Team man Prior celebrates own success
Matt Prior has increasingly been hailed as England's ultimate team man, but for once he is celebrating an individual achievement. Prior has been named as England's cricketer of the year and received his award at a celebratory dinner in the Long Room at Lord's.
It was fitting that a player who symbolises the importance of the common cause should look slightly guilty about receiving the award. "It was fantastic when I found out, a huge honour to be singled out as player of the year," he said. "But I feel slightly uncomfortable with it because individual accolades are not really the reason I play. I want this team to win. I get much more out of the group winning a Test or series."
Prior, the first wicketkeeper to win the award, judged by members of the England cricket media, likes the idea that it is in some way recognition of his team ethic.
"I hope so although I've not really given it much thought. What I would say is anytime I go out to play an innings the first thing I need to do is to get into the best position to win or save a game, or think what do I need to do to get the scoreboard in the right place, rather than how many runs do I need to average 50 - I can't just perform like that.
"There have been times in the past where people have said you need to look after that bit, or get more not-outs, I just can do it. I'm not saying I'm the ultimate team player; it's just the way I play sport - to win. That's where I get the enjoyment from."
There were many persuasive reasons to vote for Prior as England's player of the year. The most emotional justification arose from memories of his defiant hundred in Auckland to save the third Test against New Zealand and salvage a drawn series.
But there were broader reasons, too. There was the knowledge that he is the only England batsman apart from the captain, Alastair Cook, to average more than 50 in Tests in the past two years. There was the recognition that his wicketkeeping has improved by leaps and bounds - sometimes quite literally - under the tuition of a former England wicketkeeper Bruce French.
Mostly, though, it was his reputation as England's heartbeat that won him the accolade ahead of other deserving claimants such as Alastair Cook, for the remorseless run scoring that turned the India Test series, and James Anderson, skilful and indefatigable, a fast bowler at his peak as he proved that he could bowl in the most discouraging circumstances.
Prior looked mildly stunned. "You look back on the year and look at the amount of quality in the dressing room," he said. "Jimmy Anderson's performance in India: for a seam bowler to perform like he did was phenomenal - that's worth a player of the year award. Cooky: the way he led from the front in India. There are a number of guys who have put in huge performances. They've obviously just pulled a name out of the hat, so I'm hugely honoured but it could have been a number of guys."
But it was much more than a name out of a hat. All Out Cricket magazine did not just stop at describing Prior as England's "heartbeat". In this month's issue, they hailed him as the team's moral compass, the protector of their spirit, a dressing room confidant, and a tactician and cheerleader - as vice-captain, he offers a more instinctive, noisier flavour to Cook's reflective and conservative approach.
He was also the player who phoned Kevin Pietersen, when the extent of his stand-off with the England dressing room became known - ignoring the political niceties at the time and relying instead on a faith in the team ethic and a few home truths. He is embarrassed that his call has passed into English cricket folklore - after all, he just picked up the phone and said what he thought - but, not to put too fine a point on it, it cut the crap and English cricket was all the better for it.
His continued omission from England's one-day side, and memories of his sudden dropping from England's Test side in 2008, have taught him not to overreact to the plaudits that now, more than ever, will come his way.
"Not playing ODIs certainly keeps you fresh," he said. "I've said before that it's a bit of a catch-22, the whole matter of playing one-day cricket or not. From a positive point of view it gives me these windows of opportunity to fully prepare for each Test series. Not just from a physical point of view, but also mentally being able to switch off.
"Also you can prepare completely on each team you are up against. That certainly allows me to go into each Test series at 100%, giving it everything until the last ball then duck out again and have a few weeks riding a bicycle."
These days, he gets equal satisfaction from wicketkeeping and batting. If his hundred in Auckland is understandably his sharpest batting memory of the year, his catch, standing up to Jonathan Trott, to dismiss New Zealand's captain, Brendon McCullum, in the same Test was also a source of great satisfaction, proof of how much his game has advanced.
"It was only two or three weeks beforehand that I had been working with Frenchy away from everyone, having arguments about whether we should do it this way or whether that way will help you. Frenchy got his way, which I hate to admit, and suddenly I got that catch. When you do the work, put that extra time to gain one, two, three percent and you see it work in the middle it's hugely fulfilling.
"There has been a lot of stuff said. It's a fickle world, if I punch one on Thursday I'll be rubbish again. Everyone else can say their bits, I'll just concentrate on catching as many balls as I can and keep working hard. In years to come, when hopefully I've played a few more years and caught a few more catches we can see where I sit."
He loves Lord's, where this summer gets underway against New Zealand on Thursday, and can smile now at the dressing room window he accidentally smashed two years ago as he fumed over being run out in a Test against Sri Lanka as England chased quick runs for a declaration on the final day.
"I love this ground: home of cricket, to drive in and get your little spot next to the window. They've safeguarded it: double-glazed, smash-proof, it's all good. I'm allowed back in that corner. It feels like coming home."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo