting for survival, 188 balls and 276 minutes is positively epic.

Those were match- and series-defining performances. Three in one year, with all the runs combined not even adding up to one daddy hundred.

The moment

But enough of that. Word constraints mean I already have to get to ‘the moment’. I don’t have time to explain the usefulness of Collingwood’s bowling. Nor can I highlight the value of his unseen ability to ensure that England players could avoid spewing an endless torrent of venom about each other via ghost writers or Twitter.

I suppose ‘the moment’ sums everything up anyway. It’s not a KPI; it didn’t benefit his stats; other events overshadowed it; but it mattered – oh how it mattered – and no one else could have done it. Is that not greatness? If not, it’s surely somewhere close.

Fittingly, it was a moment of fielding. Yes, that’s right – fielding. That’s part of cricket too. Fielding can shape a match. It can even end an era.

It happened in one of the one-day matches before the 2005 Ashes at Bristol. A short, wide Harmison ball was spanked by the middle of the oversized bat of Matthew Hayden and flew square of the wicket at searing pace. Four. In the air, but four. No one was stopping that.

Or were they?

The ball was travelling way above head height, but Collingwood leapt like a rocket-powered jack-in-the-box and, unbelievably, his hand met the ball. Such was the precision, it was as if magnets were employed. Hayden couldn’t really believe what he saw. Nor could anyone else really.

A weird thing happened when they showed the replay on the big screen. The crowd made a sound of excited awe. It’s not something you hear on that scale very often. I’m not sure I’ve heard an astonished gasp on that scale before or since.

But it wasn’t just a spectacle. You could pick a whole slew of defining moments from that 2005 summer, but just think of the impact that catch had. When playing a superior team, it’s common for captains to say that their own side will have to be at their best in order to win. Here, Hayden had been dismissed at the very moment when he had seemed to be at his best. His best wasn’t good enough.

It had been an era of complete Australian dominance over England – and Paul Collingwood basically ended it. Not that anyone really noticed.

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