Six years on, Matt Prior completes rise from England hardcase to universally acclaimed gem
Wicketkeeper's early unpopularity forgotten as he pips Alastair Cook to win Player of the Year award
Matt Prior is marking his sixth anniversary as an England Test cricketer this week. He marked it at the time by going out and making 126 not out with an exhibition of bravura strokeplay against West Indies at Lord's, the highest score by an England wicketkeeper in his maiden Test.
Last time Prior was seen on a field for England he saved the third Test and the series against New Zealand with a cussed, diligent, crucial 110 not out. In the same match he took a stunning catch standing up to Jonathan Trott's medium pace to remove the eternally dangerous Brendon McCullum.
It was entirely fitting that in the Long Room at Lord's last night Prior was made England's Player of the Year before the start of this year's internationals, against New Zealand on Thursday. He had strong competition from the captain, Alastair Cook, but Prior's heroic rearguard and his swashbuckling for months before that were still fresh in the mind. In those six years he has become a formidable and selfless Test cricketer, a high performing individual who is permanently aware that there is no "i" in team. It might have swayed a few votes.
"It's a huge honour to be singled out as a Player of the Year but I feel slightly uncomfortable with it, because individual accolades aren't the reason I play," he said. "I play because I want this team to win. I get much more out of the group winning a Test match or a series."
After the wonder of his maiden Test, Prior found it tough going for a while. His hard-nosed approach in the middle got the better of him and before he knew it he was England's most hated sportsman. It seems daft to recall now he is universally considered a gem.
Prior it was who helped to broker a deal with Kevin Pietersen when the dressing room was in uproar late last summer. No other player could have done what he did then, ringing Pietersen and ensuring he was prepared to listen.
"Every time I've gone out to play an innings, the first thing you think about is, 'Right, where do we need to be to be in the best position to save a game or win a game?'" Prior said. "Or, 'What do I need to do to get the scoreboard into the best place for us to win or save a game?' Rather than, 'How many runs do I need to average 50?'"
"I just can't perform like that. I'm not trying to sit here and say I'm the ultimate team player. It's not about that. I've always played sport, even when I was young, to win – and that's where I've got the enjoyment from."
Prior averages 45.46 in Tests for England with the bat, two runs an innings higher than Les Ames, who has been generally considered to be the best batsman among England's wicketkeepers until now. But the wicketkeeping has advanced enormously too and Prior is four victims short of becoming only the fourth man to claim 200 for England.
His work with Bruce French, the specialist coach, remains a work in progress. Prior revealed they had an argument about his method in New Zealand. French had his way and days later Prior took the McCullum catch. It was not a huge amendment but as Prior said it is the one or two per cent that can make a difference.
Cook might consider himself unlucky not to have won the award for the first time after his 1,123 Test runs in the relevant period as well as leading the side to a series win in India. But being runner-up to Prior is an award in itself.
England players of the year
ECB Cricketer of the Year
2012 James Anderson
2011 Jonathan Trott
2010 Graeme Swann
Vodafone Cricketer of the Year
2009 Andrew Strauss
2008 Ryan Sidebottom
2007 Paul Collingwood
2006 Andrew Flintoff
2005 Andrew Strauss
2004 Andrew Flintoff
2003 Michael Vaughan
2002 Nasser Hussain
2001 Darren Gough
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