A Prior Engagement
Anyone who has watched sport for a long time, and supported teams, will know what it feels like: from time to time, players come along who, to you, are simply better, more captivating, than the rest, often for reasons which can be hard to define and may not be apparent to others. It is a little like falling in love. To me, Matthew Prior, now at the absolute summit of his powers, is such a player. Here, from personal experience, are some reasons why.
Scene One: Lord's Cricket Ground, May 18, 2007
It is the afternoon of the second day of the first Test between England and the West Indies. By mid-afternoon, the piercing early sunshine has faded to haze and the vapid West Indian attack is fading too. England, superior and confident, are 363 for 5 when Matthew Prior of Sussex comes to the wicket. This will be his first innings in Test cricket. We feel we know Prior a little; he has been around England's one-day team for a year or two, opening the batting, achieving little. Now, though, he is the latest person to assume the status of wicket-keeper-batsman in England's Test team, a role which has not been convincingly occupied by anyone - though Geraint Jones has tried hard and briefly flourished - since Alec Stewart retired four years ago. He is a short, muscular man of 25, a product of Sussex, with his shaven head hidden beneath a blue England helmet, proudly worn. He exudes intent and instinctive, unapologetic confidence.
Barely more than two hours later he has made a century, at a strike rate of nearly 98. At the day's close, the crowd leaves the ground and takes to London's dusty streets in a state of noisy excitement. For once, after a long day at Lord's, this excitement is not exclusively induced by alcohol. We are yet to see Prior keep wicket, but we like what we have seen of his batting. We feel - because, when players start careers like this, you always do - that we could be watching him for many years to come.
Scene Two: Lord's Cricket Ground, July 19, 2009
England, after a period of stagnation caused by Kevin Pietersen attempting to bat when he can barely run, require quick runs to enable them to declare and bowl at Australia. Once more, Prior comes to the wicket with the warm July sun on his back against a listing, vulnerable attack. There is a sense among the packed crowd that the tempo of the cricket is about to soar. We now know more of Prior and we expect him to do things like this.
Prior is instantly into his stride, driving Siddle repeatedly for four and then turning his attention more subtly and inventively to Hauritz and Clarke. He defends well when necessary, head still and level, hands and feet in all the right places, but he is the type of player who, you sense, always sees a defensive stroke as a kind of defeat. He is strongest on the offside but anything short or full directed towards leg stump will go for runs. And he runs between the wickets with the low-slung speed of a breaking scrum-half, holding a steely gaze which betrays the intensity of his competitive desire.
In the two years which have elapsed since we first saw him he has spent time out of the team because of weaknesses in his wicket-keeping. Now, though, he has played a vital part in putting England in a position to beat Australia at Lord's for the first time since 1934. He is here to stay.
This is an afternoon of Lord's afternoons. Once again England are ahead and chasing runs but they have been briefly shocked into unease by a burst of wickets. There is a slight sense of déjà vu as Stuart Broad joins Prior in a vibrant partnership which will go far towards defining the match's outcome.
By English standards, it is an unusually clear and warm day and, as the sun fades and shadow intrudes, the packed grandstand is a vital, hypnotic sight. There is, as always at Lord's, conversation and frequent laughter, but nobody's attention strays far from the play as Prior bends the attack to his will. He faces a range of bowlers - the talented but inconsistent Ishant Sharma, the aggressive but fading Harbhajan Singh, the subtle, unpredictable Praveen Kumar, the lost Suresh Raina - but all come alike as he eases through his concordance of cuts and drives, adjusting the shape of his body to steer the ball to a different part of the boundary. It is off-side batting from the Gods, based on technical proficiency, pin-sharp reflexes and crisp, decisive execution. But it is never hurried, or messy or inappropriate. It is batting to fall in love with, to become obsessed by. So I do.
Scene Four: Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand, March 26 2013
Matthew Prior plays forward, defensively, to Trent Boult. He fails to score but he is not dismissed. He raises his arms in the air to salute England's draw. This isn't normally Prior's style - ostentatious emotion, celebrating drawn matches - but it fits the moment. Thousands upon thousands of miles away, in dark, cold, Britain, sleep-deprived people celebrate with him.
To borrow from and paraphrase John Moynihan, from his classic work on the first twenty years of post-war English football, The Soccer Syndrome: Is this not why we watch cricket?
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