Prior makes the most of his luck
Ed Smith, the former Kent and England batsman who is featured on this website, has written a book called Luck. We don't know if Matt Prior has read it, but he would now certainly be able to add a few thoughts about the concept.
His outstanding, match-saving hundred in Auckland owed much to a massive stroke of fortune when the ball, ricocheting down off his glove as he fended off a bouncer, lobbed towards the base of the stumps, striking them with reasonable force, and yet the bails remained firmly in place.
The significance of the bails staying on did not immediately register with the England camp. "It was a little bit too far out," Alastair Cook said. "But you do need a little bit of luck in those situations, and I suppose we did get a bit."
He was on 28 at the time and England were 207 for 6, still facing a huge task to salvage a draw in the match and the series, but 43 overs later Prior raised his arms in triumph after defending the final ball of the match from Trent Boult. It put the seal on a magnificent series for him, with bat and gloves, and has rightly given him a strong claim to being the best in the world at his role.
The unmovable bails were not his only heart-in-mouth moments, either. Two pulls, a shot he kept on playing even when runs were not the issue, just evaded fielders at mid-on and midwicket, and there were at least two inside edges that scooted past the stumps. At one stage, he gave Tim Southee, a bowler as luckless as Prior was lucky, a pat on the shoulder and pair shared a wry smile. This, though, was cut-throat Test cricket.
Brendon McCullum, an outstanding ambassador for his team throughout the series, was gracious amid his heartbreak: "There were twists and turns and half chances, little things you look back on and think 'if only', but I guess that all added to the drama. Take nothing away from the way Matt played, I thought it was an incredible innings played under severe pressure. He stood up and showed why he's the player he is."
If ever a cricketer deserved some things to go his way, it is Prior. It had previously been mentioned on the tour how selfless he is when he skipped his way to 82 in Wellington and departed looking for quick runs. That was not a one-off. He is the absolute team man and the embodiment of fighting spirit, although he isn't alone in this England team in that regard, as the final day showed. Ian Bell ended a disappointing series with a 271-ball, six-hour stay that brought back memories of his Cape Town heroics in 2010 and Stuart Broad defied his declining batting form to support Prior until the dying moments.
When Prior came to speak after the third day's play, with England a long away adrift in the match after a poor first innings, he was almost emotional in his defiance and determination that the team would be able to "fight" their way out of it. "We do it the hard way," he said, but the final moments in Auckland were taking it to extremes even for him.
With less than four overs to go Broad, whose 77-ball 6 was his second-best Test innings after the 169 against Pakistan, at Lord's, because it went so against the grain and James Anderson edged to slip off Kane Williamson in the space of three balls. When Anderson fell, Prior turned at the non-striker's end and took a deep breath, then practised a few more defensive shots. Walking out was Monty Panesar and, for at least one ball, as Williamson ended his over, Prior was helpless. All this work could have come to nothing just then. It almost did, but Panesar survived by the skin of his teeth.
With three overs left, Prior tried to engineer the strike and with some help from Panesar - including a desperate dive from about halfway down the pitch that will probably already be on YouTube - Prior managed to face 14 of the last 19 deliveries.
"He's batted so well this winter, and got quite a few fifties, so it's great for him to get a hundred," Cook said. "It's amazing. You think he's batting out for a draw, and he still scores at strike rates quicker than I can when I'm batting normally. He just has this way of finding scoring shots and it was a great knock under a huge amount of pressure. He's had a fantastic winter."
This innings was the perfect example of staying true to your natural instincts and it highlighted, once again, what an outstanding batsman Prior is in his own right. After a series where England's four-man bowling attack has struggled for potency over lengthy periods, Prior's form will continue to spark the debate over whether it is now time for Andy Flower to bite the bullet and put faith in him as the No. 6, which would allow England another bowling allrounder at No.7.
There are valid arguments both ways: Australia rarely moved Adam Gilchrist from No. 7, but it is also important a team makes the best use of the players they have available. The likelihood is that Prior will stay where he is, more often than not producing just the innings England need at just the right time. Perhaps, though, he might not want to push his luck so much next time.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo