England's beating heart
IN THE AUTUMN of 2008 I interviewed Shane Warne in the basement of a London restaurant as he devoured two bowls of French fries with huge dollops of tomato ketchup. He was 18 months into his retirement and clearly enjoying his new life away from the rigours of international cricket.
A fascinating character, Warne wants to be liked, and always wants to interest and surprise you. Ahead of the following summer's Ashes series I asked him for his thoughts on the current England side.
He made polite noises about several England players until I asked about their relatively new wicketkeeper, Matt Prior.
He laughed at first. "Matt Prior is no good, I don't rate him at all. If I was bowling with Prior behind the stumps, I would think, 'Oh no.' I would think, 'Hit it to a fielder, please.' England are obviously prepared for him to drop a few catches.
"Matt Prior? He couldn't catch a cold mate," he sneered before letting out a knowing and bellowing laugh.
Less than five years later and ahead of another Ashes series this summer, Australians no longer laugh at Matt Prior.
They remember the Ashes series of 2009, when his glove work helped England regain the urn, and they wince even more when they recall the pivotal role he played in the Ashes of 2010-11 as England humiliated Australia 3-1, culminating in an innings victory in the final Test at the SCG, when Prior scored the fastest Ashes century by an Englishman since Ian Botham's knock at Old Trafford in 1981.
Matt Prior has become the world's best wicketkeeper-batsman, and this year his team-mate Graeme Swann has even ventured: "He's the best player in the world at the minute."
But Prior has evolved into so much more than just a wicketkeeper and batsman, to be judged simply by catches, stumpings and runs.
He is now the heartbeat of this England side, influencing every part of it and performing a long list of roles. He is the team's moral compass, the protector of their spirit, a dressing-room confidante, and a tactician and cheerleader in the middle.
The public face of this England side is their well-spoken captain Alastair Cook, but behind him the more rugged and blunt Prior is the man who makes them tick and gives them their purpose.
"Matt Prior is the fulcrum around which the fielding unit works," says his former captain Andrew Strauss, while his former England and Sussex coach Peter Moores says, "From behind the stumps he is the driver of the team… England are lucky to have him."
In March this year during the New Zealand tour Prior was officially appointed England's vice-captain in preference to Stuart Broad. Some players need to grow into these roles, but Prior had earned it, having effectively already been doing it for several years.
"I honestly think being vice-captain is just a title to me, even though it is one I am extremely honoured to have," he says. "I have been given it because of what I do, so I see no need to change. I have always seen my role, the role of a wicketkeeper, as providing the energy of the team - it's like being the drummer of the band. From an early age Peter Moores always stressed that to me.
"I enjoy the responsibility of being a leader," he adds. "You have to help the team's intensity on the field, getting everyone buzzing, our body language right, and helping bowlers with their angles. The wicketkeeper has the best seat in the house to do that, so the captain can focus on other things."
After seven months with Cook in charge, Prior believes they now complement each other very well. "A captain doesn't want people just agreeing with him, and I am definitely not a 'yes' man. We have exactly the same ideas about how we want the team to play, but extremely different views on how to get there.
"He is far more reflective, and will sit back and think about things, while I am more instinctive and think, 'Come on, let's get up and get it done.' Hopefully I can help Alastair with that, and give him more energy, but then he can be good for me too."
Prior provides a constant soundtrack to England's days in the field; talking, talking, always talking, he is fully charged, shouting encouragement, or admonishing team-mates, advising Cook on field placings, bowling changes and whether to review decisions. His friend Robin Martin-Jenkins has said, "If you want a keeper to make noise, Prior's your man... his vocal chords get plenty of exercise."
"Sometimes that can get me in trouble," says Prior. "I have always been an extrovert. I don't like being quiet. I am honest and would rather say something than let it go. You have to both tell off your team-mates and spur them on."
ON A BRIGHT April morning I meet Prior in the London offices of the publishers of his autobiography. He is renowned for taking care with his appearance, his team-mates laugh at how anal he can be about the curve of a cap's peak. This morning is no different, as he arrives looking dapper in a pair of tight blue trousers, a crisp white shirt opened by two buttons, and a grey blazer.
He also has a thick beard. This has become more than just because he likes the look; it is both a good-luck charm and a part of his armour now. It was once said you knew how hard George Best had been drinking by the length of his beard, but with Prior it is the opposite: the thicker it is the better he feels about himself.
He first grew a beard before the 2010-11 Ashes and has kept it ever since as he has prospered. He also figures a beard creates a better impression than the stubble and earring he previously sported.
"While I have had it I have enjoyed the best cricket of my career, so it's not going anywhere," he says. "It's a part of me, it even has its own Twitter account, so it would be rude to chop it off now."
He is affable and friendly, and very accommodating with our photographer, but there is also a slight wariness to him, and he answers each question in a measured and thoughtful manner.
