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March 16, 2009
Ashwell Prince isn't used to opening. By his own admission he did it once, a long time ago when he was very young, and it was spectacularly unsuccessful. Prince is a No. 5 and South Africa's decision last week to make him open in the upcoming third Test was a big gamble.
He had one match on the weekend to test himself against the new ball at domestic level before facing up to an in-form Mitchell Johnson and co. He made 254. Maybe he can open after all.
"It does allow you to get bigger scores than in the middle order where you tend to run out of partners," Prince told Cricinfo after arriving in Cape Town ahead of Thursday's third Test. "At this stage I'm just looking at the positives. I'm just happy to be back in the team. It's better to be opening than not in the team. I'm very excited and I'm really looking forward to it."
In typically modest style, Prince played down the significance of his double-century for the Warriors, even though it was his highest first-class score. He was convinced that the placid Centurion surface played as much part in his success as did his own form - never mind that only one other player from either team made a hundred during the match.
"I was a bit fortunate on the weekend that the pitch was very flat as you can see from the scores," he said. "I wouldn't read too much into what happened on the weekend. I'm sure the pitch for the Test match will be different."
What the domestic outing did give Prince was a glimpse into the mindset of an opener. Against a Titans attack that boasted Morne and Albie Morkel, Prince simply planned to survive for as long as possible and take the shine off the new ball before the conditions became more familiar to him.
"I had to make a commitment to get myself to bat to 20-25 overs," he said. "If I could still be in at that stage it would basically be like batting in the middle order, if you're coming in at three wickets down and then taking it from there. I haven't really done it before. It is a new challenge for me and it's one that I'm looking forward to."
Prince deserves some good fortune after a tough few months. In his most recent Test he made 162 against Bangladesh but suffered a nasty blow to his left thumb, which was then struck again in the nets by Makhaya Ntini as South Africa warmed up in Perth ahead of the first Test against Australia. Nobody knew quite how long his cracked thumb would keep him out.
Eventually he was ruled unfit for all three Tests in Australia and JP Duminy performed so brilliantly as Prince's replacement that when the home series came around, the selectors had a tough choice. The coach Mickey Arthur wanted Prince; the convenor of selectors Mike Procter decided on Duminy. It was a bitter blow for Prince, the vice-captain of the national side.
"Obviously it was tough," Prince said. "There was not much I could do about that. JP came in and took his chance. I think he deserved to hold his place."
When Prince was returned to the side, after Graeme Smith suffered a broken hand and Neil McKenzie was dropped, it was as captain. Briefly. Less than 24 hours after he was named as the stand-in skipper, Prince was demoted to allow him to concentrate solely on his new role as opener.
It will be a challenge for Prince to adjust to the Test scene after four months out of the side. Against a fired-up attack boasting Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, much of Prince's work will be done in the lead-up to Thursday as he reacquaints himself with some video footage of the Australians.
"To be honest I haven't been able to watch much of the series so far because I've been playing matches at the same time as the Tests," Prince said. "But I have noticed that Mitchell Johnson now seems to be able to swing the ball into the right hander, in Australia he was just moving the ball away. At his pace to be able to go either way is a big effort."
Prince will be walking out at the top of the order with another new opener, the debutant Imraan Khan. Like Prince, Khan made a century on the weekend and he also has recent form against the Australians, having reached triple figures against them in the tour match at Potchefstroom. Khan is not the traditional rock-solid opener who will wear an attack down with attrition, but Prince is confident his new partner can step up to international level.
"I hope he plays his normal game," Prince said. "He's not an opener in the traditional sense. He's somebody who likes to play his shots and I hope he does that."
Like Prince, he'll be happy just to be there.
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