England wicket-keeper Matt Prior struck an outstanding innings of 82 to put the tourists in a strong position after day two of the Second Test against New Zealand.
Prior once again showed his class, his knock having the effect of leaving the Kiwis in a state combining exhaustion and frustration in equal measure. They were then reduced to 66-3 by the close, trailing England by 399.
Stuart Broad, who has struggled for months through injury and poor form, took two wickets in two balls to secure England a clear advantage. He had Hamish Rutherford caught at slip off an ambitious drive and then bowled Ross Taylor with a searing delivery which burst through the batsman’s tentative defence.
Jimmy Anderson made the initial breakthrough by having Peter Fulton caught at slip, also essaying a drive, and if New Zealand were not in disarray their deficit left them with an enormous task. They had been kept for 146.5 overs in the field following the 170 overs they had to endure in England’s second innings in Dundedin four days earlier.
But make no mistake, it was Prior, in many ways the most invaluable and under-rated member of this England team, who set up this scenario. When he came to the crease, England were 325 for 5 and chugging diffidently along at 2.8 runs an over.
Prior injected an immediate note of adventure, busy and business-like, invariably ready to counter-attack. The run rate during his innings rose to almost five an over.
England continued to lose wickets as the pitch, in a virtually comatose state on the first day much to New Zealand’s surprise and annoyance, seemed to stir to life. But Prior’s stylish intervention kept the scoreboard ticking merrily along as he cut and drove with gusto.
Twice he thumped Neil Wagner, the Kiwi left arm swing bowler back over his head for six. Given his recent elevation in status, it might be described as a vice-captain’s innings.
This was almost totally at odds with the manner in which England had approached their work until then. Kevin Pietersen’s 73, for instance, was hesitant and rarely fluent. Prior took a mere 99 balls over his innings, struck 10 fours and two sixes and assessed perfectly the state of the match and what needed to be done.
Prior is in his 64 Test match for England and deserves to be spoken of at least in the same sentence as such illustrious predecessors as Les Ames, Alan Knott and Alec Stewart, men who all kept wicket adroitly and were essential components of the side’s batting order.
This was Prior’s sixth 50 in his last 14 innings for England, matches incidentally in which byes have contributed barely 1pc of the opponents’ runs, which is right up there with all England’s best. He now has the best batting average of all wicketkeepers who have played more than 10 Test innings for the country, overtaking Ames’ figure of 43.40 and evidently has scope to advance.
Until Prior’s timely arrival, the second day at Basin Reserve had conspired against England from the moment Jonathan Trott’s vigil was ended to his first ball of the morning. Trott pushed at a ball from Trent Boult, which he might have left alone half an hour later, and feathered it behind.
A period of consolidation ended a little messily when Ian Bell, presumably deciding it was time to throw off the shackles, failed to meet at its pitch a ball from the left-arm spinner Bruce Martin and sent a swirling catch to mid-off.
Joe Root was also dismissed by Martin, chasing a wide one outside off stump. Root, who could do no wrong in his international career until a week ago, is beginning to find what a hard game it is, his scores in this series now being 4, 0 and 10.
Martin had already caused a heart flutter or two for Pietersen, whose credit rating against left arm spin long ago lost its AAA status according to all the reputable agencies. But having been dropped at 40, when he top edged a hook which wicketekeeper BJ Watling could not cling on to above his head, Pietersen battled his way to his first half century of the tour.
Pietersen’s oddly dogged stay ended when he fell into the same trap as Bell and was also caught high at mid-off. Broad was toppled by a swinging, bouncing ball from Trent Boult which he did well to lay bat on.
By now, Prior needed some durable company and found it in the nightwatchman hero of the First Test, Steve Finn. Doubtless inspired by the Dunedin Blockade, Finn played delightfully at times, the firm forward defensive allied to some handsome cover drives and a late order batsman’s heaves. The pair put on a crucial 83 for the eighth wicket in even time.
Prior was in sight of a richly deserved seventh Test century – only Ames with eight hundreds has more as keeper while Stewart made six - when his bold reverse hit was held at backward point. The debate about his precise place in the pantheon will endure but today he was special indeed.