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When Matt Prior was first picked for England, the obvious suspicion was that he was the personal pick of incoming coach Peter Moores, the ex-wicketkeeper who had coached him all through his formative years at Sussex.
He made a very good impression with his debut innings, a swash-buckling century against West Indies at Lord's in 2007. Subsequent matches of the series revealed that the attack was seriously poor, which took some of the shine off, and his batting form anyway declined as the season progressed. The odd error in his keeping on debut could be put down to first night nerves, but if anything he got worse behind the stumps as well as in front as time went on.
Apparently fuelled by Moores's belief that wicketkeepers should make their presence felt, he made enough noise behind the stumps to make one recall Alec Stewart's over-the-top shouting with almost affectionate nostalgia for the good old days when people were only noisy when they had some credibility as players. He managed to alienate his county colleagues when appearing for them between internationals by missing no chance to remind them that he was now the England wicketkeeper and had scored a century on debut at Lord's.
Then he went to Sri Lanka, where he scored very few runs and missed approximately 73 routine chances, mostly off Ryan Sidebottom, which drops resulted in his taking the same medicine.
He was shocked, even more so when it became apparent how much glee there was at his downfall. His bubble of self-importance had burst in spectacular fashion.
The news that the England selectors had decided to recall him was greeted by many people with glum resignation. One had to admit that he did have a more convincing batting record than any of the candidates with better keeping credentials, and recent English batting has been far too fragile to admit weak links where they need not be. But he was there on sufferance.
He has clearly taken on board some of the criticism. Sitting in the stands, you hear the odd shout of encouragement, but the incessant inane jabbering is a thing of the past. His keeping is nothing to write hymns of praise to, but he will still be on the bowlers' Christmas card lists. This was improvement enough for his opponents to suspend active hostilities, at least pending developments.
His 61 off 42 balls at Lord's, though, means the war is over.
After enduring two hours of Ravi Bopara and an obviously lame Kevin Pietersen scratching around as though England could bat until Tuesday before they needed to declare, the crowd were aching for urgency and vitality, and Prior sprayed them with gallons of both. I think it was the flicked front-foot drive through extra cover down to the Tavern which got me hooked – or perhaps it was the all-run four which should by rights have only been two.
Lord's standing ovations usually take until the batsman is halfway back to the Pavilion for everyone to get up, and half-centuries very rarely get accorded a stander, but the entire ground (apart from a block of people wearing yellow sweatshirts in the Compton Stand who may possibly have been Australian) were on their feet as soon as it was confirmed that Marcus North's brilliant throw had run Prior out. The cheering was so loud that when Fred Flintoff appeared, the roar which greeted him sounded muted in comparison. In fact, it was even louder than the cheers and guffaws with which the crowd celebrated the repeated showings of Ponting spilling the simplest of slip catches. (I cannot remember a visiting captain being treated with such open contempt by an English crowd. Usually they're given at least the polite respect one might accord to the Grand Duke of Pomerania - given that one doesn't know exactly what a Grand Duke might be or where Pomerania is - when they're not being reviled as the nasty man who is being so rotten to our team by beating them so often, but Ponting is actively despised.)
We may yet spurn him, but Matt Prior will now have to do something spectacularly horrible to lose our affections. Tonight, he is English cricket's sweetheart.
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