Prior goes from public enemy No 1 to national treasure

He came unstuck in jelly bean-gate on India's last visit but is now the world's best batsman-keeper

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The Independent Online

Matt Prior is the best wicketkeeper batsman of his generation. Discuss. Until two years ago the idea would never have occurred outside the influence of mind-bending substances, now even to discuss it is almost superfluous.

As he demonstrated at Lord's in the first Test, Prior has become an all-round player of style and substance. His recent form with the bat has been breathtaking: three hundreds in his last six innings, eight scores above 50 in his last 18.

This is wonderful stuff, not least because Prior is a selfless swashbuckler who is continually aware of the team's needs. He showed this trait in both his innings at Lord's, in the first when they required some serious knuckling down in demanding conditions to prevent the further loss of blood at 270 for 5.

Then in the second, he needed to arrest a serious decline at 62 for 5 before attacking mercilessly, despite approaching a hundred, because he recognised the need for quick runs. His first 50 took 78 balls, the second 44 and as soon as he entered three figures the declaration came.

But it is the first part of his job description that has enhanced Prior's status. He was a rudimentary wicketkeeper when he was first selected for England four years ago. He might have filled the role since being a schoolboy but there were clear defects. He was badly balanced, he rose too quickly for the ball, he dropped too many catches and conceded too many byes.

Alec Stewart, who can make a strong claim as the best of all England's wicketkeeper-batsmen, has always been a supporter of Prior and sometimes it is possible to see the similarity between the pair as players. "When Matt first came into the side he was still learning, he still is," said Stewart. "But he has settled into the role as the years have gone on. He got dropped, went back to Sussex and came back stronger which is what good players do."

There also existed the definite feeling that Prior was an upstart. This reached a height on India's last tour of England in 2007, when he was still new to the side. It took him some time to shed an unfair reputation.

Perhaps Prior was too eager to make an impression. The story went round that he had tried to sledge Sachin Tendulkar ("I drive a Porsche, what car do you drive?") and he was implicated in the saga of the jelly beans during which several varieties of that sweet were left on the pitch when Zaheer Khan was batting at Trent Bridge.

The first was a wild misinterpretation of a throwaway comment, the second has never been fully explained, though the evidence against Prior never stacked up. Prior was pilloried as public enemy No 1 and for a while Premier League footballers were getting a better press.

He was mortified by it, not least because he did not recognise the bloke who was being written about. This is not to say that he is a wilting wallflower who is regularly telling opposition batsmen: "Well played, sir, that was a corker." He is noisy, opinionated and clearly leads the fielding effort, sprinting between ends whether it is the first over or the 150th.

The work he has put in on his keeping has paid huge dividends. Watching him at England practice sessions with Bruce French, the squad's specialist coach, is to see a man obsessed with honing his skills.

The results are clear. His balance is better, he stays lower longer, his sense of anticipation is keener. "I would say he's the best keeper-batsman in the world at the moment," said Stewart. "I noticed he wasn't in that position in The Independent's world XI today and I disagree."

Some great wicketkeeper batsmen have played for England: Les Ames, Stewart, Alan Knott. Prior stands comparison with them all. A true all-rounder.

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