Prior back in the picture after French lessons
Saturday 01 August 2009
Twelve months ago, when England played South Africa at Edgbaston, Matt Prior was out of sight and out of mind. Yesterday, he was just out of the picture – well almost, anyway after diving a country mile to catch Marcus North in front of first slip.
Whether or not the wicketkeeper should have gone for a thickish outside edge, rather than leaving it to Andrew Strauss, is another matter. But, crucially, he had the confidence to take it on and the skill to pouch a spectacular one-hander that will have thrilled not only him but also any photographer in position to capture it.
The much more routine take to get rid of Ricky Ponting was probably of greater importance and, just for good measure, he had a couple of gloves in the late dismissal of Peter Siddle to complete a near faultless performance behind the stumps. Oh, happy days.
But it wasn't always like that, was it? Prior spent a year out of the England Test team, from late 2007 through to the December 2008 series in India, and many people would have kept it that way after seeing him drop too many catches and wave countless byes to the boundary.
It all came to a head in Sri Lanka where the sight of Ryan Sidebottom stomping around with a face like thunder after another chance had gone to grass indicated that something had to be done. And so it was. England sent Tim Ambrose and Phil Mustard to New Zealand, then retained Ambrose for the home Tests against the Kiwis and South Africans.
Not only that but there was also talk of Prior giving up the gloves altogether to concentrate on his batting which, at its best, is a joy to behold. Instead, the Sussex player – encouraged by Alec Stewart, among others – decided that making himself better behind the stumps was the real solution.
Enter Bruce French, a former keeper who had exactly the opposite problem to Prior when he played for England in the mid 1980s. A shortage of runs did for French, especially when the free-scoring Jack Richards was breathing down his neck, but he was a top operator in his No 1 occupation. Now he is working with Prior and, on the evidence of the summer so far, helping to make a real difference.
"He's been fantastic – he's changed my thinking about keeping as well as my technique," said Prior between the Tests at Lord's and Edgbaston.
England's current stumper went on to explain that his posture had been all wrong and that, with French's help, he is now able to move more quickly, left and right. And no one could argue with that on yesterday's evidence.
Even better from Prior's point of view, and for the first time in his Test career, few people are questioning anything very much about his keeping. And certainly not his right to a place in the side ahead of perfectly plausible candidates like James Foster, Chris Read and Steven Davies.
The swashbuckling century he scored on his Test debut, against West Indies at Lord's in 2007, showed how well he could bat. Another hundred, plundered off the same opponents, though in the Caribbean this time, reinforced that view a few months ago and Prior has passed 50 twice in this series before coming to Edgbaston.
But however well the 27-year old performs with the blade at No 6, he knows he needs to maintain his currently high standard of work with the gloves. Or the debate about England's wicketkeeping options will start all over again.
"The real goal is to be the best keeper in England," Prior has said. And yesterday he showed he is fully committed to go for it.
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