There used to be a constant debate about the England wicketkeeper’s position.
Any poor sod who happened to be picked was usually on borrowed time and some were accused of wearing gloves for no apparent reason.
The discussion has changed. It now concerns whether the present incumbent, Matt Prior, is the greatest of all England’s wicketkeeper-batsman, a peculiar all-round role which demands high standards in both positions. In essence, you have to be worth your place as a keeper and as a batsman.
Prior’s dashing 82 in the second Test, an innings that for England’s purposes might have been cut in Savile Row, merely enhanced his prestige. The tourists were in danger of squandering the advantage they had chiselled out on the first day.
Analysing precisely what England needed, Prior produced the rapier. When Prior first started his career seven years ago tongues wagged about whether he was truly up to it (opinion was split) and now they wagged for an entirely different reason.
His innings took the team to a total of 465 which had the desired effect of putting New Zealand once more at serious disadvantage when they had to bat in the final session. England’s bowlers provided the appropriate bounce and pace, bringing them three wickets and a lead of 399 overnight.
Without Prior’s contribution it would not have been likely. It was his sixth 50 in his last 14 Test innings, in which only one has been in single figures and the rest over 20. Of the keeper-batsmen who have had significant careers for England, Les Ames, Alan Knott and Alec Stewart are the outstanding trio.
Of those Knott holds a particularly fond place in the memory because he changed the whole aspect of the job: a truly top -lass keeper who liked standing back but was adept at standing up to Derek Underwood, the greatest spinner of his era. Stewart’s reputation in the job is often underestimated because he was a batsman who converted. Only when he was gone was it realised that he had actually kept wicket in 82 matches and only then was it realised that he had been England’s best all-rounder. He was badly missed.
Ames’ record is self-explanatory – 44 matches as keeper, eight hundreds, 72 catches, 23 stumpings, a batting average of 43.40. It was the latter figure which Prior surpassed yesterday by a couple of decimal digits. But he was having none of the greatest of all time malarkey.
“I’ve got a long way to go yet,” he said. “Things like that are for other people to say, not for me to worry about. As far as I’m concerned those guys are legends of the game and I have a long way to go to class myself alongside them.”
But the figures speak for themselves. And it is more than simply the figures. It is the way Prior carries himself for the good of the team. For instance, he could have bided his time a little to make his way to his seventh Test century yesterday – Ames has eight, Stewart six as keeper, Knott five – but he perished playing a reverse hit in search of the quick runs he estimated were necessary. It might have been obvious; not every player would have done it.
He said: “Getting those runs quickly at the end of the innings was what I was trying to do. It didn’t come off but we got ourselves into a pretty nice position. The way it worked out, it was quite a nice length of session to come in hard at them at the end of the day.”
The debate will never be concluded to anybody’s satisfaction. There may be people still alive who watched Ames score a vintage 120 against Australia at Lord’s in 1934 which gave them a total large enough to allow Hedley Verity’s 15 wickets to secure an innings victory. England did not beat Australia at Lord’s again until 2009.
But Prior is establishing a sound case and he is England’s vice-captain now and yesterday he could be said to have played a vice-captain’s innings. “You look at the guys, the stats and the games they played and all those things,” he said. “Yeah, they’re distant goals but I made the mistake of looking too far ahead once before and I’m not going to do that again.”