The Ashes: Minding Monty Panesar is just part of the job for Matt Prior
Vice-captain puts himself forward to offer advice on and off the field
Sunday 27 October 2013
Matt Prior is a man who keeps moving. He doesn't hang around at the crease, he throws himself around behind the stumps and says he likes to keep his distance from the dressing-room chatterbox Graeme Swann.
As he heads off to Australia for the second exhausting instalment of these back-to-back Ashes, his biggest regret is that he doesn't have his bike with him. He has been swept away in the cycling craze – "it's almost getting in the way of the cricket" – but the management won't let him take his wheels on the flight on grounds that is it is too bulky. "I'm going to put bricks in with my golf clubs, just to prove a point," he said last week before jumping on the plane.
The man on the move is keen to emphasise that England will not be resting on their laurels after winning their third Ashes series in a row last summer. There will be no problem for Alastair Cook and vice-captain in keeping the tourists motivated against the arch-enemy. It's normally the fans and anoraks that get carried away with the statistics but this England team love reaching landmarks.
"Four in a row is massive, it's a huge carrot," says Prior of the next target, a feat not achieved since the 19th century. "This team has really responded well to being a part of history in the game. I remember in 2009 we were sat [at Lord's] having a meeting about how it was 75 years since we'd beaten Australia at Lord's, we have to change that. And we did it. Then it was the Ashes away from home, 24 years. It's those stats that really get us going. Four in a row would be the biggest thing in my career."
England's progress may have been slowed a little by the sheer weight of expectation during the summer. "All the talk when Australia turned up here was that if we don't win 5-0 we've had a nightmare, which was ridiculous. It was never going to happen."
It didn't drag them down much, but the players were bemused. "It was very strange," added Prior. "If you look back 10 years ago, if we'd won 3-0 the country would have stopped for a day. But it didn't feel good enough."
Australia's coach Darren Lehmann has described England's cricket as "dour" and their run-rates and over-rates were very slow at times but Prior asserts that it is merely an indication of progress, not the opposite.
"There's one day that really stood out for me, and for other people for the wrong reasons: it was at The Oval, and we went at two [runs] an over," he said. "It was horrendous to watch, even we were there going, 'Oh my god'. But I remember a few years back that, with an England team in that same position, the batters would have carried on playing their shots and we would have been bowled out for a hundred and lost the match. We dug it out and ended up drawing, nearly winning. This team has moved on."
The recent series was closer than the scoreline suggested, but it was very different the last time England went Down Under when they plundered runs at will and won by an innings three times.
This summer the margins were considerably smaller and Prior is well aware that there are improvements to be made. "We know from the summer that we have to improve," he said. "There are certain areas where we're going to have to really step up."
He is all too aware that includes his own performance with the bat, having averaged just 19. "I'll put myself out there, the last series was horrendous. I have hugely important roles and I have to step up and make sure that I perform better than I did."
Prior is upwardly mobile in more ways than one, with the captaincy just a sprained ankle away. There is the impression that while Cook plots his tactics – "It's one of his strengths that you just don't know what he's thinking" – Prior plays the sergeant major role, one of the boys still but urging them to new heights.
So it is instructive that it was also Prior who took Kevin Pietersen to one side to sort out the impasse with the rest of the team over the Andrew Strauss texts to South Africa in 2012, and this time he will act as mentor to his troubled former team-mate at Sussex, Monty Panesar, who will face a barrage of barracking from the crowds. "I honestly think the best place for him is to be in our squad in Australia," he says. "We'll look after everyone. I know Monty well and my door's always open, he knows that."
From Prior the pacemaker to Prior the peacemaker, the keeper batsman of many talents is moving with the times; Australia must be dreading him having a good series.
Keeping up with the referrals
* "Now we get another two after 80 overs. I'm usually relieved when we've lost our two decisions. But it's not a case of 'we've got another couple soon so let's just chuck these away' if we haven't used them."
* "The frustration is when you review a decision and it goes on an umpire's call and it was 51 per cent outside the line but it was clattering into the stumps. Actually you weren't wrong so why do you lose that review? So I think there's a better way of going about it."
* "Generally, we've got a pretty good plan in place: the first thing is to ignore whatever Swanny says, usually go with the opposite."
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