A few years ago AOC called him a mystery, and despite embracing Twitter and the publication of an autobiography, he largely remains so to this day. The book is all about cricket, it is a guarded account, there are no stories about his childhood, what inspired him, getting his first bat, developing his talent, and few personal insights.
He is still known in the England dressing room as the Big Cheese from when he was a confident - some perceived arrogant - young player with a strut and long-gone blond highlights. On his first England tour he recalls a couple of senior players approaching him to say show ponies were not welcome.
I ask him if that younger and brasher character still lurks inside. "He is still there, but maybe when I lost my hair he went away a bit," he laughs. "Everyone grows up, you change. The 'Big Cheese' is still there, but reined in. I can't change who I am. I will always get people having a go, but I don't put on my strut; it's the way I walk."
Three weeks before we meet, Prior had walked off the field in Auckland and into the grateful embrace of his captain after playing one of the finest, and certainly the longest, innings of his career with an unbeaten knock of 110 to save the third Test and guide England to a 0-0 drawn series.
This century came as something of a relief to Prior, who didn't score one throughout 2012, but in the last two years he has still averaged an impressive 51.83 with the bat, and at the moment is the only other Englishman alongside Alastair Cook to command a place among the ICC's top ten Test batsmen.
He attributes his form to "a bit of luck" and the example and coaching of England's batting coach Graham Gooch. The truth is, he has never batted better, and could play as a specialist batsman, and even move up the order as high as five.
Where would he most like to bat? He gives a qualified answer, but the message is clear. "If the balance of the team dictates I bat higher up the order, then fantastic, I would love that... I consider myself a batsman, and so I have to believe I could bat anywhere in the top six, and I think I certainly could."
At the same time Prior is also being recognised for his presence and agility behind the stumps. The mistakes have long gone. At first Prior primarily considered himself a batsman, who could also wear the gloves, but now admits to enjoying it as much as batting.
"I was always a reluctant keeper, but the harder I worked, the more I thought, 'I can actually do this, I can keep wicket.' I love it now."
At 31 with at least another five years of Test cricket ahead of him Prior should become England's most successful wicketkeeper. At the moment he is fourth on England's list of most Test dismissals with 196, needing another 74 to surpass Alan Knott at the top.
It was five years ago when Prior committed himself to becoming a proper wicketkeeper that he unashamedly said to ECB wicketkeeping coach Bruce French: "I want you to turn me into Chris Read." So has he achieved that now? He smiles and shakes his head. "No, I don't think I ever will. To this day I watch Chris Read and he is such a fantastic keeper. If Chris Read came along one day and patted me on the back and told me I was doing the right thing, I would be very happy with that."
Prior is a man in his prime. "This is the best I have been playing in my career. I have got the keeping and batting to a high level together. Right now is as well as I have ever played for England."
"I always want to get better. Look at Sachin Tendulkar, he's played nearly 200 Test matches - imagine after his 65th if he had thought this was as good as it gets. I am always looking for something that is going to give me that tiny edge. In the last series in New Zealand I worked on how I stand up to the wicket, and I got that edge from [Brendon] McCullum. It was a 1% difference, but it helped me catch it."
He might be a senior member of the side now ("I heard myself called a veteran recently") and on course to be England's greatest ever wicketkeeper-batsman, but Prior has never forgotten the devastation he felt at being dropped from the Test side in 2008.
He recalls receiving the news while on a break to New York with his wife Emily and wandering the cold streets of Manhattan feeling numb, believing his England career was over and considering whether to give up wicketkeeping. He even fleetingly thought about whether he could get a trial with the New York Yankees.
That experience has left what he calls "the deepest scars", and to this day he never feels secure about his place. "That period made me the cricketer I am now. Sitting here before the summer I really want to nail that first Test, because I know I am never safe."
Knowing both the derision and the glory of Test cricket, Prior believes he can relate to all in the dressing room, and prizes his role in nurturing and safeguarding England's team spirit.
But it was severely damaged at the end of last summer, during the Kevin Pietersen saga, which upset Prior because he hadn't realised the side's togetherness had become so fragile. It shocked him, so he decided to do something about it. He phoned Pietersen to broker an informal peace deal on behalf of the team.
"When I heard what Kevin had said about the team, and how hard it was for him [in the dressing room], it became a team issue," says Prior. "It was a team-mate saying he was struggling. It didn't matter if it was Broad, Anderson or Bairstow. If a team-mate is in that position I would phone them and sort it out. It isn't up to the board or manager. It is up to the team to look after each other."
As Prior has said, "Sometimes, you need to say tough things to your mates in order for them to improve."
How did Pietersen receive this? "The way I looked at it was, if I was doing something wrong then I would want one of my team-mates to tell me. I might tell them to do one at the time, but I guarantee you will go back to your hotel room and think about it, and then work harder."
