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Matt Prior has never looked comfortable in coloured clothing but right at this moment, it is doubtful whether there is a better wicketkeeper-batsman in the five-day game
July 24, 2011
Some players are forced to settle for the fact that they can't be all things to all forms of the game. Michael Bevan was the best one-day batsman of his generation, but never found a method to combat the short ball in Test cricket; Justin Langer was one of the pillars of Australia's 21st century Invincibles, but played a total of eight ODIs and none in the final decade of his career. Likewise, after another phenomenally composed day of Test batting, Matt Prior is fast confirming his place in this breed of special specialists.
In one-day cricket, Prior's method has never looked comfortable and with the World Cup done and dusted, he may never again get the opportunity in coloured clothing. But right at this moment, with Kumar Sangakkara now a specialist batsman for Sri Lanka, it is doubtful whether there is a better wicketkeeper-batsman in the five-day game. That includes the superhuman MS Dhoni, the hero of the World Cup final, who unstrapped his pads in this game to demonstrate a handy range of prodigious swingers, but who hasn't made a Test century since South Africa were in Kolkata 17 months ago.
Ian Botham, among others, has ventured this same opinion, and with four high-quality centuries in the space of 12 months, Prior has hoisted his Test average to a world-class 45.40. What is more, two of those hundreds - here at Lord's and against Pakistan at Trent Bridge last July - have come in the midst of dramatic top-order meltdowns. On both occasions, England did have a safety net, namely a pair of hefty first-innings leads, but when bowlers of the quality of Umar Gul and Ishant Sharma cut a swathe through your team's defences, it takes some serious gumption to respond with a three-figure salute.
"Getting compliments from guys who have played a pretty huge role in English cricket and watched a fair bit is always nice, but you have to keep working hard," Prior said. "It's a fickle world, and as long as I'm scoring runs and taking catches - or catching more than I drop - and more importantly, as long as I'm part of an England team that's winning, that's what gets me going.
"Of course it inspires you to play against the best in the world, and Dhoni is one of those," he added. "You go into Test series and look at your opposite number and think let's have a better series than that man. That's something I do going into any season. I've had a good start to the series but there's a long way to go yet."
The stakes could not have been higher as Prior joined Eoin Morgan with under four overs to go until the break. At the top of his mark was Ishant, a bowler in the exact same zone that Stuart Broad had located on the third afternoon. His front arm was snagging the clouds as he extended his frame to its limits, his length was full and fuller with an explosive kick off the turf. At 62 for 5, a lead of 250, England knew their revered opponents would be primed to pounce on a fourth-innings target that was anything less than substantial. Failure, quite frankly, was not an option.
"I wasn't really expecting to be batting before lunch, to be perfectly honest," said Prior, after a spell of 3 for 1 in 16 Ishant deliveries had ruined the home crowd's appetite. "I was looking at the menu and thinking, 'I'll have the rack of lamb, that'd be nice', and then there I was taking my guard. Obviously the crowd were noisy, the Indian fielders were really up for it, and Ishant was bowling really well and had hit a good rhythm. So the first thing was to try and build a partnership and settle everything down."
There's a soothing quality to Prior's best performances which can seem at odds with the aggressive intent that he displays at the crease. Few batsmen in the world game, wicketkeepers or otherwise, are better at cashing in on the slightest hint of width, although while Ishant was in the zone, such offerings were few and far between. Instead the only option was to knuckle down and see off the threat, just as he had done in partnership with Kevin Pietersen in the first innings, when Praveen's twin breakthroughs had jolted England's composure at 270 for 5.
It goes without saying that England's revival was abetted by the absence of Zaheer Khan. With Praveen also struggling after a 40-over workload in the first innings, Dhoni felt he had no option but to give Ishant a blow after lunch, though the choice of Suresh Raina was left-field in the extreme. Nevertheless, when Morgan flapped a short ball to midwicket to end a sixth-wicket stand of 45, England's innings was still rocking at 107 for 6, and there was plenty more graft to be done.
"Test wins against quality opposition don't come about very easily, so I felt pretty nervous walking out today," Prior said. "It's still a pretty good wicket and, after playing so well over the first three days, we wanted to make sure we were in a position where we could declare, and go and field with the runs we wanted on the board."
Alongside him was Stuart Broad, whose own performance had echoes of his maiden century on this ground against Pakistan last summer, when he and Jonathan Trott had transformed a scoreline of 102 for 7 with an eighth-wicket stand of 332. However, it wasn't until Dhoni unbuckled his pads once again to signal the end of India's bid for wickets that the boundaries really started to flow. In his first 72 runs, Prior's tempo was propelled by just two boundaries, and yet, he still chivvied along at a remarkable 70% strike-rate, thanks to a devotion to his running between the wickets, and an eye for a gap that has eluded him in the limited-overs game.
Right at this moment, there's no ground in the world where Prior feels more comfortable. Of his six Test centuries, three have now come at Lord's - the venue where, in 2007, he scored a brilliant 126 not out on debut against West Indies. "What's not to love about it?" he said. "Flat deck, quick outfield, and the sun always shines when I come out to bat."
Nevertheless, that summer of 2007 did not continue quite so swimmingly. India were the second team to arrive in town, and by the end of a challenging series defeat, Prior's stock had plummeted thanks to a glut of conspiring circumstances. A rash of dropped catches undermined the value of his runs and led eventually to his axing in the winter. But the nadir came in the second Test at Trent Bridge, where he became the unwitting focus of the infamous jelly bean saga - partly because he had been caught on the stump mic making chippy comments in the field, but largely because it was his misfortune to be put before the press on that infamous evening, moments before Zaheer, quite literally, spilled the beans on his team-mates' childish antics in the field.
"For me it's a huge series, for those reasons as much as anything," Prior admitted. "I've been through some challenging times as anyone who has played any amount of international sport has done. But it's not whether you go through those challenging times, it's how you come out of them. You learn about yourself, how you can improve and how you can conquer the demons. That's been one of my bigger challenges, and to turn it around is very pleasing. But we've still got a long way to go in this series. It's a huge day tomorrow."
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