Collingwood ready for next chapter in coaching career after helping Scotland qualify for the 2015 World Cup
WHEN managers and coaches in team sports talk earnestly in the wake of defeats about the “honesty” that framed the post mortem, it begs to be asked when dishonesty became a default setting. Paul Collingwood, one of cricket’s enduring gentlemen, has a reputation of being a very honest sportsperson, both during matches and after them. Last October, though, he said something that wasn’t entirely true.
On the day it was announced he would be part of Scotland’s coaching team for the World Twenty20 and World Cup qualifiers in the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand, Collingwood, in a phone conversation with The Scotsman, said: “I’ve played against Scotland quite a few times, and I’ve always been impressed with them as an outfit.”
It was a white lie, in fairness, and one told in the name of good manners – announcements of new partnerships are neither the time nor the place for hard facts. But Collingwood could have had no idea how many times, in the course of his first winter as a coach, that line would be exposed as the hollow compliment it was. At one point, things got so bad he had to admit as much to the squad.
It was a winter that opened the Durham captain’s eyes to a new breed of cricketer and a brand of cricket he did not know existed. Scotland’s misadventures against the “raw talent” of new-world opposition left him shocked, reassured, bewildered and then finally elated when the players delivered qualifying for the 2015 World Cup and winning their first ICC trophy in nine years with a scorching run of form.
We will never know whether, had the ever-contrary Scots failed in their mission, Collingwood would have been appointed, two weeks after his return, as assistant coach of England. It is probable that he would have been, just as it is probable that he will never work with Scotland again now that he has enjoyed that elevation. But he will never forget this winter, and he is relieved that Scotland did eventually, after making a fool of him, impress him as an outfit.
A decorated veteran of 16 Ashes Tests, 300 internationals in all and more than 700 games of professional domestic cricket in England and India, Collingwood thought he had seen everything cricket had to offer only to be reminded that the game is a perpetual education. The haunting final overs of Scotland’s victory over Kenya in Christchurch made their new coach, a World T20-winning captain, feel as nauseous as he ever did when going out to bat for his own country.
A master of mental strength over physical limitation, England’s rugged north-eastern warrior came into his own when things were threatening to unravel. Scotland had lost four games during a chaotic T20 campaign and, when they reconvened for the truly serious business of qualifying for the World Cup itself, many players mindful that they were also playing for their futures as paid cricketers, he decided what they needed was honesty. Not honesty as an alternative to dishonesty, but honesty as a course of home truths that are not easy to hear.
“I said to the guys in our first team meeting in New Zealand, and I was 100 per cent honest with them, I said that whenever I played against Ireland in the last five or six years I knew that we, as an England team, were in for a scrap. I knew they were not as good as us but I knew they would scrap and I knew we were in for a fight. When I played against Scotland, I said, I’ve never felt that,” says Collingwood.
“I told them ‘it’s up to you guys to come up with a method of being stronger mentally, and challenge yourselves to come up with a style of cricket that is going to put better teams under pressure.’”
The extraordinary occurrence of the winter was not Paul Collingwood contradicting a statement he had made in an effort to be polite, but Scotland contradicting themselves all over again after fulfilling his worst fears. After a terrible start in the T20s, they rallied strongly, if not quite strongly enough to qualify for the finals, then played convincingly in all of the warm-up games for the profoundly important World Cup Qualifier. They strode full of confidence into battle with 11 unknown expats from Hong Kong... and lost.
For the first time, Collingwood, who had assumed charge of the team along with Craig Wright after Pete Steindl had been relieved of his duties during the break between tours, began to question his own conviction that these were players worth writing home about.
“That was probably one of the moments when, I’ll be honest, I thought ‘these guys can’t take the heat’. We had done everything in our powers to prepare them and the confidence was high, and then we came to that game and it was so far from where we had been playing, not just in the warm-up games but in the last five games of the Twenty20s, where I could see major improvement,” he recalls. “I was kind of just going ‘please, let this be a blip, this can’t be happening...’ but Kyle Coetzer spoke very honestly in the dressing-room after that game, and showed he’s got leadership qualities. You always pick up moments from a tour that created a spark, and the UAE game in Queenstown was incredible.”
Coetzer was a bystander by then, sidelined by a wrist injury, but the captaincy was passed into safe hands and the mantle of star batsman picked up by a young player who has been to cricketing Hell and back and now finds himself on a celestial trajectory. After defeats to Bermuda, Afghanistan, Kenya, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, Scotland’s small band of loyal followers needed a hero and they got two.
Calum MacLeod, the opener who has reformed himself from a fast bowler whose action was illegalised, and Preston Mommsen, the nerveless vice-captain who would win the Player of the Tournament award, did exactly what Scots batsmen have traditionally failed to do – score centuries and score them quickly and ruthlessly. In one-day internationals, such individual feats are seldom performed in a losing cause. Scotland beat Nepal, the UAE and Canada to reach the Super Six, riding on the wave of Mac- Leod’s consecutive centuries, including a national record 175 against the Canadians, who had wrecked the World Cup dreams of Wright and company in 2001 and 2009. In the second phase Scotland took care of Namibia, Papua New Guinea and Kenya, with three balls to spare, in the cliffhanger that clinched a third World Cup appearance. After that, there was no way the bandwagon was going to be brought to a halt by UAE in the final, where Mommsen made 139 not out.
So how on earth did Collingwood and Wright turn losers into winners? Neither Scotland or the Saltires could win a trick last summer, and their T20 struggles were mortifying. “I just think the guys thought, again, they had put themselves in last-chance saloon,” says Collingwood. “England used to do it all the time. England always started tours off badly and it almost takes that kind of British Bulldog spirit ... ‘we’re behind the eight-ball again, let’s properly fight. Let’s take the shackles off and go’. For some reason you almost need to get in that position first to be like that.