Prior admits there was fault on both sides. He says he made a mistake in following the KP Genius parody account of Kevin Pietersen on Twitter, which mocked his team-mate as a rampant egoist.
"If you're going to have an honest conversation, you have to take things on the chin yourself, and after the conversation it was obvious there were things that needed changing on our side as well. I held my hand up and apologised to KP, because that wasn't right."
Do you have a better understanding of each other now? "We have put things in place to stop these things happening again. I don't expect any more problems."
WHEN PRIOR SPEAKS he speaks for the dressing room. When we meet he is enjoying a rest after returning from New Zealand, but the IPL had started a week earlier and there is frustration at not being there.
Prior has twice put himself into the IPL auction, and twice been overlooked, having to watch as a raft of lesser talents bank these huge cheques because IPL franchises are reluctant to bid for England players who can't play the whole eight weeks.
"It is disappointing. You watch it on the television and it looks a great competition, but then again we have these four weeks to rest and get ready for a big summer.
"The IPL is going to be around for a long time, and it would be great if England players could play in it, but there are a lot of things to be sorted out before that happens, and for me personally Test cricket remains my No. 1."
Is there desire amongst the players to find a resolution with the ECB? " If the opportunity arose and the times were right, and there wasn't any pressure about Test cricket, and there was a window for England players to play in the IPL, I think they would want to do that. Why wouldn't you want to play in the IPL? We have to sort out a window so there isn't a conflict."
Since losing their status as the No. 1 Test side in the world to South Africa last summer, England have triumphed in India for the first time in 28 years and, helped by that innings from Prior in Auckland, held on to draw the series with New Zealand.
Ahead of this year's back-to-back Ashes series Prior speaks in hushed tones about this team. "This is an extremely exciting team to be involved with, because we have several guys who can break Test records for England, whether it is runs scored, games played, wickets taken. This team can make history."
Could this be the best team you have played? "Without a shadow of a doubt. Just look at the talent we have in this squad at the moment. And I mean all 16 players, not just the 11. We have a very strong team, and we can do some special things.
"We are just ticking off all these records, and we have the chance to keep breaking them. But the series in New Zealand showed when you take your eye off what is in front of you, you come unstuck."
There has clearly been an edict set out by the team ahead of the Ashes that no one is to make grand statements. No one should dabble in any Glenn McGrath-style goading and predictions.
The natural reaction of any English cricketer to the Australian implosion in India, where they were whitewashed 4-0, is undisguised joy, but Prior attempts to rise above it.
"My first reaction is: it is tough playing cricket in India," he says with a smile. Come on, you must have revelled in it a bit? "At that time we were fighting our own battles trying not to lose a series. We are still three months from the Ashes. We can't enjoy them struggling, we have to focus on what we are doing."
What did he make of Australia dropping four players for not sending an email? "You don't know the ins and outs. You think there must be something else going on." How would Prior have felt being dropped for such a minor indiscretion? "I would hope I had just sent the email."
Prior and England will face an inexperienced Australian squad this summer. As many of nine of the 16 tourists have never played in an Ashes before. There will be no Ricky Ponting or Mike Hussey.
Prior tells a story about when he was batting at The Oval in the 2009 Ashes and played a shot that hit Ricky Ponting right in the mouth. "You all right, mate?" Prior asks, to which Ponting looks at him, spits out a mouthful of blood and replies, "F*** off." But rather than be offended, Prior actually admired him for his bluntness, and speaks about how there was an aura around him.
"It is a relief he and Hussey have both retired, because they are phenomenal players," he says. "To not have Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting on the Australian team sheet is a bonus. But there will be two batsmen coming into the Australian side who will be hungry to score runs too. I suppose it is hard to compare Ponting with the youngsters who have come in.
"Ashes cricket is a strange and different animal. You can't write a team off, you can't make ridiculous predictions. Both teams will be up for that battle, and as much as we want to dominate Australia, they will want to do the same. It is about what I do on the pitch. I don't want to get caught up saying things about the Australians."
Ahead of this summer of cricket, Prior will be in demand, but he isn't really interested in taking advantage of much of it, and would rather get away from the relentless build-up and indulge his new passion of cycling on the South Downs.
He says he first started being recognised on the streets during the Ashes of 2009 and has had to get used to it ever since. "It is still a strange thing to come to terms with," he says. "I certainly don't look for it, but people are really nice, and you have to embrace it.
"I always think a week after I have retired no one will remember me or recognise me, or even want to talk to me. I think I will be begging people to let me tell them my cricket stories."
But if Prior is a part of the first England side to win four consecutive Ashes series for 123 years he won't have to worry about being recognised or finding people to tell his stories to, although they probably won't include a now chastened Shane Warne.
The Gloves Are Off: My Life in Cricket by Matt Prior is published by Simon and Schuster in June.