The Ashes: Stand-in captain Matt Prior seeking the positives despite opening draw

Wicket-keeper stresses the 'gradual improvement' of England's bowlers will be key to Ashes holders' hopes of retaining their crown

Matt Prior will doubtless be accentuating the 'positives' of England's stalemate at the WACA when he reports back to Alastair Cook.

Prior, standing in while Cook rested a sore back which is unlikely to keep him out of a second Ashes warm-up match against Australia A in Hobart next week, acknowledged England's fast bowlers made a slow start in Perth.

But he stressed the "gradual improvement" of all three in contention to push for the third seamer's position in the first Test.

There was evidence to support his valued opinion from behind the stumps as Boyd Rankin, Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett recorded unenviable combined figures of two for 303 in the WA Chairman's XI's first-innings 451 for five declared - but then, as conditions deteriorated slightly, shared the wickets to restrict the hosts to 168 for five by stumps second time round.

In between, Ian Bell (115) continued his prolific form of the last Ashes summer and Jonathan Trott (113 not out) was chanceless too - only for England to lose their last seven wickets for 57, including Test hopefuls Gary Ballance and Ben Stokes for a golden duck and four respectively, as the tourists conceded a deficit of 60.

A second-string WA team, bolstered by Queensland batsman Chris Lynn, therefore arguably still took the honours.

"From the bowling point of view, the first day obviously wasn't great," said Prior.

"But there are reasons for that - a bit of rustiness - and that's why we're here four weeks early, to make sure we have the games and clear the cobwebs before the first Test."

Rankin appeared noticeably nervous in his first red-ball spell for England, while Finn clicked into gear only in the final session - coincidentally perhaps after Cook ran on to the field for a chat with his charges during a break in play.

Either way, Prior is right to insist England's bowlers finished their tour opener far better than they started it.

"I thought the big guys were fantastic today.

"I think they've improved through the three days, got rid of that bit of rustiness.

"Steven Finn bowled a long spell there, and certainly (in) the last four or five overs he really was hitting his straps again - and his pace was up.

"I thought Boyd Rankin was fantastic all day. A bloke with such height, and good pace and bounce, on these wickets could be a pretty useful weapon over here.

"Tremlett again just got better and better, more rhythm as the game went on and certainly as today went on."

Bell's century was no surprise, but England will have been heartened to see Trott back in the runs too.

"I think we got a huge amount from it. I'm very happy sat here after the last three days," added Prior.

"I think our batters did fantastically ... with the emphasis on big first-innings scores over here - we've not shied away from saying we need to score big runs - the importance of a good start is obviously highlighted."

Ballance, however, may need an arm round the shoulder after following his maiden innings for England - a second-ball duck in a one-day international against Ireland two months ago - with an even shorter stay, caught-behind fencing defensively at Ryan Duffield.

Prior is sympathetic, and encouraged by the young Yorkshire batsman's response.

"It's almost written in the stars that's going to happen ... a guy goes away and scores a huge amount of runs, turns up over here all excited (for his) first knock - and gets a duck.

"It's happened to a few of us in the past.

"It's no great drama, first and foremost ... it's not just one innings in the middle."

One of Ballance, Stokes and Jonny Bairstow will surely bat at number six in Brisbane - and Prior said: "You can't just judge a guy on walking to the wicket, taking guard, 'nicking off' and walking back again.

"He seems another one of those unflappable characters.

"He sort of had a bit of a wry grin on his face.

"I think that's the best thing you can do. You have to just laugh it off, and go 'oh well', dust yourself down and (get) back on the horse.

"There's no point taking it too seriously, taking yourself too seriously and getting too down and beating yourself up.

"That's the worst thing you can do, and he hasn't seemed to do that."

Prior himself was caught up in England's collapse, continung his moderate run of form.

"Of course, it would be nice to get a score in the middle in these next couple of games to take a bit of confidence into the Test series," he said.

"But if I went 0,0,0,0 in all these warm-up games but (then) got a hundred in the first Test, I'd bite your arm off for that."