Matt Prior and the tantric massage of luck
The living drama of Test cricket provokes many feelings in its supporters. During the Auckland Test, the average England fan would have boarded the emotional train at Surprise, after Alastair Cook put New Zealand in to bat, then called at the following stations: Anticipation, Concern, Disappointment Parkway, Disbelief, Disgust, Resignation Temple Meads, Hope, Astonishment, Morbid Curiosity, Expectation, Surprise, Pessimism, Despair, Vague Sense Of Hope, Optimism, and Frantic Panic, before terminating at Relief Grand Central. Few, if any, sports can take you on a five-day emotional Trans-Siberian marathon that comes anywhere close to that.
New Zealand's supporters would have enjoyed their journey more, but their final destination considerably less. Their team deserved to win. This is often said of a team that has played well but not won. That is not the same as deserving to win. Here, I would argue (scratch that, I am actually arguing it), New Zealand did deserve to win. Not because they forced enough chances to win comfortably had they maintained consistently excellent, rather than sporadically brilliant, catching. Not because all of England's inside edges scuttled inches past the stumps, and their mistimed clonks fell safe. Such things are regular occurrences in cricket. Not because replays showed they missed out on a couple of probable wickets by not appealing. Which was their own silly and/or unfortunate fault. But because they were denied an almost certain victory by The Laws Of Physics taking a one-second sabbatical when Matt Prior flunked a Neil Wagner bouncer into his middle stump.
The ball ricocheted from Prior's flailing bat/arms/head, and plonked downwards, in accordance the traditions of gravity, onto the timbers. It did not brush the stumps. It did not snick the stumps. It did not gently fondle the stumps. It hit the stumps. The bails, perhaps patriotically mindful of their origins in early cricket in England all those years ago, defied all the conventional principles of science by not falling off.
If the stumps and bails had behaved as cricketing precedent and Isaac Newton would have expected them to behave, England would have been seven wickets down with 43 overs left. Which is a considerably tougher assignment than being seven wickets down with 32 overs left, as they subsequently were when Ian Bell was out.
It is, of course, impossible to state with certainty what would have happened had Prior's innings actually ended then, as innings generally do end when the ball hits the middle stump quite hard. Perhaps Bell would have renewed his focus and not played a wafty dink at Wagner in the over before tea. Perhaps Stuart Broad would have thrown caution to the wind and clobbered a 120-ball double-century to roar England to victory. Perhaps Monty Panesar would have lasted three-quarters of an hour at the end, as he did in Cardiff. But New Zealand would probably have won. And not only would it have been a rare, precious win, it would have been one of the finest by any team in the recent annals of the Test game, fuelled by bold and skilful cricket on a completely, tediously unhelpful surface.
It is not unreasonable to expect, in a Test match, at least one of the following to happen:
1. The pitch to change and deteriorate to a degree as the match progresses.
2. The pitch to offer some assistance to bowlers at some point.
3. The bails to fall off when the ball hits middle stump.
4. Monty Panesar to be out to one of the first five balls he faces.
None of these transpired, and England concluded the match with determination, restraint and skill, attributes that had not always been on display earlier in the contest.
New Zealand played some brilliant cricket to force the Test to its bone-shuddering denouement (and England some that was disconcertingly low-octane), but the Kiwis did not help their own cause by dropping three catches, two of them to significant cost - Cook batted 127 balls after BJ Watling spilled a difficult low chance off Tim Southee, and Bell persisted for another 90 balls after Dean Brownlie shelled a simpler opportunity off Trent Boult. Either of those unpouched chances would probably (not definitely) (but very probably) (almost definitely) (steady on, the point has been made) have proved decisive. And each of them could have deprived the watching cricket world of a pulsating end to a largely docile series, stymied by rain in the first two Tests, and featureless surfaces throughout.
● Prior's reprieve was not merely a stroke of luck. It was a full-on tantric massage of luck. Luck which Prior then rode like Lester Piggott in his prime. He is currently England's best cricketer, and one of the most influential in the Test world. He reacted to his bubbling Jeroboam of good fortune with a nonchalant shrug, as if to say: "Yeah, whatever. That kind of thing happens to me all the time. No big deal." He proceeded to bat with characteristic panache and application - helped by occasional top-ups from that bottle of luck - in the finest innings of his increasingly impressive career.
It was his seventh Test hundred, and the first he has scored with England in a perilous match position. Most of his best innings in Tests have been crucial, often match-turning, two-figure scores. This was a career-defining three-figure performance, and will have been particularly gratifying for him after a period in which he has been England's most consistent batsman (see below), but in which he has made some critical errors in Test losses.
In the fourth innings in Galle this time last year, Prior was (a bit unluckily) caught sweeping, after a stand of 81 with Jonathan Trott had left England needing 107 to win with six wickets in hand. England promptly subsided to defeat.
On day five at the Oval against South Africa, after two hours of resistance with Bell, with a draw a distant but achievable 51 overs away on a still-docile pitch, and with the crucial new ball just three overs away, he swept Imran Tahir, got it as wrong as it is possible to get a sweep at a delicate stage of a last-day rearguard, and exposed England's tail to Dale Steyn and the new conker. England subsided to defeat.
At Lord's in the final Test of the same series, he was out playing a loose drive to the first delivery with the new ball in the first innings, ending England's hopes of a significant lead, and soon dropped Hashim Amla on 2, paving the way for a dominance-securing century. Then, on the final afternoon of a mesmeric match, when he and Graeme Swann were brilliantly hammering England to within dreaming distance of an unlikely victory - 64 needed, with three wickets in hand, and with another potential pivotal new ball imminent - he called his partner through for a high-risk single. Swann was run out. England subsided to defeat, in the match and series, and their brief reign as the universe's top-ranked Test team was over. In England's next Test, in Ahmedabad, he fell early on the fifth day to a careless prod at Pragyan Ojha, after he and Cook had brilliantly manoeuvred England into a small lead, and into a position from which they had a reasonable chance of saving the Test.
On each of these occasions, England's gloveman had played superbly, and raised hopes after others had failed. On each occasion, his error was the pivot, the beginning of the end. His moment of triumphant, defeat-avoiding non-triumph in Auckland was well earned.
● Prior is in the midst of a run of extraordinarily consistent scoring. In England's ten Tests since the start of the South Africa series last July, he has batted 16 times, and been out for less than 20 only once. He has scored yesterday's century, plus seven other half-centuries, three more innings over 40, and four scores in the 20s. The only time in that sequence he has been out for less than 20 was when he was run out in England's short-lived madcap chase at Headingley. (By comparison, of the rest of England's batsmen in that time, Cook has been out for 20 no fewer than nine times in 19 innings; Trott six in 18; Bell eight in 17; Kevin Pietersen eight in 14; Nick Compton five in 13; and the six other specialist batsmen combined, 17 in 34.)
Next time in The Confectionery Stall: Why Alastair Cook made the right decision to bowl first in Auckland, according to Dr Precedent and Professor Numbercrunch; some stats on stodgy New Zealand openers smashing record numbers of sixes, and on flamboyant England lower-order sluggers scoring fewer runs in an innings of more than two hours than anyone has ever done before; and some disconcerting numbers for England's bowlers and Australia's batsmen.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer