Prior determined to make sure the gloves fit for good

The Sussex stumper considered giving up keeping to improve his England hopes but Alec Stewart changed his mind, he tells Angus Fraser
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The Independent Online

Alec Stewart performed many notable feats for England between 1990 and 2003, and in his new role as Matthew Prior's mentor he may have managed another.

Replacing Stewart, a cricketer who averaged almost 40 with the bat and kept wicket expertly, is proving to be an almost impossible task for the England selectors, and in the five years since his retirement Chris Read, Geraint Jones, Prior, Philip Mustard and Tim Ambrose have each failed to fill the void.

Much is expected from a modern day wicketkeeper, more than ever before, and during his time with the England team Prior's batting proved to be considerably better than that of his contemporaries. His glovework was less reliable and the criticism he received left him wondering whether he should continue the quest to perfect both skills or concentrate on batting instead.

Discussions with Stewart ensued, with the former England all-rounder convincing Prior that he should continue with both. Prior's recall to the England side for the coming one-day series against South Africa suggests that Stewart gave the correct advice.

"It wouldn't be right to say I thought about giving up keeping," said Prior at a wet and miserable Chester-le-Street, the intended venue for yesterday's abandoned Twenty20 international against South Africa. "When you have been in the England side and been dropped I think you do find yourself looking at avenues. My goal was to get back playing for England and there were times during the three months I had off earlier this year when I sat down and thought: 'right, I have tried that route and I need to find another route to get me back playing for England, whichever it may be.'

"There were times when I thought, maybe if I didn't keep wicket my batting average would escalate and I could try and get in just as a batsman. But I then spoke to Stewie [Stewart] and he said: 'Why don't you keep and get your batting average up by 10 runs, and then you are not burning any bridges.' Those words quickly quashed any idea of that and they decided the route I wanted to go down.

"I have used Alec quite a lot, as much from a tactical/mental point of view and as a guy to speak to as technical. He has been down at Sussex and when he has been there he has been brilliant. To have his experience at the end of a telephone is a great help."

Stewart's association with Prior runs deeper than mentor. He acts as his agent too, and the decision to continue with both skills, when fully thought through, should have been a simple one. Were Prior to push for an England place solely as a batsman he would be competing with 10 or 20 other players; but as a wicket-keeper he would only, realistically, be vying with two or three. Even a fast bowler can work out the more favourable figures here.

Prior's involvement with the England side has been a rather topsy-turvy affair. The 26-year-old had made 12 safe but unspectacular one-day appearances before last summer's Test debut against the West Indies. He started in wonderful style, striking an imposing unbeaten 126 at Lord's. Innings of 75 and 62 quickly followed, and suddenly England's wicketkeeping issues appeared to have vanished.

India provided sterner opposition and Prior began to grab headlines more for his on-field dialogue and demeanour than his dexterity. The important runs dried up and he became embroiled in the "Jellygate" affair at Trent Bridge, when an England player placed jellybeans on the crease for an incoming Indian batsman, who failed to see the funny side of the joke. Prior was also accused of making a derogatory remark to an Indian batsman at the crease, allegedly asking him what car he drove before stating that he himself drove a Porsche. Despite never having owned a Porsche – and his strong denials that he was involved in either incident – the mud stuck. In a must-win Test at The Oval he dropped both Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman, and suddenly he had become a figure of hate.

Prior batted pretty well on England's pre-Christmas tour of Sri Lanka but he dropped a couple of difficult catches in another must-win Test in Galle. The criticism he received was harsh – only Ryan Sidebottom had worked harder than him in back to back-to-back Tests and he was exhausted – but the selectors had seen enough, replacing him with Tim Ambrose in New Zealand.

"It wasn't the quietest of summers," admitted Prior, with an ironic smile on his face. "It was rather up and down. When you arrive on the international scene there is a lot to learn. You don't know how you are going to deal with that until you are there, and to have that experience behind me now is massive.

"When I was left out it was not a case of feeling hard done by. This is international sport. It is hard. That's the end of the story. The reality was that I could either sulk and use excuses and blame everyone else for where I was, or I could look at myself and say: 'right, what do I want to change to go forward? Do I want to get back there?'

"I answered those questions, dusted myself down and decided to come back hard again to see where I got. I feel pretty proud of myself this time round because when I was left out people were saying 'that's it for him, he'll never be back'. So to come back and perform for Sussex as I have done this summer is something I am quite proud of.

"It takes quite a bit of mental toughness to bounce back. A lot of players get left out and they don't manage to do that for a couple of summers. There is a huge amount of hard work still to be done. This is just the start – I want to succeed for England."

Prior accepted that the all-consuming nature of high-level sport had a negative effect on him a year ago and has vowed to play with greater perspective from now on. He said: "This time round I am not going to place myself under too much pressure because when you do you can't perform. I learnt a huge amount from the last time I was involved with England and I come back almost a year later a much more mature person and cricketer.

"It is very easy to get quite intense. I have always worked very hard at my game and that won't stop, but you can get quite intense about it all. There are times when you return to your hotel room at the end of the day and you can't think about anything but the next day. You have to be able to break away from it. Coming back a year older, hopefully I will find a nice balance between the time you are on and concentrating, and the time you are off, when you let yourself relax. It is important to have those breaks."

Breaks over the coming months will be few and far between for Prior, who is expected to regain his place in the Test team later this year. If Prior's glovework has improved as much as he believes England's wicketkeeping woes will indeed be a thing of the past.

Keeping it real: England's contenders behind the stumps

Matt Prior (Sussex)

Age: 26

Born: Johannesburg, South Africa

Test record:

Played 10, Batting Ave 40.14, Highest Score 126*, Catches 28, Stumpings 0

One-day record:

Played 23, Batting Ave 21.36, Highest Score 52, Catches 24, Stumpings 2

First-class record:

Played 132 Batting Ave 39.53 Highest Score 201* Catches 308 Stumpings 21

Tim Ambrose (Warwickshire)

Age: 25

Born: Newcastle, Australia

Test record:

Played 10, Batting Ave 24.73, Highest Score 102, Catches 30, Stumpings 0

One-day record:

Played 5, Batting Ave 2.50, Highest Score 6, Catches 3, Stumpings 0

First-class record:

Played 86, Batting Ave 34.69, Highest Score 251*, Catches 185, Stumpings 14

James Foster (Essex)

Age: 28

Born: Leytonstone, Essex

Test record:

Played 7, Batting Average 25.11, Highest Score 48, Catches 17, Stumpings 1

One-day record:

Played 11, Batting Average 13.66, Highest Score 13, Catches 13, Stumpings 7

First-class record:

Played 135, Batting Ave 33.43, Highest Score 212, Catches 359, Stumpings 34

Phil Mustard (Durham)

Age: 25

Born: Sunderland

One-day record:

Played 10, Batting Ave 23.30, Highest Score 83, Catches 9, Stumpings 2

First-class record:

Played 78, Batting Ave 26.33, Highest Score 130, Catches 264, Stumpings 11