England v West Indies, 1st Test, Lord's, 2nd day May 18, 2007

Punishing Prior seizes his chance

Matt Prior: an heir at last to Alec Stewart? © Getty Images
Matt Prior always professed that batting was his first love. Today he demonstrated a voracious technique and a showman's love for the centre stage, to captivate a capacity Lord's crowd and leave the best efforts of his new colleagues trailing in his wake. On the day that England's scorecard boasted four individual centurions for the first time since 1938, Prior seized the plaudits as ferociously as he thumped the West Indian bowlers, during a remarkable unbeaten 126 on debut.

"If I rewrote it all again, I don't think I'd change a thing," said Prior afterwards, still rubbing his face in bewilderment at the magnitude of his achievement. "To make your debut at Lord's is just a boyhood dream, and for it to go like it went today is unbelievable. What a fantastic feeling."

For an England squad eager to draw a line under the traumas of their winter, no single performance could have given them greater succour. On a scale of 1 to 11, the No. 7 spot has been England's single biggest conundrum, ever since the retirement of Alec Stewart way back in 2003. Prior's predecessors in the Test role, Geraint Jones and Chris Read, revealed their inner meeknesses in Australia, limping along to a combined total of 98 runs in five Tests, a total that Prior surpassed today with a paddled sweep for two, before lambasting a Chris Gayle long-hop through the covers to reach a brilliant 105-ball hundred.

"For an English cricketer - for most cricketers - it doesn't get any better than that," added Prior, who had strode nervelessly to the crease with the scoreboard reading 363 for 5, and was quick to praise the team-mates whose earlier efforts had taken the sting out of a forlorn West Indian attack. "I thought as a team we played very, very well. There was Cookie [Alastair Cook] yesterday, Paul Collingwood today, and Ian Bell. They laid the foundations for me when the ball was moving around a lot, and so I was able to go out and play my natural game."

Prior's game was so natural, in fact, he drove the steadfast Bell clean out of the limelight. Despite conceding a 56-run head-start, Prior bristled and dominated from the moment he'd played himself in, thumping 19 fours to Bell's 11, and eventually drawing level with him on 95 before pipping him to the century by eight deliveries. But Bell was not about to be fazed. Back in the No. 6 slot that he made his own last summer, this was his fourth hundred in five home Tests, and an invaluable role it was too.

"Belly was fantastic at the other end," said Prior. "At times maybe I was going at it a bit hard, but he'd said: 'Cmon mate, keep pushing the ones, try to milk the spinners.' There was no rush, and it was brilliant to have someone out there guiding me through."

When I was left out I went through a low time, and you have to make decisions. Do you sulk and make excuses, or do you dust yourself down and come back?

Matt Prior, after his failures on the subcontinent

In theory, Bell's demotion to No. 6 in the order was exactly that. For all his positive intent in both the Ashes, where he batted at No. 3, and on occasions as an opener at the World Cup, he couldn't help but seem a fish out of water - a wide-eyed wonder who became so consumed by the setting of England's agenda that he was distracted from his primary task of scoring big runs. Today, he was not remotely unsettled by the speed of his colleague's onslaught - as indeed he had not been on the numerous occasions that he and Kevin Pietersen have been in harness. There's no disgrace in finding your niche - after all, the middle-order never did Steve Waugh's reputation (or run-tally) any harm.

Collingwood was also a model of anonymity, save for a frenetic half-hour in the morning when he survived two dropped chances and an excruciatingly tight lbw appeal against a Jerome Taylor inswinger. But as he said himself afterwards, he's been due a bit of luck. His finest hour in Test cricket happened to coincide with the most wretched nadir in recent English memory, when his iron-willed double-century at Adelaide was trumped by Shane Warne's masterful heist on the final morning of the match. As England rebuild their team from the wreckage of that day, the form and firmness of two such key pillars (and a third in the redoubtable Cook) can only increase the exuberance of the nominated dashers in their ranks - Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and now, indisputably, Prior.

Prior played today as if he hadn't a care in the world, and yet it wasn't so long ago that he too had to engage in a bout of navel-contemplation. This time last year, he was facing up to the fact that he had squandered his chance to impress. Eleven one-day internationals in the subcontinent had elicited a top score of 45, and only once had he been offered the chance to take Jones's place behind the stumps - a dual role that he himself believes enhances his game by giving him two bites of the cherry.

"You have to have your low times to appreciate your high times," said Prior. "When I was left out I went through a low time, and you have to make decisions. Do you sulk and make excuses, or do you dust yourself down and come back? I said I was going to work harder, and find out what I needed to do to get back, and that's why today is a very special day. I feel I'm a better player. I've ironed out a few things and gained some I didn't have a year ago. That gives you that belief to get out there and think: 'Yeah, I can do this'."

The England set-up is a more comfortable place for Prior these days. His reputation as an awkward cuss left him lacking a little in allies under the old Fletcher regime, but now that same awkwardness is the sole problem of England's opponents. His old mentor, Peter Moores, has shown that favouritism - as was the case in the early Duncan days - need not be to the detriment of a squad's morale.

But it was not Moores upon whom Prior lavished his gratitude this evening, nor Andy Flower, another familiar batsman/gloveman in the current England set-up. It was his manager, Alec Stewart, who was the recipient of the biggest vote of thanks. "When I got the call-up, he was the third person I rang, after mum and dad," said Prior. "He's been fantastic. There are times when you feel a bit anxious, times where you need to ask a few questions - even little things about my keeping gloves. To have someone like Alec with all that experience at the end of the phone, to calm you down and say :"Look mate, it'll be alright ...'. He's a legend."

Stewart is also the last man who made the England wicketkeeping role his own. As Prior himself warned, this is just one innings - and let's not forget, even the maligned Jones began his career with a bang, with a similarly swashbuckling century in only his second home appearance, at Headingley. But in one fell swoop, Prior has set about demonstrating that this time, at last, England might just have hit upon Stewart's true heir.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo