Prior back at start with the world in his hands

Five years on from debut, the England keeper has improved hugely – as a player and team man

Five years ago this week, Matt Prior made his Test debut against West Indies at Lord's and scored a blazing hundred. It was an innings rich with the promise of wonderful things to come.

He returns to the ground tomorrow against the same opponents with most of that promise fulfilled. Prior will enter his 53rd Test as the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, a matter of consensus among his peers and anybody else who happens to be looking.

It is no longer heretical to mention him alongside such predecessors as Alan Knott and Alec Stewart, it is essential. Prior has become a wicketkeeper with a vast catching arc and a batsman with an instinctive grasp of the meaning of playing for the team. In both roles, if he is not flawless, he is selfless.

This point has not been reached without alarms and excursions. Prior's international career has involved periods both of being dropped, which can happen to any sportsman, and being public enemy No 1 which tends to be rarer.

His Test batting average is 43.09, a shade behind only the great Les Ames of all England's keeper-batsmen. Like all England's batsmen his winter was sometimes hard but he still averaged close on 30, which would have done most keepers down the years.

"I hope I'm a better player now," he said yesterday when invited to reflect on his time with England. "You come from county cricket and you have a certain idea about your game and how you want to play cricket. You then get a taste of international cricket and you discover which bits work and which bits you need to work on.

"If you get dropped it's hugely important how you deal with that period you are out of the team. From a batting point of view I've had to learn how to adapt my game. I can't just go out and try to flay it to all parts. I have to try to sit in and play the conditions."

Prior's batting, as he demonstrated in that inaugural 126 from 128 balls, always looked as though it would cut the mustard as well as a dash. It was the keeping bit of his job that cast doubts on his durability: there were simply too many mistakes.

This fallibility was compounded by an early misjudgment of his character which threatened to be catastrophic. He was alleged to have sledged Sachin Tendulkar, no less, at the crease. He would have had an easier time had he stoned the Pope in the Vatican.

It took a year or so to shed this misconception of arrogance. Prior is a genuinely nice guy, which is not to say that batsmen are, as it were, unaware of his presence. But the manner in which he looks and moves like an international keeper has taken toil and sweat.

Prior is often the last man left at practice, being put through drill after drill by the wicketkeeping coach Bruce French. It can be painful to watch. Now he has the added incentive of Jonny Bairstow's advent. "From the keeping point of view I think I've improved immensely over the years," Prior said. "I only learnt recently just how much work keepers have to do."

If you were being picky you might say that his byes count remains too high, 2.10 per cent of the runs conceded by England compared to Knott's 0.93 per cent, Bob Taylor's 1.10 and Stewart's 1.12. But this takes no account either of the vastly swinging balls he has to deal with or the surfaces.

His catching does not receive the credit it deserves and if in the early days he was too hesitant about what to go for he is now as decisive as he is frequently airborne. It is difficult to think of a more spring-heeled keeper.

Prior's greatest asset may still be his determination always to put the team first, a facet this team have adopted. "I've never been a big stat watcher and that probably helps – if you know you need to get a certain amount of runs for some target it can make you a bit selfish.

"To win the game, like we did at the SCG to secure the Ashes [last year], those are the best moments. When you are finished those will be the things you'll remember ahead of whether you got 80 not out." He really could be one of the greats.

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