A keeper remembers (sort of)
Matt Prior has had an interesting year. In fact, he's had an interesting career. So it's a shame that his (first) autobiography, released in the slipstream of the Ashes, is something of a disappointment. The Gloves Are Off but this falls some way short of being a bare-knuckle account.
The impulse to tell Prior's story is understandable. He has come to symbolise the spirit within the England team dressing room - the wicketkeeper of the flame, if you like - and the importance of his role was exemplified by his part in the Kevin Pietersen affair of 2012. But his seniority has been hard won. From the perception in his early days as an England player that he was an "uneducated skinhead" who chirped too much and caught too little, Prior's journey to being ranked among the finest wicketkeeper-batsmen in the world is a compelling one.
Prior likens the keeper's role to that of a drummer in a band, setting the tempo for the team. Using that analogy, when he made his Test debut, against West Indies in 2007, the England position was like playing drums for Spinal Tap - the majority of Alec Stewart's numerous successors had met with ignominious ends (and one-day candidates are still spontaneously combusting with regularity).
Initially, Prior also seemed to be only passing through, and the book begins with "the ultimate nightmare" - being dropped. Hearing the news in early 2008, while on holiday in New York with his fiancée, sent Prior into tumult; the headline-making revelation from The Gloves Are Off is that he considered quitting the game entirely and auditioning to become a Major League slugger. However seriously that idea was entertained, what is perhaps even more remarkable is the extent to which Prior rebuilt himself as a serious international cricketer.
The detail of his relationship with Bruce French, the former England wicketkeeper charged with improving Prior's technique, is revealing. "We did start from scratch," Prior writes. "I had to learn how to catch the ball." At the time, he had played ten Tests. Eventually he came to be able to handle the "overload" work so beloved of French. Prior admits he "simply didn't do enough work" on his keeping before. Now his fastidiousness about kit and appearance extends to fitness and training, too.
Prior's frank, no-excuses outlook endears him to England fans and makes him an interesting, as well as likeable, subject. However, the problem for Prior and his ghostwriter, Steve James, is one inherent in the modern convention of players writing about careers that are as yet unfinished. That is, telling the reader everything they want to know will likely involve compromising the omerta of the dressing room.
A case in point is the episode that delineated Prior's significance within the team to a wider audience (and quite possibly won over a publisher, too). Phoning Pietersen in the wake of his Headingley revelations to try to broker peace demonstrated the responsibility Prior was willing shoulder - not to mention a level of maturity uncommon in elite sportsmen - but, inevitably, he discloses next to nothing about the discussion the two had.
There are interesting tidbits. He is honest about how the money on offer during the Stanford 20/20 for 20 farrago was a divisive issue, and describes calling out Allen Stanford over his "bullshit" explanation of how Prior's wife ended up being bounced on the publicity-hungry soon-to-be-exposed fraudster's lap as the TV cameras zoomed in. There are also diverting accounts of on-field brouhahas with various Australians - Simon Katich, Andy Bichel, Peter Siddle.
But, as with the Pietersen example, team confidences and loyalties act as a filter on potentially tantalising information. It's one thing not to name who threw jelly beans at Zaheer Khan (I'll save you the googling: Ian Bell remains No. 1 suspect) but refusing to reveal what the England players' victory song is seems a little precious. Another irritation is the frequency with which James has to rely on contemporaneous press quotes given by Prior rather than his subject's retelling of events.
The account signs off with Prior's pugnacious, jaw-jutting, match-saving hundred made in Auckland in March. When he was named England's Player of the Year for 2012-13 a couple of months later, a bashful Prior commented: "It's a fickle world, if I punch one on Thursday I'll be rubbish again." It is a sentiment echoed in The Gloves Are Off, when he writes: "You always worry that this game of cricket can kick you up the backside, so I tend to be wary of making big comments." Inevitably, in an age when personality is analysed as closely as performance, most players are cautious about their public pronouncements. But reticence does not a bestselling autobiography make.
That Prior has since experienced arguably his worst season with England is an irony that will not be lost on him, and should at some stage demand further personal reflection. Perhaps best to wait until the gloves are off for good.
The Gloves are Off: My Life in Cricket
by Matt Prior
Simon & Schuster Ltd
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here