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December 9, 2010
England's wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, admits there is a strong temptation to start thinking of Ashes glory in the wake of a crushing innings victory in the second Test at Adelaide, but he also believes that this particular squad of players has learnt its lessons from previous campaigns and will not allow themselves any let-up in intensity until the task has been completed.
Against Australia at Lord's in 2009, and then in Durban against South Africa five months later, England won the second Test of a major series only to allow their opponents to draw level - in the first instance at Headingley, where England were routed inside three days after being brushed aside for 102 on the first morning, and then at Johannesburg, where Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel reaped the rewards that had eluded them in the first three Tests.
"You learn lessons," said Prior, who played in all four of those contests, having been ever-present in the side since the tour of India in December 2008. "If you've got a group of people who've stayed together for a while and experienced things together, you learn from them as a team and as a unit. Certainly, we learned a huge amount from that South Africa Test series. To have a really impressive victory in Durban and underperform horribly in the next game [sic] we take a huge amount from that and learn a lot from it.
"You've got to be careful you don't fall into the trap of too much back-patting too early," he added. "The tour's gone well so far but it's all in the past now. We learned you can't look far ahead and you have to take every game and every day as it comes. That's why the danger would be to starting thinking 'oh, we're 1-0 up, we can win the Ashes'. All these comments start flooding in and it's tempting to start thinking like that, but you have to guard against it and not get too carried away."
Nevertheless, England's caution does not preclude them from taking satisfaction in a job well done. On Wednesday, Andy Flower allowed himself a rare moment of euphoria in describing the victory in Adelaide as "the perfect game", and Prior admitted that the last day of that match was "probably the proudest moment for me on a cricket pitch".
"Losing the toss on a very good track, we knew we had a huge task ahead of us," he said. "Trotty's run-out set the tone for the whole match, Jimmy's spell to get Ponting and Clarke early, and the way the whole fielding unit got behind the bowlers. The way the whole team gelled was fantastic and it was a pretty much the perfect game, but as Andy said, it counts for nothing if we go into the next game and throw away the lead we have.
"We've got to make sure we guard against any complacency. In the past, we've played good cricket and pretty poor cricket in the very next game. We've set ourselves a benchmark and we have to try to maintain it for as long as possible and stay consistent. If you want to win big series, you have to play consistently. You can't have one great game and one poor one. We'll certainly be guarding against that and making sure we're working every day as we have been and never take our foot off the gas."
Prior's personal contribution to the series has been extremely limited. He suffered a golden duck at Brisbane as Peter Siddle stunned England with a first-day hat-trick, and beyond that, he was not called upon to bat again until the fourth day at Adelaide, when he made a quick-fire 27 not out to set up a first-hour declaration. However, so long as England are in command of the contest, he does not mind in the slightest.
"All the time I'm not batting, we're scoring a lot of runs and giving ourselves a good chance of winning a Test match," said Prior. "From that point of view, I'm absolutely delighted with how things have been going. The minute you get to a place where the team's goal and the team's target is more than the individual's, that's a very powerful place to be, and that's what we have right now. Every single man in that dressing room knows the team's goals will come before anything else, and they're more than happy with that."
The unity of England's squad has been plain to see, from their defence of Kevin Pietersen after claims that he is an "outcast" to the relaxed cameos that the players have been putting in on Graeme Swann's video diary. While it is often said that team spirit is an illusion created in victory, Prior believes it is a more complex process than that.
"It's a number of things," he said. "There are so many little things that come together, and the minute you start forgetting about the one percenters, it becomes dangerous. It's very easy to look at the 200s, the big partnerships, the individuals taking five-fers, but it's putting your arm round a mate when he's struggling, celebrating someone else's success, genuinely enjoying Cook and KP's double-hundreds. You see the guys on the balcony, and that excitement is not made-up, it's not fake. It's very, very real, I can assure you. We've got a whole load of good mates in the dressing room.
"Anyone who's played team sport has probably been involved in a team like that at some stage," he added. "When you do have that team unity, it's very special, but it's not something that just happens overnight. It's been two years in the making, and when you get it, it's a very special thing and is something you have to protect and make sure that you keep looking after."
The process will continue on Friday when England play their final warm-up match at the MCG, against a Victoria side that will contain four debutants in Ryan Carters, Alex Keath, Tom Stray and Jayde Herrick. "We've got a big game against Victoria coming up tomorrow and that's as far ahead as we'll look," said Prior. "You can fall into a trap if you start looking too far ahead."
The match will be notable for the inclusion of all three of England's reserve seamers, with Chris Tremlett the favourite to take the place of the injured Stuart Broad for the third Test in Perth next week. However, Prior doubts that the conditions in this contest will be anything like those that are anticipated in Perth.
"Not really played here before but looks like it could be quite slow, tacky," he said. "We'll have to wait until tomorrow to see how well it plays, but it doesn't look as though there are going to be many gremlins in it."
England XI (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Eoin Morgan, 6 Matt Prior, 7 Steve Davies (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Ajmal Shahzad, 10 Chris Tremlett, 11 Monty Panesar.
Victoria Cameron White (capt), 2 Ryan Carters, 3 Aaron Finch, 4 John Hastings, 5 Jayde Herrick, 6 Michael Hill, 7 Jon Holland, 8 David Hussey, 9 Alexander Keath, 10 Clinton McKay, 11 Tom Stray.
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