England v SA, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley August 5, 2012

Selfless Prior remains under the radar

There are other of wicketkeepers in England who are excellent with the gloves, and many also proficient with the bat, but none who combine both disciplines with the ability of England's current gloveman

It was perhaps fitting that another fine performance from Matt Prior should be overshadowed by events beyond his control. With Kevin Pietersen making a remarkable century, the UK media full of stories of Olympic success and poor weather dousing remaining interest in this Test, it will go largely unrecorded that Prior contributed his second half-century of the series.

This was a typically selfless innings, too. His strike-rate - 76.40 runs per 100 balls - was better, even, than Pietersen's and he only fell when, left with just tail-enders for company, he perished searching for quick runs. Some in that position might have sensed a "not out".

Prior helped England into the lead but it might have been better had he enjoyed more support from the lower-order. Instead Tim Bresnan edged a straight one and Stuart Broad perished to an ugly slog unworthy of one so talented. A supportive 20 might have helped Prior build a lead of 100. Instead they only sneaked in front.

It was a far from untypical display from Prior. Batting at No. 7 he is destined to either come to the crease after the gold rush, with his top-order colleagues having already taken the opportunity to fill their boots, or forced to rebuild with his side under pressure. Either way, and his Test batting average - 42.91 - and his strike-rate - 65.22; the highest in the side - underlines the impression that might well merit selection as a specialist batsman. Bearing in mind his vastly improved keeping over the last couple of years and he has become a highly valued all-round player for England. There is no obvious understudy to him in the English game. Plenty of county keepers can bat; several can keep wicket: few if any combine the disciplines as well as Prior.

But Prior is, it seems, destined to forever play the part of support act. Only once in his 57-match Test career has he been awarded the man of the match and even when he produces outstanding performances - such as his exceptional century against Pakistan at Trent Bridge in 2010 - someone else produces an even more eye-catching performance to capture the headlines. On that occasion it was James Anderson, with 6 for 17 to bowl out Pakistan for just 80. They say that the best keepers often go unnoticed, though, so perhaps such issues will not bother him.

Miracles have occurred before on this ground and perhaps, with South Africa carrying a few injury worries, they may be more vulnerable than normal.

Certainly it was typical that, when asked about Kevin Pietersen's influence on this match and his future in the England side, Prior chose to answer from a collective rather than individual perspective. There was a passive acceptance, however, that Pietersen's future in all forms of the international game remains unclear.

"What makes this team brilliant is 11 players pulling in the same direction," Prior said. "It is a team. No one person has done more than anyone else. To have 11 blokes pulling in the same direction is a very powerful thing. Kevin Pietersen has been a big part of that. Of course you want him in your team. You watch a bloke bat like he has in this game and of course you want him in your team. Who wouldn't? It would be a huge loss and a sad loss, but the important thing is that whoever comes in pulls in the same direction with all 11 of us."

Prior also defended the performance of England's bowlers in the series, insisting that their difficulty in bowling out South Africa was more testament to excellent batting than any fault in the bowling. He also suggested that, on a pitch showing some signs of uneven bounce, that South Africa could yet face a tricky final day.

"At the Oval there were times when our bowlers may have been a bit down on their pace, but in general they have worked really hard and bowled really well," Prior said. "I think we have to take off our hat to the South African batters. They have played really well and they have left the ball really well. They have a class side and they are allowed to play well. But the way Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad bowled today was fantastic. That's what makes tomorrow quite an exciting day: if we can get a couple of early wickets, you never know.

"It's frustrating that it rained. It would have been nice to bowl at them all day, pick up a few wickets and put them under a bit of pressure going into the last day," Prior said. "But one thing I would say is that there are probably only two results possible now: a draw and an England win. For them to know that they have to bat out a day can be quite tough from a mental point of view. We're going to have to come at them very hard in the morning. We're going to need some luck and a lot of skill, but who knows. The ball is still swinging and hopefully, if it is an overcast day, the ball will hoop around."

Bearing in mind the evidence of the series to date it seems unlikely to think that England can rip through South Africa in a session-and-a-half. After all, three of the South African top four are averaging 100 or more and the other is averaging 91. But miracles have occurred before on this ground and perhaps, with South Africa carrying a few injury worries, they may be more vulnerable than normal. In truth, though, you suspect that a less than vintage Test momentarily lit up by one outstanding display of skill will slip into a watery grave on the final day.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo