England v South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's, 2nd day July 12, 2008

Prince salvages South Africa's pride

None of the centurions in this match, not even Kevin Pietersen, leapt as high or celebrated as proudly as Ashwell Prince did on the third day at Lord's

Prince punches the air after registering his first-innings century at Lord's© Getty Images
None of the centurions in this match, not even Kevin Pietersen, leapt as high or celebrated as proudly as Ashwell Prince did on the third day at Lord's, when he nudged Ryan Sidebottom off his hip, and cantered through for one of the proudest moments of his career. Prince's punchy response to adversity - 101 from 183 balls, with 13 fours and a smeared six over midwicket - ensured that South Africa's first innings did not disappear without trace, but after the follow-on had been enforced, 346 runs in arrears, the joy of his personal success had been tempered by the match situation.

"It was obviously a very proud moment for me," said Prince. "It's a great experience, walking out through the Long Room and being clapped out by all the members. It's something unique to Lord's and very special. Having said that, it would have meant a lot more if it was more meaningful for the team. Unfortunately, we didn't put in a good performance."

Nevertheless, his innings was a nugget of hope for a team that has been battered on each of the first three days of this match. By the time Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie had negotiated their way through four overs in the twilight, South Africa were 13 for 0 in their second innings, and braced to begin a rearguard worthy of their billing as the second-best side in the world. "We've got guys in our team who can bat for a very long time, and have done in the past," said Prince. "Our captain has done it here before at Lord's, so we have confidence in our ability."

If South Africa are to achieve the improbable, and bat out the remaining six sessions of this match, they'll doubtless require a repeat performance from Prince, a man who admitted that his style can often be described as "obdurate". "I just play the ball and try to do that every time," he said. "If it's a good ball, respect it, and if it's there to hit, hit it. I had a bit of confidence after a 60 and a hundred in the county games but that doesn't mean that much when you are coming in at 47 for 3."

Prince's Test career began in controversial circumstances, when he was thrust in as a quota selection to face the might of Australia at Johannesburg in 2001-02. Over the years, however, he has grown with his team and in July 2006 became the first non-white cricketer to lead his country when he took charge in Smith's absence for a series in Sri Lanka. At the age of 31, he is very much in his prime, and as the vice-captain on this trip, has underwritten his seniority with the quality of his resistance.

"When I was a youngster I used to come out and try to play every shot in the book. But you learn. I've been left out of the Test side and went into the wilderness for a bit," said Prince. "I used to make a lot of fifties and not make the big scores. But I've been playing first-class cricket since the age of 18 and over the years you learn and try to improve. That's basically what I've done."

Nevertheless, Prince couldn't help but feel regret over the manner of his dismissal, late in the day. The new ball had been taken and South Africa were battling towards the close of play, when Sidebottom served up some width outside off stump, and Prince was drawn into a wild drive that snicked through to the keeper.

"I knew I let [my team-mates] down as well, getting out with a few overs left towards the end of the day," he said. "The last thing we wanted was for the captain and Neil McKenzie to go out again tonight and face a couple of overs. It was a bit difficult leaving them with that, I was probably thinking about too many things, ended up not watching the ball and that's probably what did for me."

Up until that point, however, Prince had dealt supremely with the challenges that England's bowlers had posed, not least Monty Panesar, who found some unsettling turn from outside his off stump. "It's always going to be an issue for left-handers facing spin bowlers in the rough and you have to learn a technique and trust it," said Prince. "Monty bowled very well today, he got some nice turn and bounce. Hitting the footmarks and the slope helped him as well. I'm sure he's going to be featuring a lot more in the series."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo