England in New Zealand 2007-08 January 4, 2008

Prior slips off England's radar

The England selectors named two 16-man squads for the forthcoming ODI and Test series in New Zealand and a 13-man England Lions squad to tour India



Matt Prior: unceremoniously axed by England © Getty Images
 
When England's last Test squad was announced back in October, Andrew Strauss was the man with the very justifiable grievance. Back then he was dropped without ceremony just 12 months after being overlooked as England's captain, but today, he was back in the set-up, and absorbed into the starting line-up as if he had never been away. The big talking point was the player headed in the opposite direction, Matt Prior, whose fall from grace has been as swift and dramatic as any England player in living memory.

In the summer Prior was a debut centurion against West Indies, but now he has drifted so far off the radar the selectors weren't even able to locate him ahead of the squad announcement. Instead it was left to David Graveney - in what might be his final act as chairman of England's selectors - to apologise live on television for the breakdown in communication. It later transpired that Prior has changed his mobile number and has been lying low in America since the end of the Sri Lanka tour, but as a commentary on his fortunes it was strangely apt.

After all, Prior entered the England set-up as the golden boy - the protégé of the new coach, Peter Moores, and a beacon of the new post-Fletcher era. Now he's out on his ear, officially labelled as suspect after missing at least nine regulation catches and two stumpings in his ten-Test career. To add insult to injury, the man who has leapfrogged him is the same man with whom he vied for opportunities under Moores' supervision at Sussex. Maybe a squad featuring both of Moores' men, Prior and Tim Ambrose, would have smacked too much of favouritism. Instead the overriding flavour is fudge.

Not since the rookie James Foster and Warren Hegg (two Tests) travelled to India in 2001-02 has an England squad featured two such untested keepers, but to have two uncapped players in competition rather takes the biscuit. "Since Alec Stewart finished his career, wicketkeeping has been under the microscope, more so than any other position," said Graveney. "The player involved does feel the pressure, but with Prior, there are areas of his wicketkeeping he needs to work at, and that's the reason why we've made that decision."

Prior will now retreat to Loughborough for further one-on-one work with Moores, and though Graveney insisted he would have his chance to come again, it's hard to see when and where it will come. If England's dramatic rotation policy is taken to its logical extreme, then the older, more mature Foster must surely come into the reckoning sooner rather than later, and then there's Phil Mustard, who has been given a free rein as a one-day opener and keeper, but - rather perversely - will not be considered for the Test role unless he produces an extraordinary run of form in February's five-match ODI series.

 
 
Maybe a squad featuring both of Moores' men, Prior and Tim Ambrose, would have smacked too much of favouritism. Instead the overriding flavour is fudge
 

The situation is all the more bizarre when you consider the weight of wicketkeeping experience in the England coaching set-up. There's Moores himself of course, Sussex's stalwart of the 1990s, plus Andy Flower, who would give Adam Gilchrist a run for his money as the greatest batsman-keeper of all time. Even the analyst, Mark Garaway, kept in four first-class matches for Hampshire in the late 1990s. Perhaps Prior has been the victim of too much conflicting advice - that might explain why not even his agent, none other than Alec Stewart, was able to rustle up his mobile number.

Either way, one can only wish Ambrose good luck as he takes his first sup from the poisoned chalice. For all that he made a career-best 251 not out in a tough season for Warwickshire last summer, he has managed just four first-class centuries in his seven-year career, which is 11 fewer than Prior, and seven fewer even than the maligned Chris Read. Although Ryan Sidebottom applied some unforeseen rigidity to the tail in Sri Lanka, such tenacity cannot be guaranteed on New Zealand's zippier wickets. The onus is on England's No. 7 to provide big runs, and regardless of his errors behind the stumps, Prior's ten-Test average of 40.14 suggests he was increasingly proficient in front of them.

In fact, Prior was third in England's batting averages in Sri Lanka, behind Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, but that said as much about the failings of the top-order as his relative successes. "The message to all the players, is this is the time to deliver," said Graveney. "We didn't score enough hundreds, we didn't bowl too many people out, and we also dropped too many chances in comparison with the opposition. We go into the New Zealand series having lost two in a row. They are not going to collapse in front of us, so the challenge is there and we have to raise our performance to get back to winning ways."

Back into the side, therefore, comes Strauss, who memorably made a century on debut against New Zealand when the teams last competed in 2004. He is already in Hamilton, preparing for his domestic stint with the state team, Northern Knights, and no doubt refreshed from a rare extended break from international cricket. His recall will bolster England's slip cordon as well as their batting line-up, although in both cases it's not yet clear quite where he will slot into the side. Cook and Michael Vaughan were qualified successes as an opening partnership, while in the catching stakes, his safe hands would probably be best employed at first slip rather than third - if nothing else, to act as a reassuring sidekick for a nervous new keeper.

In other news, Monty Panesar has been quietly dropped from the one-day squad - rightly so, for the formulae and flatter lines required in that form of the game seemed to dull his impact and impair his attacking instincts in the Tests in Sri Lanka - while Ravi Bopara slips quietly out of the Test squad after four dismissals and no runs in his last ten balls of the series. But no change has been as seismic as the shift away from Prior. There's not been a lot of sympathy doing the rounds since his form began to fall away in the India series last summer, but no-one predicted his demise would be quite so swift or ruthless. Maybe Moores has more of an edge than he's been given credit for this year. If this is how he treats his friends, then woe betide his enemies.

England Test squad Michael Vaughan (capt), Tim Ambrose (wk), James Anderson, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad, Paul Collingwood, Alastair Cook, Steve Harmison, Matthew Hoggard, Phil Mustard, Monty Panesar, Kevin Pietersen, Owais Shah, Ryan Sidebottom, Andrew Strauss, Graeme Swann.

England ODI squad Paul Collingwood (capt), Tim Ambrose (wk), James Anderson, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Dimitri Mascarenhas, Phil Mustard, Kevin Pietersen, Owais Shah, Ryan Sidebottom, Graeme Swann, James Tredwell, Chris Tremlett, Luke Wright.

England Lions squad Michael Yardy (capt), Kabir Ali, Michael Carberry, Steven Davies, Joe Denly, James Hildreth, Ed Joyce, Graham Onions, Monty Panesar, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Alan Richardson, Jonathan Trott.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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