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Cardiff comes alive at Colly's block party

Posted in npower Ashes Series 2009

Paul Collingwood

Paul Collingwood's bat stands between Australia and glory in the opening Test

To a list that features Atherton-Russell and Fraser-Croft, we can now add Anderson-Panesar.

England’s last-wicket pair earned their place in history with a memorable rearguard in Cardiff yesterday, defying not only Australia’s bowlers but also extremely long odds as they blocked out 69 balls to secure an unlikely draw.

It was fantastically engrossing cricket, a remarkable end to a match in which England’s chances of saving the game became slimmer with every passing day.

That the rampant Australians were kept at bay by England’s least accomplished batsmen made the tension even more unbearable, and one wonders how many fingernails survived in the ground and on sofas at home as James Anderson and Monty Panesar inched towards safety.

As an unashamed blocker (I am proud to say I was one of the openers in a game in which the scoreboard read 0 for 0 off eight overs), I was in my element yesterday, watching glorious forward defensive after glorious forward defensive with something approaching glee.

The spectators were of a similar mind, judging by the roars which erupted with every exaggerated straight bat. And Anderson and Panesar can safely assume they will never again be cheered so passionately for simply allowing the ball to pass through to the wicketkeeper.

They may have sealed the moment of ‘triumph’ for England - let us not forget that they were outplayed for much of this contest, and head to Lord’s for the second Test this week with the series all square - but Collingwood is surely deserving of the most praise.

Paul Collingwood

Collingwood watches a gloved forward defensive land safely on the leg side despite the efforts of Australia's close fielders

His innings was not as long as Atherton’s in Johannesburg in 1995, nor did he manage to complete the job for England, as Robert Croft and Angus Fraser did, also against South Africa, at Old Trafford in 1998.

Yet in repelling Australia for the best part of six hours over three gruelling sessions, he was unquestionably the central figure on a day which may well prove crucial to the outcome of the series.

The archetypal scrapper, Collingwood faced 245 balls in making 74, underlining his immense value to the England cause while demonstrating once again his fondness for a battle.

He arrived at the crease in the fourth over of the day after Kevin Pietersen had his off stump uprooted by Ben Hilfenhaus, and saw Andrew Strauss and Matt Prior also give their wickets away in little more than an hour.

However, from the depths of 70 for five, and faced with the prospect of an innings defeat and a hundred hateful headlines, Collingwood orchestrated a recovery which contained notable contributions from Andrew Flintoff, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann.

Paul Collingwood & Brad Haddin

Brad Haddin watches Collingwood keep the ball out by any means possible during his epic 245-ball 74

They scored 71 runs between them, but of equal importance were the combined 60 overs they helped negotiate alongside Collingwood, whose concentration barely wavered until he cut Peter Siddle to gully with England trailing by six runs.

Few who witnessed the early stages of Collingwood’s innings would have given him much hope of lasting as long as he did.

Assured he most certainly was not as he padded away deliveries from off-spinner Nathan Hauritz. Or when a bat-pad chance looped just out of reach of silly point and another inches away from short-leg. And he hardly cut a dignified figure as he scrambled to prevent the ball rolling back on to his stumps after another dead-batted stroke.

Not that Collingwood was bothered. He reverted to playing Hauritz off the back foot wherever possible, while anything fuller - half-volleys included - was greeted with as watchful a forward defensive as you are likely to see.

Even Collingwood’s appearance reflected his determination: flinty-eyed, unshaven and his face singed by the sun during almost three days in the field as Australia racked up a mammoth 674 for six.

Back and across he went to the quicker bowlers, his low backlift allowing him to negate any late swing while he tucked the ball off his hips for the occasional single.

He struck just six fours in 245 minutes at the crease - all but one came on the leg side - and even when he managed to break the shackles momentarily, there was no change in expression.

Paul Collingwood

England's hero leaves the field to a standing ovation, having seen his side to the brink of safety on the final evening

We could just make out a look of burning intensity from beneath his helmet, although he allowed himself a glance to the heavens and a mumbled prayer when a straight drive from Swann cannoned into the stumps at the non-striker’s end, with Collingwood well short of his ground. The faintest of touches from Siddle would have spelled the end for Collingwood and, in all probability, England.

With the exception of a run-out opportunity after he had aborted his plan for an impossible single to get Anderson off strike, Collingwood’s composure was astonishing given the mounting tension.

On the rare occasions he played and missed, he simply put his head down and set off in the direction of square-leg to gather his thoughts, and the manner in which he acknowledged his fifty - with barely a flicker of a smile and a purposeful pointing of the bat towards the dressing room - reflected his state of mind as well as the precarious state of the game.

Although disappointment was etched over his face despite his being afforded a standing ovation as he trudged off, his influence was felt even after his departure.

As Panesar’s batting ‘buddy’ (his practice partner in the nets), Collingwood can claim some of the credit for his transformation from comedically inept number 11 into a batsman capable of saving a Test. His contribution was immense.