Why Matt Prior is my player of the year
World-class batsman, bustling wicketkeeper, sergeant-major, peacemaker, cheerleader-in-chief – England's stumper is now a man of many parts, writes cricket correspondent Stephen Brenkley
From public enemy No 1 to heroic everyman is some journey of redemption. Matt Prior has made it. Five years on from being the man people loved to hate, he has become the trusted heart and soul of England's team.
Prior is the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world but his status goes beyond that now, as a player who is as much admired as he is respected. His role is central both to the way England bat and field and to the manner in which they present themselves.
The historic 2-1 Test victory in India confirmed that and also buttressed his claims to be the most accomplished of all England's keeper-batsmen. At 30, Prior has become the benevolent sergeant- major, adored by the men, esteemed by the management.
It was an unqualified pleasure to watch him go about his business in the past few weeks as England came from a Test down to beat India in their own country for the first time in 28 years. Prior was there as ever with the bat at No 7, doing what was necessary for the side, whether it was accompanying Alastair Cook in a rearguard action which restored England's pride in Ahmedabad, scoring brisk runs in Mumbai and Kolkata on the march to victory, or stiffening resolve again in Nagpur.
In the field, he was the propelling force, setting the tone: busy, alert, brisk, sprinting between overs, never making it easy for batsmen. He was not quite flawless, but low pitches made it hard.
Knowing Prior, he is still ruing the missed stumping at Kolkata which allowed R Ashwin to survive on 22 and go on to make 91. Wicketkeepers' mistakes are always more glaring, and on this tour there was no keeping coach in Bruce French to share the pain.
After 62 Tests Prior averages more than 40 with the bat, which only the great Les Ames – between the two world wars – managed before him. Prior merits comparison with Ames and others who kept wicket and batted for England – Alec Stewart, Godfrey Evans, Alan Knott. Perhaps his greatest achievement is that nobody now questions who should be England's keeper, when for 15 years it was one of the perpetual debating points.
But Prior has become much more than the bloke who wears the gloves. He has gained the approbation of all his fellows. When the Kevin Pietersen saga was at its height in late summer, it was Prior who rang him to ask what the hell was going on and to let him know he was wanted.
It was the call that began to change things for the better. Prior was one of the few players who could have made it, not tainted with any anti-Pietersen feeling and looked up to in the dressing room.
By late 2007, months after he made a sparkling entry by becoming the first England wicketkeeper to make a century on his debut, his reputation and career were in tatters. His keeping was poor and his behaviour on the field was said to be poorer. A gold earring and premature baldness that persuaded him understandably to shave his head only furthered his image as a yob.
It did not help that relations between England and India reached a low ebb during that summer. Prior somehow got the blame for perpetrating the ill-will. Some banter between him and Alastair Cook (below) was taken as a slight to the batting god Sachin Tendulkar.
Months later it transpired Prior was blameless, but the damage was done. Then, with his keeping clearly not up to the mark, he was dropped.
Prior was as perplexed as he was concerned. The earring was ditched, a beard was grown. Nobody at this stage had bothered to get to know him. It turned out he was approachable, reasonable and rational, and prepared to work as hard as it took to reach the required standard.
He is not a choirboy, but then he never claimed to be. Batsmen always know when he is behind the stumps but the pressure comes not just from his lips but from his drive and will.
If a Test innings is 50 overs or 150 overs, Prior's energy levels never drop. He urges on fielders, he encourages bowlers. He has learned when to shut up as well, but he knows the value of the spoken word.
As one of the busiest of all players, he has taken to cycling to increase his fitness. For the tour of India he was the fittest of his life. The cycling has another aspect to it. Prior worked out that its movements, with knees surging up and down with the pedals and body hunched over the handlebars, were similar to those required in wicketkeeping.
What marks Prior out is the way that the team obviously come first. All cricketers say it, few have done it so selflessly as him. He bats to the situation. He could bat higher than seven but England are rightly loath to move him. Any time they think of moving Prior the selectors should remember Adam Gilchrist, the most formidable of all wicketkeeper-batsmen who played 100 of his 137 Test innings at No 7. It is one of the wonders of the modern game that Prior is not in England's one-day team, because he has an aggressive, ebullient game made for it. But he has had his bash at it – in fact he had three bashes at it, and yet he never managed to crack it. In trying to be a pinch-hitter he forgot what he was really good at.
If they gave him another go now, he would probably master it. But England equally know that by preserving him for Test cricket alone they should be able to keep him going until at least 2018. For many reasons – selflessness, peacemaking, batting at a lick and making it look enjoyable, wicket- keeping with the same gusto in the first and 101st overs – Matt Prior is England's Test player of 2012.
Prior in numbers 2012
777 Test runs, more than he has scored in any other year. Only three England batsmen have scored more this year. He averages 38.85.
36 Dismissals made in Test matches, 11 more than any other wicketkeeper.
0 Has not been out for a duck this year in his 22 Test innings.
Prior's highest innings of the year:
91 v India, Ahmedabad, 15 Nov
73 v South Africa, Lord's, 16 Aug
70no v Pakistan, Dubai, 17 Jan
68 v S Africa, Headingley, 2 Aug
60 v S Africa, The Oval, 19 July
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