It is December, 2006. England are in the middle of being whitewashed by Australia, in Australia, just one year after they pulled off an historic Ashes victory on home soil.
A few months earlier, my dad had agreed with a mate one night in the pub (where all the best decisions are made) that they would travel to Perth to watch the third test of the series. When that friend pulled out, however, Dad decided to take me, his 8 year old son, instead. His dreams of a lads’ tour disappeared over night and a father son adventure would have to suffice.
We flew to Perth and stayed in the northern coastal suburb of Scarborough for a week before the test started. After a week of sun, sunburn, and sunstroke it was time for the test to begin.
The first two innings set up quite a close contest but, as we walked away on the third day after watching Australia dominate – culminating in Gilchrist hitting the fastest test ton ever – the sunburn and sunstroke were starting to look preferable.
I was young and clueless, though, and at that age my only real aim was to play cricket with other youngsters around the stadium and get autographs. The former of these two resulted in me getting hit in the back by an errant sign, pulled free from its bindings by a rather large gust of wind, and that led to a free massage; but THAT is a story for another day.
It is the latter that is of importance: autographs. I was mad about them. Every game I went to, it was vital that dad would get me an autograph bat from the club shop, and once I was done playing with it, we would try to get my favourite player to sign it. The bat was bought, I had played plenty of quick cricket, it was time for autographs.
Given that it was 2006, my hero was of course Andrew Flintoff – he was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. We waited patiently for him outside the nets, autograph bat and sharpie in hand. I could barely contain my excitement; Freddie was ten yards away from me! Finally, he finished up and walked out… flanked by bodyguards. I asked desperately for an autograph, but he simply looked down, looked back up and kept walking.
Heartbroken, and on the verge of tears (I was eight remember) I turned back to my dad, defeated. Luckily, he pointed out that a cricket team does, in fact, not consist of just one player, and that there may be another member of the team who would sign my bat. So who should walk out next, but the greatest all rounder that England have ever produced: Paul Collingwood. He stopped and signed my bat, had a quick joke with my dad, and went on his way.
It seems small, but when you have travelled 9,000 miles, suffered sunburn and sunstroke, been bullied by Australians for two full weeks during a humiliating Ashes series, and attacked by a wind-fuelled signage board, to have someone stop and just give you a signature and a minute of their day, well, it made it all worth it to me.
There are plenty of players I respect for their ability but could never call favourites because of the way they behave outside of the sport – the KPs and the Warners of the world come to mind. Colly just always came across as a nice bloke. Always worked hard for the team on the field and, as stated above, I have personal experience of his kind nature off the field as well.
However, we should probably talk about ability on a cricket field as well. His work on the international stage is often understated or even forgotten about altogether, but it is worth remembering he has taken over 200 international catches and over 100 international wickets, has a test batting average over 40, was the first player in the history of ODIs to score a ton and take six wickets, and he was the first English captain ever to deliver an international trophy when he led our T20 side to victory in 2010.
He has also won the Ashes on three separate occasions both in England and Australia, taken test wickets as a bowler, catches as a wicket keeper, and has a test match double ton. Quite frankly, it is a crime that he is not held in higher regard as an England cricketer.
In the county game, he is probably one of the greatest to have ever graced the Championship. Whatever you read about Collingwood, the common thread is consistently how hard he has worked throughout his career, whether its getting every last drop of value out of his talent (which I think is still massively underrated by many), or refusing to be limited by the back injuries that plagued the early years of his career.
Another thing that is clear is how much he loved his county. He gave 23 years of loyal service to his beloved Durham, scoring 16,844 runs, taking 164 wickets, and winning the title in 2013; in my opinion, no one has ever deserved it more.
If there are three phrases that could sum him up it would be ability, loyalty, and hard work – and they are three attributes that any professional athlete should strive for. Collingwood exuded them throughout his career and perhaps never more so than right at its end. In 2017, many players in Paul Collingwood’s position would have been considering calling time on their career. He had just passed 40, he was already a legend of County and Country, and had won pretty much everything there is to win; he really had nothing left to prove.
With Durham facing a tough period after financial troubles that had led to an ECB bailout and an enforced relegation, however, Collingwood – as he has done so many times in his extraordinary career with bat, ball, in the field and even with the keepers mitts – stepped up. At the age of 41, he accumulated 1,000 runs in the Championship and scored Durham’s first T20 hundred in the cup, in the process becoming the oldest player to do so.
He steadied the ship and then stepped back a season later when he felt he finally could.
My real reasons for loving this tough all rounder from the North East are personal. Had he not signed my bat all those years ago in Perth, maybe I would have overlooked him like so many others have; but he did sign it.
He has never shirked responsibility in his long career, and he can now look back on a hugely successful record across all formats because of that. His ability has always been underrated, but I honestly think that this is due to the fact that his impeccable attitude towards hard work has always dwarfed it. England’s first international cup lifting captain, England’s greatest fielder, Durham’s greatest player, a County cricket legend, and my favourite player of all time.
Go well, Colly, there is no one I would rather watch diving around in the gully.