The Ashes: Matt Prior, the boy who longed to be king keeper
He always knew where he was going and could join the band of four-time Ashes winners
From a long way out, Matt Prior was earmarked as a cricketer who was going places. In July 1996 he played for the England Schools Cricket Association Under-14s but that was never likely to be enough.
"I suppose in my younger days with what I shall call self-belief I had a dream," he said. "I never wanted to be a Sussex player, I never wanted to be an England player, I wanted to be the best at it in the world. I suppose that creates an ambition in you. Did I ever think I was going to do it? Realistically I don't know but it was always the goal. I was never scared to dream big and then go for it."
Almost exactly 17 years on from that match at Loughborough, Prior is on the eve of his third Ashes series, the two previous ones having been won. The ambition has been fulfilled, the dream is reality: Prior is, by common consent, against stiff opposition and with the nonpareil Adam Gilchrist retired, the most formidable wicketkeeper-batsman in the world. He is also England's designated vice-captain.
He has appeared in 67 Tests, he has claimed 202 dismissals, his batting average is 44.34, he has scored seven hundreds. Only three England keepers – Alec Stewart, Alan Knott and Godfrey Evans – have claimed more victims, only Stewart and Knott have scored more runs. He is likely to overtake them all.
That fearless boy has become a much mellower man. When he referred to his self-belief it was with a tone that suggested he was aware it was something a little unpleasant. Nothing back then, as he said, was going to get in his way because he simply did not believe it could.
It was in 2007 that Prior was forced to take stock of where he stood and where he wanted to go next in the game. He had played for England and made a dashing hundred at Lord's on his Test debut. But his form was to desert him, along with the convictions that took him to the international arena.
There was a perception that he was too cocky for his and England's good. Somewhere along the line the 14-year-old boy had allowed that "self-belief, arrogance, or whatever" to cross a line. It was almost certainly an unfair observation, or at least too trite, but Prior was chastened after being dropped for a year.
He said: "What happened then was probably more of a dent in my belief because I had played for England, sampled it and been chewed up and spat out and needed to come back again. That was the time I asked myself serious questions and had to answer them as well. When you're under 15, 16, the world is your oyster and you're completely naive."
The transformation has been as complete as it was painful. Although others have played more Tests, he is the senior pro, the most effective and determined team man, perhaps the most respected voice. When the Kevin Pietersen imbroglio was at its height last year, it was Prior who rang him to say it was time to talk.
"I believe in the team ethos more than anything else," he said. "Eleven guys pulling in the same direction is the most powerful force in sport. Not when you're winning and things are easy but in the tight games, that's when your team unity and spirit shines through. I am massive believer in that and will try and guard it as much as possible."
He guarded it no more vigilantly than in Auckland in March when he had to bat most of the last day to save the match and series against New Zealand. It clinched his vote as England's player of the year. Nobody sees the irony more clearly than Prior that he went on to bag a pair in the next Test. "It was destined."
He has had to change his fitness routines to cope. Once he was an inveterate runner, now he is a born-again cyclist. "The cycling has been wonderful, I wish I had done it 10 years ago," he said. "One of the surprising things for me was if you do a proper ride you burn ridiculous amounts of calories.
"There were other things, the escapism for one but also the fact that the position you are on the bike and the position you are wicketkeeping is very similar. On a bike you are slightly arse-forward but if you put yourself upright you're in a very similar position. You're obviously using your legs a huge amount so the transfer was brilliant."
By the end of January Prior could join the hallowed few who have appeared on four Ashes-winning teams. Nobody should consider that Prior has become a soft touch. The Australians will know he is there all right. "I think I have probably grown up a bit," he said. "I don't think I take myself as seriously. I realise cricket is a game, although it's important obviously and we want to win. But the reality is you're going to have bad days, peaks and troughs."
Chance to Shine Ambassador Matt Prior was supporting Brit National Cricket Day. The Cricket Foundation's programme has brought cricket to over two million children since 2005. Just £15 pays for a year's coaching for one child. Donate at: chancetoshine.org
Ashes rivals: The wicketkeeper-batsmen
Dick Lilley (Eng) 1896-1909/32/84/801/20.02
James Kelly (Aus) 1896-1905/33/55/613/17.51
Les Ames (E) 1932-1938/17/37/675/27.00
Bertie Oldfield (A) 1920-1938/38/90/1,116/23.25
Godfrey Evans (E) 1946-1959/31/76/783/17.89
Don Tallon (A) 1946-1953/15/42/340/18.89
Alan Knott (E) 1968-1981/34/105/1,682/32.98
Rodney Marsh (A) 1970-1983/42/148/1,633/27.72
Alec Stewart (E) 1991-2003/26/78/1,338/29.69
Ian Healy (A) 1989-1999/33/135/1,269/30.95
Geraint Jones (E) 2005-2007/8/25/292/19.47
Adam Gilchrist* (A) 2001-2007/20/96/1,083/45.13
Matt Prior (E) 2009-2013/10/35/513/39.46
Brad Haddin (A) 2009-2013/9/24/638/45.57
*Gilchrist had no obvious rivals and England had four keepers in his Ashes career
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