'I never want to average 20 in a series again'
Matt Prior has arrived in Australia without one very prized possession. Not his bat, his gloves or his cap: his bike. England's wicketkeeper has been obsessed with cycling for the last couple of years, but he has been barred from taking his machine down under by team manager Phil Neale.
That is perhaps understandable given the amount of internal travel the team will undertake, but Prior took some persuading that it really was an issue of size and weight. "I took my bike to New Zealand, which was awesome," he says, "but the manager has thrown his toys out and won't let me take it. So I said I am going to put bricks in with my golf clubs to prove a point. I am gutted but I have sorted it out. I am taking my shoes with me, so I will be riding over there."
For Prior, the cycling, which began as a way of helping manage and strengthen a troublesome Achilles, has now become a form of relaxation: he is not part of the Xbox generation and there's probably only so much Graeme Swann one can take on a tour. Being able to free your mind from the stresses of a high-pressure Ashes tour is vital. Trying to be "switched on" every waking moment will send anyone crazy. "I am completely addicted to it - it's almost getting in the way of the cricket," he jokes. "It used to be golf, now it's cycling. When you are away on these long tours you need your form of escapism."
In recent weeks he has had to be careful not to do himself an injury ahead of the Ashes - although he had a cycling holiday to Majorca - so a lot of his work has been done indoors. It is now far more than a pastime. He averages 60-100km per ride and can do that as many as five times per week. Prior has put his name down for two serious races in March next year, the 600km Cape Rouleur in the Western Cape and the Cape Argus, which starts and finishes in Cape Town while winding through the physical challenges of the peninsula.
"I am really hooked on it. The main thing is, I started off with it to help my Achilles and it's really helping the prevention of my problem coming on again. And from a fitness point of view I have lost 9kg since the Ashes. I feel physically in the best condition I have of my whole career."
England's year is certainly becoming a test of endurance. For some, including Prior, it has been barely a month since their season finished and now they have landed in Perth to prepare for resumption of Ashes battle on November 21 in Brisbane.
The home series was not an overwhelming success for Prior. In fact, averaging 19 made it his leanest series of four or more matches and his fourth-lowest of all. He did not pass 50 in the seven home Tests of 2013, having started with a pair at Lord's just days after being named England's Player of the Year. At the time he said, "It's a fickle world, if I punch one I'll be rubbish again", and although it was more the batting that struggled, rather than the keeping, his wisdom proved prophetic.
Personal success, of course, is of secondary significance to him than the overall result - 3-0 in the Ashes, which Prior reflects, given some of the reaction, "didn't feel good enough. It was very strange. If we won 3-0 ten years ago, the country would have stopped for a day." He later adds that "we don't pay any attention" to criticism, but the players clearly aren't deaf to it all.
Prior himself does not want to go through that "horrendous" feeling of not contributing in a key role again. "Believe me, nobody wants to be playing the best cricket more than the players themselves," he says. "I never want to average 20 in a series again. You want to go out there scoring fifties, hundreds, taking catches and wickets and winning by an innings. That is fantastic but doesn't always happen."
In a candid appraisal of why he struggled, Prior admits that his role as vice-captain may have played a part, although he has no desire to relinquish the senior position as Alastair Cook's deputy. He remains one injury away from captaining an Ashes Test even if Cook's fitness record is exemplary; he has never missed a Test through injury, only a dodgy stomach in his first series.
"First and foremost, I am absolutely loving the role but I have to change a few things to make sure I still get the best out of myself as a player as well. I underestimated what it meant. I thought I would just carry on doing what I was doing and it would just say VC next to my name on the team sheet. Without doubt it's something I have had to learn and make space for. I don't want to use it as an excuse or anything, because it certainly isn't, but I think at times I was concentrating so much on the group and making sure that everything was in place everywhere else that I forgot I had to make time for my own game."
"I have realised that there is a time for team duties, a time when you have to make sure you get enough time and enough work as an individual, switching on to what you are doing. Or switching off all the other stuff, making sure it's all out of your head when you are doing your specific drills. So you are not with Frenchy [Bruce French, England's wicketkeeping coach] doing a keeping drill but thinking about a meeting you have got two hours later. It is quite tricky to get used to."
He now has a greater appreciation than ever about what is on Cook's plate. The England captain has spoken about how much the season took out of him - the Ashes following just days after the crushing disappointment of the Champions Trophy final - but Prior says that - in an illustration of a trait of fine captains - you would never have known what strains Cook was under even if that meant it was tricky to know if he needed help.
"It's one of his strengths, that you don't know what he is thinking. He is one of those guys that you can never tell if he has made a duck or a hundred, because he just acts the same way, whereas I am, well, I throw bats!"
The pre-tour round-table chat is being held at Lord's, and Prior, relaxed and happy to laugh at himself, turns to look at the dressing room where his bat handle broke a window during the 2011 Sri Lanka Test, "I used to throw bats," he adds, before continuing about Cook. "You can't tell when he is taking strain, which is a good thing but it's also quite a tough thing. As vice-captain you are supposed to be a support. You have to go and say, 'Are you all right mate? Because I can't tell.'"
The back-to-back nature of the intense Ashes rivalry will test the stamina of both sides, but for the first time in more than 30 years England arrive with a squad with a majority for whom there are memories of winning in Australia. Prior, who scored a hundred in Sydney in 2010-11 and held 23 catches in the series, is among those, and that experience will have a crucial role in ensuring Australia do not turn a perceived improvement (some interviews have suggested they finished the previous series with the advantage) into tangible results.
"I am not expecting them to welcome us with open arms, and really look forward to us piling runs on," Prior says bullishly. "I think there will be a huge amount of banter, if you want to call it that, but there always is. When do you go to Australia and not get that? It won't be any different to any other time. There might be more made of it and said about it. We got a huge amount last time, and the time before that, and there has been since England faced Australia, so we have dealt with it before and played well.
"If you come through that and you play well and you start beating their team, start playing well, you will earn their respect as a nation, because they respect good cricket. We did that in 2010-11. They became so respectful of the England cricket team because they were just respectful of the way we played - Cook scoring hundreds, or whatever it was. We earned the right then to have that respect and that is one of my overwhelming memories from that trip. We are going to have to start from scratch again, but at the end, in a few months' time, to be sat there with the respect of that cricket-loving nation, then we have done a great job."
Prior may have arrived without one important possession, but it's all about leaving with something far more precious. The urn.
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Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo