Prior eager to grab England chance with both hands and keep pressure on Jones

The Sussex stumper's superior batting has edged out Chris Read for a slot in the touring squad. He talks to Glenn Moore
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The wicketkeeper-batsman will hope his spell in the spotlight lasts rather longer than that, and there is every chance it will. While his selection to tour Pakistan this winter was not as big a surprise as those of Shaun Udal and Alex Loudon, it was more significant. There is not, at present, a vacancy for an England spinner. But Geraint Jones' hold on the wicketkeeper's spot is about as secure - his critics suggest - as Jones's Teflon gloves.

That is not a view you will hear from Prior, he knows only too well the pitfalls of keeping. The raw statistics do not measure the contribution made by Jones, a consummate team man in a side whose success is founded on unity. In picking Prior, the selectors have made clear his place is under threat, because Prior is the nearest equivalent on the circuit.

He is not, he admits, as accomplished a gloveman as Nottinghamshire's Chris Read, who Jones displaced 18 months ago; nor, some argue, is he as handy as James Foster of Essex. But with a career average of 38, including 11 hundreds and a double-hundred, and experience at the top of the order, he is a better bat than Read and a more versatile one than Foster. He is also an improving wicketkeeper, with valuable experience of the turning ball - keeping for three summers to Mushtaq Ahmed - and an effervescent presence on the field. But if he is something of a Jones clone, he defers to the original.

"I have huge respect for the way he comes back and comes back," says Prior. "The mental toughness that takes is massive. I would never slate another keeper because it is not an easy job and we've all been there. There are no grey areas in keeping. Either you catch a ball or you don't. You are in the focus all the time. It's like being a goalkeeper in football.

"There is a huge element to keeping. You provide energy to the whole unit. You are the engine room."

Peter Moores, who is about to leave his post as Sussex's director of cricket to take over from Rod Marsh as head of England's Academy, quotes the analogy used by Ian Healy, the former Australian wicketkeeper. "He's the drummer in the band. The keeper can see everything. He sees the angles, tidies the throws, keeps the bowlers going. He is a fantastic resource for the captain, and the keeper must play that role."

Moores is a former keeper himself and yesterday was a proud day for him as he has overseen Prior's progress since the 23-year-old first pulled on the gloves a decade ago. "It was a bit of an accident," says Prior. "I was opening the batting for Sussex Under-13s and I didn't think about wicketkeeping. Then our keeper didn't turn up, his car had broken down or something. I volunteered. Afterwards Dave Randall, the coach, said 'it looks like you have something there' and passed me on to Peter Moores. We've been working together ever since."

Prior had not been in England long. He was born in Johannesburg to a South African mother and an English father who had long lived in Africa. Come 1993, and the transition in government, they, like many others, decided to move to England. In this, Prior's background is more akin to that of Andrew Strauss than Kevin Pietersen. Prior even supported England as a boy, admiring Alec Stewart - though in part that was because South Africa were not allowed back into Test cricket until 1991. Certainly, as far as Sussex are concerned, he is a local who has come through the ranks.

There may, though, be something South African about his ebullience on the field, which led to a sledging contest with Shane Warne earlier this season. "I knew that would come up," he groans. "As far as I am concerned what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch. Warne plays his cricket hard and so do I. But he's an absolute legend. It was not down to me it came out, and it got blown out of proportion." Even so, it will not have escaped the eye of Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, who likes a player with attitude.

More positively, the publicity generated by the Ashes rippled down to Hove. "We've certainly noticed it here," says Prior. "My brother rings me up and says mates from work are having arguments about whether to play Collingwood or Anderson. They used to argue about who's the better player? Figo or Beckham.

"It's a rule at Sussex that we don't have the telly on during play, we concentrate on what's going on in the middle. So I'd rush back to see the highlights after play. And you find out what is going on from the crowd. At the climax of the Edgbaston Test we were out doing our warm-ups when we found one of the supporters had a mini TV. The whole team chased over to him. We were watching a tiny screen with everybody huddled round.

"It's a fantastic time to be involved with the England squad. This is a huge opportunity. The hard work starts now. I just want to be hugely committed and, hopefully somewhere along the line, I can make a difference and do something for England."

Prior has invaluable experience of the subcontinent, having toured Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka over the past two winters with England A, scoring 530 runs at an average of 75.71. His outlook echoes the one adopted by Australia in recent years.

"You have to accept the culture, accept the bus might turn up late, accept the hotel might not be great, accept it and concentrate on what is going on in the middle," said Prior. "I've enjoyed the touring. We've seen some incredible scenes here this summer but, over there, people just live for their cricket and it fills you with energy. It's hard work but you have to enjoy it and try to grasp the opportunity."

This positive outlook will be crucial. The reserve wicketkeeper's lot is not always a happy one, especially in India, where, in 1984-85, Bruce French, seeking a break from drinks duties, went for a run only to be bitten by a dog. It is a long way from avoiding the seagulls at Hove.

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