“Things happen for reasons and, thankfully, it went well from that point, but hopefully in the future they will start tournaments better.
“Peter Steindl has got to take a lot of credit for what has happened because the skill level of these guys is incredible, and that comes over time. If I’d gone into the Scotland team and there was no skill level there, I knew I would have been in trouble because I only had two months. But because I knew it was only a mental switch, I was a lot more confident and now they’ve got that brand of cricket, now they know how it feels when it gives them success and confidence, I see the team going forward. I look at it and I’m amazed that they haven’t been that good in the past.
“A big factor in all cricket is fear of failure. If you’re going out there with the confidence of your management and your fellow players of playing your role, the fear of failure is not that high. We all know we’re going to make mistakes in cricket – that’s how you learn about the game. In the end, it’s really about not putting too much pressure on yourself.”
Collingwood, 37, looks younger than he did when he hung up his international spikes in 2011. Playing for England will age a man at a rate even Clarins cannot keep up with. When Scotland lost to Hong Kong he may have been reminded of five ludicrous days in Adelaide in 2006 when he scored 206 and 22 not out and his team-mates still contrived a way to lose the match.
When we meet in Chester-le-Street, he has just passed a county fitness test with flying colours, having run daily between cricket grounds and hotels in New Zealand in the company of Scotland video analyst Toby Bailey. He admits he is feeling chipper, and we presume we know why, but there is more to that smile than meets the eye.
Two days later, it is confirmed Collingwood that has been offered the commission that it was obvious he would receive at some point in his coaching career, but which he did not expect so soon. He will be back on a plane again within days, bound for the Caribbean after being hired by England as assistant coach to Ashley Giles.
Being a gentleman he calls that night, to explain, confiding that if England reach the final of the World Twenty20 he will not be back until 7 April, six days before Durham kickstart their county championship title defence against Coetzer’s Northamptonshire. Not forgetting his manners, he also states that this is only a seven-week contract, no different to his Scotland work, and it does not necessarily mean he will be on England’s side when the two teams clash for the first time at a World Cup on 23 February, back at Hagley Oval in Christchurch.
But, let’s face it, he is back in their clutches now and there is nothing for it but to wish him well because that gesture will always be reciprocated.
“As you can tell, I’ve absolutely thoroughly enjoyed the winter away,” he says. “I guess, going down to the wire like it did, it was the first time I had really felt that sick feeling in the stomach of ‘wow, this is really on the edge’. When Rob Taylor went in to bat in what we called the semi-final against Kenya, it was almost unbearable and that feeling was as close as you get to waiting to go into bat for England, with the consequences of the Ashes and that sort of stuff.
“To feel that again was really invigorating and, look, obviously it’s nicer when you get over the line and I probably wouldn’t have had a smile on my face now if Taylor hadn’t hit those runs at the end, but it was really satisfying. I still love playing, don’t get us wrong, and being involved with Durham and the captaincy, but coaching? I can see that being a big part of my life in the future.”
Collingwood speaks glowingly of Giles. They shared in the glory of the 2005 Ashes – albeit that the MBE Collingwood earned for that success was questionable, as he only took part in the fifth Test, and Shane Warne and the Australians made sure he knew that they considered it questionable – but the former left-arm spinner is now expected to be promoted from limited-overs coach to director of cricket after the resignation of Andy Flower, and he wants to bring Collingwood with him.
“Ashley is obviously early on in his international coaching career, but I think he’d be very good if he gets the three formats and I think that’s quite important now that the next coach does take the three formats over and really puts his stamp on the England team culture, the ethics and all that kind of stuff,” says Collingwood, who kept an eye on England’s whitewash Down Under from the Scotland camp, and at least had the consolation of seeing Durham’s Ben Stokes rise like a phoenix out of England’s ashes. “I think Ashley’s done a good job with the players that he’s had in the one-day and the T20 form of the game. A lot of the time he does lose some of his best players because you’ve got to balance out the fatigue factor for Test cricket. So I think he’s definitely the next man in line for the job.”
Talking of ethics and team culture, will Collingwood ever get to coach Kevin Pietersen? As men they may have been two peas from very different pods, but their middle-order alliance enjoyed spectacular highs. In that ludicrous Test in Adelaide they shared in a partnership of 310, and in 2010 they shared in something more memorable: England’s first victory in a global tournament, the World T20 in the West Indies.
Were the England and Wales Cricket Board right to call time on Pietersen’s international career? Collingwood’s smile this time is of the wry variety. “You had to ask us about that, didn’t you? How am I going to answer this one? I’ve played with KP for pretty much six years, five and a half years, and he won a lot for England. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here as a World Cup winner if it wasn’t for KP.
“You will always try to find a way of keeping KP in the side, but the last three years it just seems that the relationships have become so unmanageable between both sides that it hasn’t been able to work any more. You just can’t function.
“I don’t know if this has been happening, but if you orientate too much around one player, and not the whole team, then it becomes an issue. From the outside you can see that there have been occasions over the last few years where he has obviously upset the apple cart. But I always felt that I was needing KP in the side, and he’d never, at that point when I left the England team, he’d never become unmanageable as what it looks like he has now.
“I think people think sport is black and white sometimes. What happened in Australia? It’s sport. You’ve had a player, Mitchell Johnson, who has come out and played out of his skin; Brad Haddin has played out of his skin. England have been put under pressure and lost a couple of experienced players. Sport is an amazing thing that will come round and bite you on the backside at times when it’s least expected, and that’s why we watch it, because it’s unpredictable.
“If it was predictable then it wouldn’t be very entertaining, would it?”