At the ripe old age of 39, and with people wondering what his next step will be, Paul Collingwood is content to still be leading the way for Durham. He spoke to our man in the north, Matthew Sherry.
Determinedly traditionalist, Chester-le-Street’s weather served up its usual for Durham’s media day. There was that little ray of sun to entice a stroll outside, and the bitter chill to reprimand us for venturing out in April. It certainly wasn’t to the liking of players, weighed down by the jarring realisation that the season was just days away.
At the outdoor photocall, the knockabout bit before the impending encounters with the assembled journalists, it wasn’t difficult to spot Paul Collingwood. He was the one glowing in the middle, having seemingly spent his winter apprenticing at a tanning salon. In fact, he’d been undertaking a very different apprenticeship, enjoying a second stint as one of Scotland’s coaches at the World Cup. Collingwood’s path, we put to him, is a welcome one in an era when most of England’s best minds swap bats for pens and microphones.
“There is an obvious reason for that,” he says. “You get paid probably four times more in the media than you do in coaching. When you come out of international cricket, you’ve been involved with a good level of income and are used to a certain lifestyle. You can’t afford to take too much of a hit. That’s actually one of the bugbears in my opinion. It’s a shame that we lose so many good cricket brains to the media because of that fact.”
Collingwood’s winter assignment was hardly the most glamorous. The prospect of coaching up a minnow for a series of spankings against the big boys (even England beat them handily) would inspire few, yet it suits a man who fought for every run and every wicket across his international career.
Three Ashes wins, over 10,000 international runs and skippering England to a first global one-day gong were never in the script for the lad from Shotley Bridge, but he turned himself from bits-and-pieces allrounder in a poor 50-over team into an all-format stalwart of a golden era. He rarely looked pretty doing it; and yet he was a walking contradiction, for the same man nicknamed Brigadier Block wouldn’t think twice of waltzing down the wicket and pulling you for six in a one-day international. The Collingwood Way was to always find a way.
“One or two players in the past decade have been a bit jealous of Collingwood,” wrote Nasser Hussain after his former teammate retired from the Test arena. “They’ll have looked at his ugly technique and wondered how he kept getting picked. But all the captains he has played under knew that the snipers were not the type of blokes we wanted in the side. Collingwood was. I think that partly explains his popularity with the public. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but club cricketers can probably identify with him better than with, say, a Kevin Pietersen or a Ricky Ponting. He gets stuck in, bowls little medium-pacers and throws himself around in the field.”
When speaking to opponents of Collingwood, there is always one word that always crops up: respect. There is no reverence, just a simple nod of the head. It’s an attitude the man himself is more than comfortable with. “I actually had a couple of beers with Brad Haddin a couple of weeks ago at the World Cup and he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘You were one of the worst players to play against. You just never gave up’. That, to me, was a great accolade. If the opposition are saying that, you’re happy.”
The Haddin anecdote evokes memories of Collingwood’s finest hour. Who can never forget that final day at the SWALEC Stadium in the first Ashes Test of ’09 when Collingwood defied the Aussies for a 245-ball 74, ‘amassed’ over 344 minutes to help England to the unlikeliest of draws? It summed up Collingwood’s career. “I used to love those situations because that was a strength of mine. Everybody has different strengths and that was mine. I guess my upbringing brought that mental strength and tenacity out of me. I am not saying I had a hard upbringing but if I wanted to get somewhere, I had to fight for it. You find a way. Technically I wasn’t the best but you have to just find something that works.”
Collingwood’s upbringing was not that of your stereotypical English cricketer. Like most children who aren’t privately educated, he did not play much at his school, Blackfyne Comprehensive. Instead, his skills were honed in the back streets of County Durham, battling against older brother Peter. The experience gave Paul an early taste of overcoming the odds, a typical younger brother determined to keep pace with a sibling four years his senior. In many ways it set him up perfectly: surpassing guys more talented than himself would underscore his rise to the big leagues. That rise started on the North East club scene for Shotley Bridge CC, where Collingwood sufficiently impressed to catch the eye of the new kids on the county block, Durham.
Collingwood – as the son of a maintenance fitter at a caravan company and a ward aid at a mental hospital – does not fit the template of privilege that marks certain quarters of top-echelon English cricket. He was educated but, as he said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2007, “I’ve not been to Eton or anything like that”.
Those hard-working values are now his biggest calling cards, for qualities that meant Collingwood would always be overlooked in a team of Flintoffs and Pietersens could very well turn him into their equivalent on the coaching ladder. Where geniuses sometimes struggle to impart knowledge as they simply wonder why protégés can’t just do what they did, grinders understand the importance of, well, the grind. For Collingwood, the grind is infectious. The last time we’d spoken to him, he told us the 2014 season would be his last and yet, with a glint in his eye, he’s back enjoying another year on English cricket’s unstoppable treadmill. “I am still enjoying it, and still trying to develop my game! I am still fit enough and still working hard at that. I think I have a lot left in the tank and a lot more to give to Durham. I still think about England, too. Last year when I was playing so well in the one-day form of the game, there was that little thing in the back of my mind thinking, ‘Go on, pick us.’”
While any prospect of an England recall is raised in jest, Collingwood’s claim that he’s still working to improve at 39 is not. “He is still trying to get better,” says Durham coach Jon Lewis. “For a guy of that age, still turning up wondering how he can get better, is incredible. He watched Glenn Maxwell fielding during the World Cup, focusing on the way he picks the ball up on the move and still manages to get power into his throw, and he worked on that in pre-season.”
It wasn’t long before Collingwood put his pre-season work to a proper test. In the words of his own coach, Lewis, Durham’s County Championship skipper ‘found the off-side again’ last year, he had spent the winter trying to further enhance his off-side game – “he has been looking at changing his hand position again because he wants to develop a little more power through the off-side,” said Lewis but, self-improvement aside, there was bound to be a degree of uncertainty entering a new campaign, especially at the ripe old age of 39. Should I have carried on? Have I still got it?
In the opening game of the County Championship season, Collingwood’s answer came quickly, and it was emphatic. For all his batting work it was with the ball that his first opportunity came. Bringing himself on with Somerset breezing along at 224-2, he sparked a stunning turnaround. Johann Myburgh, James Hildreth, Alex Barrow and Peter Trego all fall in a remarkable spell as he claimed four in 20 balls. The scalp of Jim Allenby four overs later completes his first five-wicket haul in a decade.
The following day, with Durham tottering in response to 299, Collingwood strode to the crease. What followed was a 145-ball masterclass as he struck 109 not out to secure an 81-run first-innings lead that left Guardian writer Vic Marks purring. “He is supposed to be past his prime and heading for territory in which one tells others how to do it rather than doing it oneself,” wrote Marks. “But he has seldom batted better than this.” Collingwood’s all-round show led Durham to the perfect start: a seven-wicket win on the road. In Durham’s 10 first-class games this season, the former England man has 555 runs at 50.45.
Good as Collingwood’s form is, and as impressive as his commitment to self-improvement on the field is, there is little doubt Collingwood has long been planning for his next step. He’s coached for England, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates to varying degrees and spent a decent amount of time in the Sky studios, as well as stints for Star Sports out in India.
“I’ve loved doing the TV work,” he says. “You are forever hunting for things that give you the same buzz and adrenaline rush you enjoy on the field and live studio work creates some of that. It’s nice to try to get the way modern-day cricket is played across to the viewers, because the game is changing so quickly. It’s important the viewers understand what’s being tried out in the middle.
“I still enjoy being part of the dressing room. In many ways the media stuff is like that behind the scenes because the banter and camaraderie still exists. Cricket is my life. Whatever opportunities come up in the future, I’ll just have to see which is best at that time.”
It remains to be seen what the next step is for Collingwood. He is already being touted as someone who could fit into the England backroom staff but precisely when that is remains unclear. The appointment of Andrew Strauss as Director of England Cricket bodes well. The future of English cricket remains uncertain; into that atmosphere of uncertainty could come the appealing steadiness of England’s everyman.
In the same way Collingwood was a man for every format, he seems adept at being a man for every man. Even in the recent era of in-fighting, claims and counter-claims, he has been one of the few to walk the tightrope of maintaining a good relationship with Kevin Pietersen and not irking HQ. He also has invaluable experience of the ECB machine, both as a successful captain and assistant coach during Ashley Giles’ time at the helm of the one-day outfits. “He would have a lot to offer to anybody he is involved with,” says Lewis. “He has got good ideas and is a really observational guy. He doesn’t miss much.”
Those who point to Collingwood’s relative inexperience are missing the point. If anything, his age is a benefit. Playing in an era that has seen cricket undergo the biggest changes since the game’s inception is a help, not a hindrance. Gary Kirsten, Darren Lehmann and Andy Flower didn’t need to serve their time at a county or a state; they cut their teeth with a few roles in coaching, much like Collingwood, before being handed a big chance.
Those around Collingwood are not short of confidence in his ability. “I am not trying to farm him out, because I am quite happy for him to stay here, but he is definitely ready,” claims Lewis.
Just what type of coach is Collingwood, though? A micro-manager saturated by numbers? Or an enabler who encourages players to rely solely on instinct like Lehmann? “He is really good at bringing the skills out of players, and he certainly did that with me,” says Calum MacLeod. “He allowed me to express myself and I think that has showed. He encourages everyone to think like that and have confidence in their ability. He’s been a massive influence on my career.”
Whether it’s coaching or broadcasting in Collingwood’s future is up for debate, even with the man himself. But as he sits, leaning back is his chair on a grim day in Chester-le-Street, it’s obvious the next step is still very much in the future. There’s plenty still to give to Durham and, given another ever-impressive campaign so far, few would bet against this evergreen stalwart padding up for a few more years yet.