When it comes to wicket-keeper batsmen currently playing Tests, few come close to the extraordinary Matthew Prior. Prior spared England some embarrassment with a fine, unbeaten 110 off 182 balls, as England negotiated 19 balls with nine wickets down to save themselves a series defeat. Prior was instrumental in all of it; his natural instinct, his sheer grit and determination were a joy to behold as the visitors escaped with a series draw. Especially since they had been trouble after resuming the final day on 90-4.
Since England was undone by South Africa last year, Prior has scored 844 runs in 10 matches, at an average of 60.28. Over the English winter, away from home in treacherous Indian conditions and in New Zealand, he scored 569 runs at an average of 71.12.
He is the quintessential keeper-batsman. Dogged, insatiable and with an uncanny ability to adjust play to the situation no matter what. He didn’t always possess such prowess, though. During the 2007 tour of India, Prior’s abilities were heavily questioned and his glovework left much to be desired. Dropped catching, record number of byes conceded and poor footwork all made it look like he might get cast back into the county wilderness. Dodgy keeping and a seemingly dodgy attitude all left Prior in a pickle a few years ago. He was chastised for his involvement in England spreading jellybeans on the pitch at Trent Bridge when India’s Zaheer Khan walked out to bat back in 2007, and even received a letter from a mother so furious with his attitude that she had stopped her children watching Test cricket.
But that was a long time ago, and a lot has changed since then. Prior has, in the last few years, not only become an invaluable member of the England squad, but also one of the most pleasant. He can laugh at himself and at his circumnstances, and when things get serious and everybody needs time out, he can intervene and act as a mediator.
It’s taken a lot of hard work and luck to get where he is – and his luck didn’t run out against New Zealand. New Zealand skipper, Brendon McCullum, admitted that while it was pretty tense, Prior played a vital role.
“There were twists and turns and half chances, little things you look back on and think ‘if only’, but I guess that all added to the drama. Take nothing away from the way Matt played, though: I thought it was an incredible innings played under severe pressure. He stood up and showed why he’s the player he is,” said McCullum after the match.
His sentiments were echoed by Alastair Cook, who was completely taken by Prior’s ability to keep scoring at strike rates above and beyond what’s required to bat for a draw.
“He’s batted so well this winter, and got quite a few fifties, so it’s great for him to get a hundred,” Cook said. “It’s amazing. You think he’s batting out for a draw, and he still scores at strike rates quicker than I can when I’m batting normally. He just has this way of finding scoring shots and it was a great knock under a huge amount of pressure. He’s had a fantastic winter.”
But things were tense out in the middle – so tense that captain Cook couldn’t watch the final few overs.
“I was pretty good for the majority of it,” he said, drawing breath after Prior and Panesar had steered England home for 315-9.
“I watched 95% of it – the last 18 balls I didn’t watch, but I was having a running commentary. I sat in one place the whole day. Then we lost Broady, and I thought that position had run out of luck – so I thought I’d move.”
That word ‘luck’ again. Prior needed some of it and he capitalised, but luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and the England mainstay looked like he had been preparing for a situation like this his entire life.
Prior’s conduct in the Test, both on and off the field, has been exemplary. Classy, entertaining, even when wearing Test whites, confident and gritty, Prior is everything any team could ask of for in a wicketkeeper batsman – and in the race for the best in the business, Prior wins by a country mile.
MATCH SUMMARY: Match drawn
Photo: England’s Matthew Prior dives to field a shot from Australia’s Ben Hilfenhaus during the second day of the third Ashes cricket test match at Edgbaston in Birmingham, central England July 31, 2009. REUTERS/Darren Staples
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