Selfless Prior lays claim to top spot
Matt Prior is one injury away from captaining England. Alastair Cook does not miss Tests - he has only been absent for one since his debut, on his first tour in 2006 - so the odds are against it, but a broken finger is only one rearing delivery or awkward catch away. If misfortune did happen to cross Cook, leading England would certainly not be a role above Prior's station.
He has been elevated to vice-captain for this tour, replacing Stuart Broad who had previously been Cook's deputy, and it is the official stamping of the leadership position he has had within this team since his second coming as a Test cricketer. Whether it be trying to salvage a disintegrating innings, throwing the bat to bring about a declaration, stealing back impetus as he did today, snaffling catches behind the stumps, geeing up fielders during a long day in the dirt, or running from his position to have a word with the bowler, Prior is rarely far away from the crux of a situation.
His leadership qualities shone through last year off the field, too, when he took it upon himself to pick up the phone and call Kevin Pietersen after his meltdown following the Headingley Test against South Africa. Prior had no selfish thoughts and just wanted to try and sort out a mess that was engulfing the England team. His chat with Pietersen did not bring immediate rewards, but it was another occasion when all the thought was about the bigger picture.
Selfishness is just not something that comes near Prior's game. You only had to witness his dismissal in Wellington, reverse sweeping to be caught at short third man shortly before tea, when he was within touching distance of a seventh Test hundred, which would have put him just one behind Les Ames among England wicketkeeper-batsmen.
"It's not the way I play, mate. I try to read the situation as best I can, and adapt my game," Prior said. That's all that's important to me - making sure the team's in the right position at the end of the day.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say you do walk off and [think] 'Oh, 18 runs away - it would have been lovely to get a Test century'. They don't come around that often. But if I get it over his head, it's another boundary, then get to tea and have another little dart after tea. That's more important."
Prior and the team's plan had worked out just about right, especially having been put in. Bat until tea on the second day with more than 450 on the board. Yet when Prior walked in at 325 for 5, following loose shots from Ian Bell and Joe Root, the innings was threatening to be neither one thing nor the other. In fact New Zealand were enjoying the better of the day. However, by lunch he was already into gear with 15 off 21 balls, signing off the session two powerful off drives.
Shortly after the interval, Pietersen fell trying to clear mid-off against Bruce Martin, and Broad, whose batting continues to slide to such an extent that Steven Finn will expect the No. 8 position soon, feathered a catch to keeper. At 374 for 7, England could have been kept under 400, not a failure by any means but neither the statement they wanted to make.
With Finn at the other end, fresh from his nightwatchman heroics in Dunedin, Prior knew he had someone who would not gift his wicket away so there was no need to go into farming mode, but intent was important. England wanted to dictate the nature of the game. While he plundered the off side there was also a delicate touch as he glided the ball through the slips to bring up the 400. Then he took apart Neil Wagner, the feisty left-arm quick, with two straight drives for six as he set his sights on the team's aim.
But when asked about his display, typically he focused on someone else. "It was nice to contribute. But more important for me today was the contribution from Steven Finn. There was a lot said about his innings in the last Test match. It was a slightly different situation today, and again he stepped up. It's so important, those guys putting in those contributions at the bottom. Even if he's just batting time, and someone else is able to score at the other end, it's so vital."
Of the current vintage of wicketkeeper-batsmen, Prior is one of a few in form. MS Dhoni's has a recent double-hundred against Australia, to follow his 99 against England in Nagpur, although his average does not match Prior, and AB de Villiers is settling into his new position with increasing effectiveness. Kumar Sangakkara was outstanding, and remains so as a batsman, but no longer keeps in Tests.
From those three contemporaries, de Villiers and Sangakkara are top-order batsman while Dhoni has recently moved from No. 7 to No. 6. A move one place up the order would allow Prior the chance for more substantial innings, but it is easy to see why England like the current set-up. The only way it will change is if a bowling allrounder, perhaps Chris Woakes, makes a sustained case for No. 7.
Regardless of where he bats, though, Prior can lay a claim to being England's best ever. His average has pushed ahead of Ames, although he remains behind him in terms of hundreds, and is considerably higher than that of Alan Knott, who Prior does not match as a gloveman, although errors in his work are few and far between now. Alec Stewart also needs to be included in any such debate, but Prior makes a strong case although not one he is yet willing to think about.
"As far as I'm concerned, those guys are legends of the game - and I've got a long way to go before I class myself alongside them," he said. "You look at these guys - Stewie has been a mentor of mine for many years - and their stats and the games they've played, of course. They're distant goals. I made the mistake of looking too far ahead once before, and I'm not going to do that again.
"Fingers crossed, one day I might be able to say 'Yes, I had a good influence on the team'." Of that, there is no doubt.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo