Prior: From public enemy No 1 to national treasure
Matt Prior came unstuck in jelly bean-gate on India's last visit. Now he's the world's best batsman-keeper
Matt Prior is the best wicketkeeper batsman of his generation. Discuss. Until two years ago the idea would never have occurred outside the influence of mind-bending substances, now even to discuss it is almost superfluous.
As he demonstrated with some prowess at Lord's in the first Test, Prior has become an all-round player of style and substance. His recent form with the bat has been breathtaking: three hundreds in his last six innings, eight scores above 50 in his last 18.
This is wonderful stuff, not least because Prior is a selfless swashbuckler who is continually aware of the team's needs. He showed this trait in both his innings at Lord's, in the first when they required some serious knuckling down in demanding conditions to prevent the further staunch of blood at 270 for 5.
Then in the second, he needed to arrest a serious decline at 62 for five before attacking mercilessly, despite approaching a hundred, because he recognised the need for quick runs. His first 50 took 78 balls, the second 44 and as soon as he entered three figures the declaration came.
But it is the first part of his job description that has enhanced Prior's status. He was a rudimentary wicketkeeper when he was first selected for England four years ago. He might have filled the role since being a schoolboy but there were clear defects. He was badly balanced, he rose too quickly for the ball, he dropped too many catches and conceded too many byes.
Alec Stewart, who can make a strong claim as the best of all England's wicketkeeper batsmen, has always been a supporter of Prior and sometimes it is possible to see the similarity between the pair as players. "When Matt first came into the side he was still learning, he still is," said Stewart. "But he has settled into the role perfectly as the years have gone on. He got dropped, went back to Sussex and came back stronger which is what good players do." There also existed the definite feeling that Prior was an upstart. If this reached a height on India's last tour of England in 2007, when he was still new to the side. It took him some time to shed an unfair reputation.
Perhaps Prior was too eager to make an impression. The story went round that he had tried to sledge Sachin Tendulkar ("I drive a Porsche, what car do you drive?") and he was implicated in the saga of the jelly beans during which several varieties of that sweet were left on the pitch when Zaheer Khan was batting at Trent Bridge.
The first was a wild misinterpretation of a throwaway comment, the second has never been fully explained, though the evidence against Prior never stacked up. Prior was pilloried as public enemy No 1 and for a while Premier League footballers were getting a better press.
He was mortified by it, not least because he did not recognise the bloke who was being written about. This is not to say that he is a wilting wallflower who is regularly telling opposition batsmen: "Well played, sir, that was a corker." He is noisy, opinionated and clearly leads the fielding effort, sprinting between ends whether it is the first over or the 150th.
The work he has put in on his keeping has paid huge dividends. Watching him at England practice sessions with Bruce French, the squad's specialist coach, is to see a man obsessed with fitness and honing his skills.
The results are clear. His balance is better, he stays lower longer, his sense of anticipation is keener. He knows the job. Looking at him now, it is odd that he features five times in the top-12 list of most byes conceded by an England keeper in a match.
Only Frank Woolley, who was a stand-in, has let through more byes than Prior's 35 at Trinidad in early 2009. There was plenty of mitigation (the bowling and the ground for a start) though if that is taken as a cut-off point the improvement is clear. In 16 matches until then, Prior conceded nine byes per innings (or 2.95 per cent of the total runs), since then it is 4.55 and 1.68 per cent. The improvement in his number of victims is similar, from 1.36 to 1.89.
"I would say he's the best keeper-batsman in the world at the moment," said Stewart. "I noticed he wasn't in that position in The Independent's world XI today and I disagree.
"I'm a big fan of MS Dhoni who got your nod but in English conditions, certainly when the ball wobbles about, Matt's better. Huge credit ought to go to Bruce French who's done so much work with him."
Of course, Prior has a valid claim on the place and may well make the ICC annual Test XI when it is announced next month. But then somebody has to captain the side and Dhoni is in charge of the team who, for the moment, are officially No 1 in the rankings.
Stewart would not be drawn on the 64,000 dollar question: is Prior the best of the lot to have played for England? "You'd better ask other people that," he said. "He's definitely the all-rounder in the England side at the moment. I'd like to think I did that role, then Andrew Flintoff came along and did it, and now he's retired Matt's the all-rounder. If England ever want or need to play five bowlers he could easily bat at No 6."
It remains a mystery to Stewart as to everyone else why Prior has not nailed down a spot in the one-day side when his rumbustious style would seem perfectly suited to it. "Maybe he's trying to do things he needn't." He may have an interminable wait for Craig Kieswetter to surrender it.
Prior has now played 44 Test matches, the same number (as a wicketkeeper) as Les Ames. He averages 45.41 compared to Ames' 43.40. Only two Test keepers to have played more than 10 Tests have a better batting average, Adam Gilchrist (5,570 runs at 47.61) and Andy Flower (4,404 at 53.71).
Since Flower is now England coach, Prior could be forgiven for thinking that he is auditioning every time he appears. Not that Flower is the type. "We are certainly happy with his performances at the moment," said Flower. "They were two outstanding innings at Lord's. I thought he kept very well."
Being on top of the game with both bat and gloves is a feeling Flower knows all too well from 63 Tests with Zimbabwe. He recalled the phrase of the great American gridiron coach, Vince Lombardi: "Fatigue makes cowards of all."
Flower said: "You have seen him when he has his gloves on. He contributes hugely running the field and inspiring the other guys to match him in the field. He drives that and he needs to be physically fit to do it, and that is the case with his batting, even if he has kept for 130 overs. That is very closely allied to his mental fitness and emotional strength. They are all contributors to how well he is going to perform."
Some great wicketkeeper batsmen have played for England: Ames, Stewart, Alan Knott. Prior stands comparison with them all. A true all-rounder.
Englishmen with 2,000 Test runs ranked by strike rate:
MJ Prior (2007-) 66.19
KP Pietersen (2005-) 62.36
A Flintoff (1998-2009) 61.86
IT Botham (1977-1992) 60.71
FE Woolley (1909-1934) 60.61
Wicketkeepers with 2,000 Test runs ranked by strike rate:
AC Gilchrist (Aus, 1999-2008) 81.95
MJ Prior (2007-) 66.19
Kamran Akmal (Pak, 2002-2010) 63.10
BB McCullum (NZ, 2004-2010) 62.00
MS Dhoni (India, 2005-) 59.20
Prior before being dropped:
Tests 10 Runs 562 Ave 40.14 Strike rate 56.14 50s 4 100s 1 Catches 28
Prior after being dropped:
Tests 34 Runs 1913 Ave 46.65 SR 68.10 50s 13 100s 5 Catches 106
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