When the great Alan Knott was playing 65 successive Test matches for England, the sailing was not all plain. Knott might have seemingly been cruising his way to becoming a legend of the game during that run between 1971 and 1977, but the Bob Taylor Fan Club was never short of vociferous members.
This might be of some comfort to England's incumbent Test wicketkeeper Matt Prior (though not as much comfort as his third Test century yesterday) or it might not. But it should make him aware that his particular spot in the team is never settled for good and all. Perhaps it is because there is only one of them in the team, perhaps it is because England have a good record of producing keepers, some of whom know one end of the bat from the other.
For the time being, and presumably now for the foreseeable future, Prior has shrugged off the threat of Craig Kieswetter, who was wicketkeeping flavour of the month earlier this summer and appeared set to be flavour of the year. But Kieswetter's runs have dried up for now and Prior has been scoring plenty of them for Sussex. His 102 not out in England's second innings of the First Test yesterday was timely in every sense.
The talk has stopped. But this will be only a temporary phenomenon. It is, of course, perfectly acceptable that no player in any team should think his place is ever secure, but the manner in which England insist their wicketkeepers are made aware of this at all times borders on cruelty. If they were dogs, questions would be asked in the House.
Prior has had his great days for England, but he has already been dropped once from the Test team and in March he was dropped from the one-day side for Kieswetter. He might be back, he might not. All he can do for now is cling on to his Test place.
"Craig has performed brilliantly and certainly when he first came into the Twenty20 side he did well," said Prior before the First Test against Pakistan. "I remember my Test debut and I managed to sneak a hundred and everyone said, 'We're all done now for the next 10 years, you'll be England's keeper-batter'.
"I think it was about three months later I was public enemy number one. It does change pretty quickly and that's why it would be naïve of me to sit here and say I'm now done. I don't think you ever are." He is right, of course. Prior made a most dashing hundred in that first match, at Lord's against West Indies (it was 126 not out from 128 balls, to be precise), and looked the part. But a few wicketkeeping errors and the perception later that summer that he was, well, a smart-arse, soon heaped the pressure on him.
A story did the rounds that he was rude to India's star batsmen, boasting somewhat swaggeringly about the sort of car he drove. Perhaps it was that, perhaps it was the keeping, which was sometimes slipshod, perhaps it was simply the need to put keepers through the mill.
It was not, as it turned out, fair. Prior is tough and he does talk a lot behind the stumps but then that is what keepers do. He is the most approachable, candid and unselfish of cricketers. Prior plays for Sussex and England and never, so far as anybody can remember, for Prior. There is a noticeably growing degree of affection towards him now – which he has not spotted – but that initial perception has taken its time to be eroded.
The advance of Kieswetter so close to the World Twenty20, which England then won in thunderous style with their new keeper being man of the match in the final, must have hurt. But Prior is careful what he says about his rivals, as indeed he ought to be, and the way he conducted his own form has been exemplary. He made 443 runs in this season's county Twenty20 and had the fastest scoring rate among the top 10 scorers.
It was the response of a man who intended to be back. In fairness to England's selectors, they had waited a long time for Prior's limited-over international batting form to develop – and two fifties in 50 innings suggests that it had not. "I don't think you can ever accept not playing in an England team," he said. "I want to play one-day cricket, I want to play Twenty20 cricket for England, I feel I can do a very good job at both. Certainly the improvements I have made over the last couple of months, let alone the last couple of years, with my batting, I feel I could put in a real good performance in one-day cricket but ultimately it is down to performance and I'm certainly not waving the white flag and saying, 'OK, I'll hang on to the long form of the game'."
Prior's most notable improvements have been to his wicketkeeping. At times he has been, frankly, ragged – as far from Knott and Taylor as it is possible to be. But he has worked relentlessly to improve. One of the enduring sights at England's recent practice sessions has been Prior taking ball after ball from angle after angle, working with the team's wicketkeeping coach, Bruce French.
Perhaps French has also told him that being first-choice England keeper does not amount to a hill of beans. Back in 1986, French went as No 1 on England's Ashes tour. So poor was England's batting in the build-up to the First Test that they felt they had to shore it up, and that French was not the man for the job.
In came Jack Richards, who scored a hundred in the Second Test, and although French returned the following summer for a few matches his chance of lasting glory had gone. So Prior, whose batting has always looked up to it, had to do something.
He now appears much more fluent. He keeps low for longer, with the result that he is not grabbing at the ball, and his positional sense is more assured. Sometimes when standing up he can be floored by indifferent bounce, but that is as much to do with the scrutiny under which 21st-century cameras put players like him who are always in the game.
Knott was brilliant, but he was not flawless. He dropped catches. But the people liked Knott. He was jaunty. It was as if he could do no wrong. "I hope people warm to me now, I don't know if I feel it as such but I hope it's there," said Prior. "It was going back a while, but at that time I was not very much liked. But I think maybe I was probably a bit misunderstood when I first came into the team. Hopefully people now realise the kind of player I am and the kind of cricketer I want to be for England. If I am noisy or over- excited it's only because I want England to perform and I'm passionate about playing for England."
Prior has the record for most byes conceded by a wicketkeeper in a Test match (in Trinidad last year) and holds four of the top 10 places in this regard. In his defence, some of the bowling has sometimes been dreadful and the pitches suspect. But his 1.55 wickets per innings are better than Knott's 1.54, which shows that you cannot have everything. It is his batting that will make him more durable. It is more versatile than he is given credit for – for the moment the selectors should certainly be noting that there are more nuances to his game than Kieswetter's – and he can change the course of an innings in any form of the game. Since Prior made his Test debut none of the specialist batsmen has scored runs more quickly.
"I don't think you should ever feel your place is nailed down," he said. "International sport changes so quickly that it would be naïve of me to say anything like that. I'm a pretty black-and-white person and I see it quite clearly: if I perform I will continue playing and if I don't there will be somebody else.
"In England we have got a number of keeper-batters, batter-keepers, whichever way you want to put it, who have been pushing. Certainly I have not played a day of international cricket for England when there hasn't been someone else who potentially is a better batter or a better keeper. Luckily I'm still sat here and looking forward to having another chance on Thursday."
There is a school of thought that suggests Prior would be accomplished enough to bat at No 6 in England's batting order, as he has done 15 times (he scored that maiden hundred there) and as Knott did more than 20 times in his total of 95 Tests, though rarely against Australia.
Prior is probably a No 6-and-a-half rather than a genuine six, which is another reason the selectors are reluctant to move to five bowlers. His average is above 40 and, of the 20 men to have played 10 or more matches behind the stumps for England, only Les Ames has a higher average. There were many in the 1930s who thought George Duckworth should be playing instead of Ames because he was a better wicketkeeper.
Life and times
Name Matthew James Prior.
Born 26 February 1982.
Personal life Born in Johannesburg to a South African mother and an English father, he moved to England with his family aged 11. He is married to Emily, who is the daughter of former Arsenal and Brighton footballer Sammy Nelson. The pair have a son called Jonathan, born in early 2009.
Career A wicketkeeper who has improved immeasurably with the gloves and an aggressive right-handed batsman who became the first English keeper to hit a century on his Test debut – 126 against West Indies at Lord's in 2007. He averages 40 in Test cricket but has had limited success with the bat in one-day internationals, averaging just 25.38 after 55 matches, and has lost his place to Craig Kieswetter in both ODIs and Twenty20 cricket – a position he is determined to recapture.
Harry BrooksReuse content