Prior passes his Test but one-day teaser remains
Wicketkeeper shows fine strokes that should translate to shorter game
Gone are the days when all and sundry questioned Matt Prior's right to a place in England's Test team. Now even the hardest-hearted judges admit that he is some way ahead of his pursuers as far as five-day cricket is concerned. Generally sound behind the stumps, he is a devastating counter-attacker in front of them.
To watch Prior bat on Friday evening and yesterday morning was to witness a man whose confidence is clearly sky high. True, much of Sri Lanka's bowling was on the hospitable side of accommodating but the Sussex man could scarcely have been more ruthless. Denied a chance to make runs in Cardiff by a combination of solid top-order batting and bad weather, Prior – first with Eoin Morgan and then in the company of Stuart Broad – allowed England to make a full recovery from their decidedly sticky Lord's start of 22 for 3.
There were some moments of luck, of course – most notably in the 90s, when he was dropped by Mahela Jayawardene at second slip before edging another chance through the cordon – but achap who always gives the impression of playing for the team rather than for his own stats deserves a bit of fortune now and then.
By the time Prior missed a sweep against the left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, he had struck 19 boundaries in a 131-ball innings of 126, becoming only the second England wicketkeeper, after Les Ames, to score two centuries at the game's grandest venue and, for good measure, equalling Alan Knott's achievement of hitting five Test hundreds.
Just one question remained, really, after all those facts, figures and fine achievements: why on earth is Prior not England's undisputed batsman-wicketkeeper forall occasions?
The 29-year-old has had to work especially hard on his wicketkeeping skills, in order to win over those who did not want to give him a place in England's Test team. With the help of the former international stumper Bruce French, among others, he has come a long way since 2007, when a first-innings century against West Indies at Lord's was soon undone by some less than sparkling stuff both standing back and standingup to the wicket.
Yes, there are still blemishes (his performance yesterday, while Sri Lanka's openers were making hay, was scruffier than we have become used to), but there is no doubt England believe in him.
The same cannot be said when it comes to his one-day batting. Prior is such a natural stroke-player that success in limited-overs cricket should be all but guaranteed. And yet it is in the short forms of the game, both the 20- and 50-over varieties, that he has struggled horribly and lost his place to rivals such as Craig Kieswetterand Steve Davies.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that England have spent a long time trying to convince themselves that their Test wicketkeeper should be their one-day international opener. Then, having come to the conclusion last year that they might do better by looking elsewhere, the selectors made an 11th-hour decision to recall Prior in the run-up to a World Cup that followed hard on the heels of an Ashes campaign.
Like England in general, Prior never quite knew what was coming next on the subcontinent. Six innings brought him a top score of 22 not out and a total of 78 runs but he batted here, there and just about everywhere, thanks to the short-lived experiment of opening with Kevin Pietersen.
Still, the bottom line is that in 50-over cricket, after 68 matches in six and a half years, Prior has a best score of 87 and an average of just 24 – clearly that is not good enough to guarantee him a place in a one-day side that will now be led by Alastair Cook.
For now, though, Test cricket is all that matters, and every England player had food for thought last night after Sri Lanka's impressive fightback.
"We didn't bowl or field as well as we can," said Prior. "But things don't always go to plan and you cannot expect to bowl a team out in 25 overs [as happened to Sri Lanka in Cardiff last week] every time they walk out.
"We're certainly not in a bad position, though, and there is no reason why we cannot get a first innings lead."
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