New magnetic wonder
For a man who's made a reputation as a bit of a loudmouth, Matt Prior was close to speechless as he faced the media on the second evening of his debut Test at Lord's. " If I rewrote it all again, I don't think I'd change a thing," he said. "What a fantastic feeling."
For the capacity crowd basking in the early evening sunshine, it was hard to disagree. After the traumas of the winter, here at last were the first sproutings of spring, and they were growing from little green shoots to blooming great bouquets right in front of our eyes. In the space of three-and-a-half hours of the most cocksure batting imaginable, Prior seemed to provide an answer to the single biggest conundrum in the English game.
At the start of the year, England thought their wicketkeeping cupboard was bare - so bare that, in fact, that for the World Cup, the game's showpiece occasion, Duncan Fletcher threw his baby faces out with the bathwater, and opted instead for the gnarled old county veteran Paul Nixon. Between them, Geraint Jones and Chris Read had mustered 98 runs in five Tests Down Under. At the very first attempt, Prior surpassed that, and some.
Admittedly the West Indian bowlers whom he savaged in the course of his 105-ball debut century weren't fit to lace the boots of Australia's Ashes attack, but it was the manner of the runs - not the volume - that really mattered. There were three other centurions in the course of England's innings, but 12 months hence, few will recall their identities. The fourth of these, Ian Bell, had a 56-run head-start when Prior came to the crease. He eventually crept past his milestone eight deliveries after St John's Wood had erupted in acclaim of a new hero.
It was a captivating performance from a cricketer who fully justified the faith shown by his friend and mentor, Peter Moores, another man making his Test debut. A meeker soul than Moores might have felt Nixon deserved his Test chance after some flinty performances in the Caribbean. But he backed the man he had first met at Sussex as a 13-year-old, and rightfully reaped the dividends.
First impressions are not everything. Three years ago, it was Jones's turn to experience euphoria at an early stage of his career when he cracked an even 100 in only his second home Test at Headingley. But Prior's performance was multi-faceted. Vocal behind the stumps in the best traditions of another high-profile ally, his manager Alec Stewart, he also demonstrated some exceptional athleticism.
Arguably the extreme waywardness of Steve Harmison's bowling was the acid test for a player who willingly admitted that batting was his first love. "I've got my game as close to 50-50 as possible," he said, and the sages in the press box nodded with approval at some of the full-stretch leg-side saves he was forced to pull off in West Indies' first innings.
And even his encore was a success as well. As England pressed for a declaration late on the fourth day, Prior pummeled 21 from nine balls, including consecutive pulled sixes off Dwayne Bravo. It was assumed at the time that his one-day forays on the subcontinent last winter were not a success, but the experience had clearly stood him in good stead. It's only a start, but what a start.
The story in numbers
Debut centurions are two-a-penny in this England team - Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss (also at Lord's) achieved the feat as well. But Prior is the first England wicketkeeper to manage such riches. Jack Russell came the closest, making 94 on debut against Sri Lanka in 1988. And to think he made those runs as a nightwatchman. The game has changed somewhat in the intervening two decades.
What he says
"You have to have your low times to appreciate your high times. When I was left out [of the one-day side last summer] 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."
What they say
"England's last two wicketkeepers were routinely presented as opposites - one a keeping purist, the other a wicketkeeper-batsman - but Geraint Jones only seemed assertive when compared with Chris Read's delicate talents. Prior is naturally domineering, a prize-fighter among keepers, who relishes confrontation." David Hopps, in The Guardian
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo