Prince happy to be back at the centre of action
Just over eighteen months ago, Ashwell Prince was forced to be born again. Not as Christian, although he is a religious man, but as a cricketer. He had been recalled to the South African squad, after injury and the explosion of JP Duminy against Australia kept him out of the side, in an unfamiliar position. Prince, who for his entire cricketing career had been a middle order man, was tasked with opening the batting.
"For 15 years I had been playing in the middle order and that was what I knew," Prince told ESPNcricnfo. "When I was told I had to open it was like starting my career again." He made no secret of his unhappiness at being made to play out of position but decided that if that was the only way he would be able to play international cricket, he would try to make the most of it.
Prince's opening debut was nothing short of kingly. He scored 150 against Australia in March 2009 in Cape Town and the selectors, who had dropped Neil McKenzie to make room for Prince, were vindicated for their decision. A pauper's run followed, where Prince played five more innings as an opener, four against England and one against India. He managed to score just 97 runs and looked technically inept. "At times I had difficulty knowing when to attack and to when to defend," he admitted.
In Kolkata, in February, the cricketing gods smiled on Prince and he was allowed to return to the middle order. Alviro Petersen took his place at the top, ending a six match stint which saw Prince average 27.44. Prince has since played three more Tests, against the West Indies, where he batted in the middle order and scored 160 runs. His overall average as a middle order player is a healthy 45.92 and that is where he is likely to stay. Prince left for the United Arab Emirates on Monday night, to join up with the South African team for their two-Test series against Pakistan, in a rich vein of form. He scored three hundreds in three consecutive SuperSport Series matches for the Warriors and says the peace of mind that comes with being assured of his place in the middle order has helped. "Mental preparations are more important to me than physical ones. I am not the kind of guy who wants to go out and hit hundreds of balls, so I work more on mindset."
Prince was tasked with the captaincy duties for the Warriors as well, as regular skipper Davy Jacobs was injured, and used the role as inspiration for his performances. "The team did really well in the Champions League and I wanted them to translate that form into the domestic game. I was the captain and made sure I led from the front. From a personal perspective I did not want to slack off," said Prince.
The Warriors were not able to carry their momentum into the first-class game and did not win one of their four matches. They drew three games and lost one to stay rooted to the bottom of the log, 22.82 points behind the fifth-placed Knights. Prince was the last soldier standing after he spent close to five hours scoring 144 against the Titans, almost six hours and 206 balls for his 123 against the Dolphins and hit 134 against the Lions. All three times, he was required to dig deep and display big-match temperament, something he is mastering with every game: "I expect a certain level of performance from myself, and I am working on it every match."
It's his serene attitude that South Africa will welcome. Their recently completed one-day series triumph over Pakistan had its moments of frenzy, which saw catches dropped and an unusual amount of misfields. Prince noticed a certain "panic" in the side but he expects things to settle down, despite the unfamiliarity of the conditions and the level of focus on the one-day game because of the looming World Cup.
"The World Cup is still a while away, so now we have to refocus on the Tests. We expect that the pitches will be very slow and not like the fast bouncy tracks we are used to. Getting the number one spot back is important to us." Even though Pakistan are have only won two out of their last six tests and have batting woes that run deep Prince thinks they are still a credible team in the longest format of the game, "They have good individuals on paper and when they play well, we know they can still beat anyone. We can't take them for granted."
Prince said the "good culture" of the team will make it easy for him and Mark Boucher to slip back into the squad, despite not being around for the limited-overs section of the tour. "Everyone in the side knows their role well and there's good team spirit. For me, who has been around for a while, it feels no different coming back in."
With all the good vibrations, is he concerned about losing his spot to someone like Duminy again? "There is always pressure to perform, whether it's coming from other players or myself. I understand what I need to do to keep my place in the side and I am going to go out and do it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent