Of England and its renewed belief

Collingwood is a great man, a never-say-die character who lives only for his cricket, and in the tradition of David Steele who confronted the all conquering Australians 30 years ago with courage.-AP

When the longer history of cricket comes to be written Collingwood will be a footnote alongside the legendary figures, but he was just what England needed as they stumbled through the Test series and were shown up in the early one-day matches, writes Ted Corbett.

Victories like England's in the one-day international tri-series in Australia are the very basis of sport. The shock result, the sudden change of fortune, the giants toppled, the minnows getting lucky and unknowns turning into stars — that is what sport is all about.

England had 90 days of disaster, drubbings on the field, abuse in the media. They were offered gratuitous advice by the ageing commentators in the Channel Nine television box, told repeatedly that they were "hapless Poms" by the columnists of the Australian sporting press and lost the support of those midnight watchers back home who had stayed awake all night expecting a contest.

Then, without warning, they became champions, tore Australia to shreds even though injuries had further weakened their team of misfits. In nine days they produced both team and individual performances that turned the world of one-day cricket upside down.

These same players made us wonder if Australia had lost the plot, showed that even that great coach John Buchanan is fallible and threw the coming World Cup into confusion.

The Cup that begins in the Caribbean soon was supposed to be a triumphal march by the Aussies, the best at both forms of the game, as their acolytes never cease to remind us.

Victory by England threw that into doubt. The loss of Andrew Symonds, no longer posing a threat as he lurked in the covers, or wielded a mighty bat, or mixed medium pace and off spin, was such a huge blow that the double champions brought in their other all-rounder Shane Watson even though he had hardly played in a full match throughout the Down Under summer.

Watson, not surprisingly, did nothing to justify this strange decision and as the Aussies set off for New Zealand to play in the unwanted Chappell-Hadlee one-dayers with a deliberately weakened side, there was backbiting, recrimination and a chorus of "I told you so" from every quarter.

Had Buchanan tired his charges by over-training them? Probably, for there seemed to be very little of the famous Australian positive attitude as they collapsed against the tide of England's resurgence.

So who are they, this team of nobodies, this collection of underlings, this side that Buchanan cried must do their best to give his team a chance to prove how great they could be?

At the top of the batting list there is Mal Loye, a batsman recruited from club cricket in New Zealand because he happened to be close at hand. He is 33 and until Michael Vaughan tweaked his hamstring no-one thought Loye might be an England star. Yet he played his part in this memorable success.

There is Ed Joyce, who played in minor international cricket for Ireland and joined Middlesex. It had begun to look as if Test and one-day careers had passed him by — he is 28 — but when the call came he found a century that led to victory over Australia in a qualifying match and set off England's climb to the top.

There was the dour Ian Bell, the out of form Andrew Strauss, the "where did he come from" figure of Jamie Dalrymple, the tyro fast bowlers Sajid Mahmood and Liam Plunkett and, most amazing of all, the 36-year-old wicket-keeper Paul Nixon who is as people in his part of the world say, "all mouth and no trousers."

In other words he talks a good game while he iron gloves the ball to the ground and always, but always, seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Never mind that he is clearly not fit to help Chris Read tie his shoe laces. Nixon held the important catches, got the better of the Australians in the verbal battles and made essential runs when Paul Collingwood needed his help.

Was this a team — without the injured Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, without the defectors Marcus Trescothick and Steve Harmison, with an inspirational but overworked captain — to win a major series?

No it was not, however hard Duncan Fletcher, the coach, may now try to justify his decisions.

But it had a bulldog spirit, a damn-the-consequences attitude and Paul Collingwood. And in the end that proved to be enough.

Collingwood is an astonishing fielder, but he is not a great batsman and his bowling is out of the bits and pieces category that is easy to mock although it is also an essential part of the make-up of any one-day side.

Instead, he is a great man, a never-say-die character who lives only for his cricket, and in the tradition of David Steele who confronted the all-conquering Australians 30 years ago with courage.

When the longer history of cricket comes to be written Collingwood will — like Steele — be a footnote alongside the legendary figures, but he was just what England needed as they stumbled through the Test series and were shown up in the early one-day matches.

"I am loving every minute of it," he said when someone consoled him about the way the tour had gone. And you could see it.

My aunt, from the port of South Shields ten miles away, used to say of the town where Collingwood was born, "they're queer folk in Sunderland."

Well, so they are, but when they are as strange as Collingwood, they sometimes have their moment and without him England would not have been champions of anything this last three months.

"This guy deserves all the accolades and the plaudits," Flintoff said repeatedly during the final few days of the tour and he was right.

For this brief spell Collingwood was England, the reason they turned disaster into triumph and gave those of us who love sport for its drama, its sudden about turns and its habit to throwing up new heroes, a renewed belief. I am not sure that David Graveney, chairman of the selectors, is right when he says that those of us who have criticised Fletcher should write him a letter of apology.

I am sure that those within the England set-up who wrote off Collingwood only a couple of weeks after he made a double century in the Adelaide Test owe him a note of thanks.

If he had not become a star they might all be looking for new jobs.