At some point on the way to The Oval last Sunday everything changed for Matt Prior. This was no sudden blinding light conversion but a trip that unfolded slowly, stutteringly.
Its eminently satisfactory culmination arrived in the climactic stages at The Oval on Sunday. Australia's last two specialist batsmen were at the crease. Their recovery had been halted with the loss of two wickets swiftly to run outs, but with Australians you can never be sure.
England knew that villains in slasher movies come back from the dead less often and they don't have the Ashes to play for. Then Prior struck by stumping Marcus North. What a sweet, neat piece of work it was. North essayed a sweep against Graeme Swann, missed the turning ball and was fractionally out of his crease. A year ago, it would have been suggested that North could have sauntered two yards down the wicket, had a fag and a cuppa, done a bit of gardening and still made it back in time, assuming Prior had gathered the ball. If not he could have gone on a week's holiday as well.
But this was the new Matt Prior, the one who has been evolving in the past year and no longer assumed gloves to be a fashion accessory. He rose perfectly with the turning, lifting ball, moved his feet quickly with his gloves following, and with the ball safely ensconced flicked the bails off nonchalantly with the back of his hand.
All this happened in a blink. North would need to have moved quicker than Usain Bolt to get back in time. It was a lovely piece of work which formed the centrepiece of an exemplary exhibition of keeping on a wearing pitch. It would have stood comparison with any of the other 63 men who have kept wicket for England. For Prior it must have been the warmest of moments, if not one quite to rank with that some two hours lately when finally the Australians were despatched.
"It was brilliant, but I made myself look a bit of a prat jumping around like that!" he said yesterday, still digesting England's victory. "One of my goals for this series has been to make sure no-one is talking about my wicketkeeping, and I hope I have been successful. When I came back into the team at the end of last summer, I just wanted to keep my head down and work hard. In that time I have only dropped one catch – and that was standing up to Dimitri Mascarenhas in the West Indies."
In the matter of a few months, Prior has become a pillar of the side. He has slotted effortlessly into the No 6 batting position, from where he plays with a real dash. But it is his improved keeping that has made him the focus of attention whatever he says. It is being talked about because it has been so markedly improved. He is, as Alec Stewart was, and Alan Knott was a generation ago, an all-rounder.
Not only that, but his presence is uplifting. He sprints between ends whether it is the first over of the day or the 90th and he is regularly to be seen patting a tiring bowler on the bum. He can also be heard chirping away but it is a less strident chirp than that which got him into trouble at the beginning of his Test career, nightingale to mating blackbird.
Prior had a wonderful start to his Test career. He was called up at the start of 2007 when England decided to draw a line under both Geraint Jones and Chris Read, who had toured Australia the previous winter. He had the most auspicious of starts when, at Lord's of all places, he became the first England wicketkeeper to make a century on his Test debut.
It was dazzling stuff. He came in at 363 for five and unloaded an array of meaningful strokes against a tired attack, 126 from 128 balls, 76 of them in boundaries. By the end of the summer, it was being suggested he button his lip. India beat England and the season was all but defined by Prior's constant chatter.
To get away with that his wicketkeeping had to be good. It wasn't and it was to get worse. He became cricket's public enemy for talking. The penalty was out of all proportion to any offence. Prior, the most affable and, yes, chatty of chaps was bewildered. That has all changed now but only following a brief period back in county cricket. "Of course, I knew I only had myself to blame for being dropped," he said. "And I knew that there was no magic solution – I just had to keep working hard and I might get another go. I don't think I've cracked it now, and I haven't stopped trying to improve. I think that's one of the strengths of my game."
Several theories have been propounded about Prior's improvement (and he has had a badly damaged finger most of this summer). Most of them are bogus and nor is he a manufactured keeper. He has always kept wicket and often it has been the strongest element of his game.
But it was clear that he was not up to it in some games and as recently as Trinidad earlier this year he conceded 35 byes, a record by England's chosen wicketkeeper in an innings. It has been beaten only by Frank Woolley, who was standing in and was 47 years old at the time. "That was a ridiculous pitch," he said. "It was so slow that you had to stand incredibly close to catch the ball from 90mph bowlers, and if it went down the legside it was gone."
He is a good-natured soul who is also determined. The former England keeper, Bruce French, has undoubtedly helped him to improve, though his byes per innings and as a percentage of the opposition runs remain greater than any regular England keeper for more than 70 years. But this matters because the improvement is palpable.
Mostly, it is because he has settled to the role. He is less excitable. If there has been a change in technique it appears to have been largely derived from the age old trusted method of staying low for as long as possible and rising with ball. Getting up too soon can cause all manner of difficulties.
"Bruce is an infectious character and he really transmits his passion for the craftsmanship of wicketkeeping," he said. "He has encouraged me to watch other keepers and now I find I am watching cricket in a whole different way. It's quite strange but I can come out of a game and I am only really aware of what the keeper is doing. People say that I take the ball past my hip now like an Australian but that's not quite right: I just move my feet a lot more. My head and hands are still in a straight line when I catch the ball."
Prior now sounds and looks as though he could give a wicketkeeping masterclass. As for the Ashes, he, like everybody, is still reeling.
"It was an eye-opener yesterday when we came out of the hotel and there were crowds of people around taking photos and cheering. The whole experience has been absolutely brilliant, but it is only the start. The whole team has to keep on working hard." Prior, the side's true all-rounder, can be relied upon.
Prior in numbers
52 Prior's world record number of byes conceded in a single match, in the fifth Test against West Indies on 6 March 2009.
5 Number of catches Prior dropped off Ryan Sidebottom's bowling over six Tests from 19 July 2007 to 18 December 2007.
96 Number of byes Prior conceded against West Indies during England's four-match Test series against them in the Caribbean in 2009.
2 Prior's stumping of Australia's Marcus North on Sunday was his second in 23 Test match appearances for England.
126 Number of runs, not out, Prior hit on his Test debut against West Indies in May 2007, the only England wicketkeeper to ever hit a century on his Test debut.
261 Number of runs Prior scored against Australia in England's Ashes series victory, the second most behind Andrew Strauss.
1326 Number of runs Prior has scored for England. He has scored two centuries – with a best of 131 not out – and averages 44.20.Reuse content