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January 11, 2010
One of the key challenges that England will have to confront as they aim to secure a series victory against South Africa won't actually come from the home side, but rather the geographical location of the Wanderers. The stadium is 6000 feet above sea level which creates a unique atmosphere - or lack of it - for the players.
The air is noticeably thinner at such a height and after three weeks down at sea level for the Durban and Cape Town Tests it will take some getting used to. The batsmen tend to notice it running while between the wickets, the fielders while chasing down boundaries - and the ball seems to travel that much quicker at altitude - and the fast bowlers notice it while coming off their long runs.
As a home team has every right to do, South Africa have been clever in their scheduling of this tour - although they haven't made the most of their home advantage thus far, seeing as they are currently 1-0 down. Prior to the first Test at Centurion Park, which is also on the highveld, England spent 10 days on the coast in East London and they are now in the same situation.
"It's unbelievable. There's no oxygen, for a start," Matt Prior, the England wicketkeeper said. "Your body, your lungs can feel it just in the warm-up. We've been at sea level a long time, at Durban and Cape Town, so coming back to altitude is something that takes a bit of getting used to. But the fitness work has been good so it should be fine after today and tomorrow."
The altitude also has an impact on Prior's role behind the stumps, with the ball flying through quicker from the pacemen and demanding that he says alert. "The odd one seems to hit the hands a bit harder than usual," he said. "But you just have to adapt to the conditions."
However, Prior is now a very confident wicketkeeper - far removed from the fragile player who was dropped following the 2007-08 series in Sri Lanka in which he scored runs but missed a host of chances - and the fact he has barely been talked about in this series is a sign of his development. An invisible keeper is a good keeper, and Prior had an extra long practice session with Bruce French, England's keeping coach, on the outfield at the Wanderers on Monday.
"Touch wood," he said when his almost error-free keeping was mentioned. "I've worked very, very hard on my keeping and I'll continue to do so. I always mention Frenchy. He's been an absolutely fantastic help."
Prior added that it has been his batting form that has caused him more problems during the tour despite two important half-centuries at Durban and Cape Town. It has been a case of all-or-nothing for Prior during the Tests, with his other three innings being single figures.
"It's been a weird series for me individually with the bat," he said. "I've managed to get a couple of scores, which has been nice, at important times. To help the team in those situations is always a great feeling.
"But I've not gone into the series feeling in great form with the bat. It's as important to come up with those performances when you're maybe not feeling in the best nick. It's no good just scoring runs when you're feeling great; sometimes, you've got to get your 'ugly' runs when the feet maybe aren't moving as well as you'd hope. You've still got to get stuck in."
Before the series began it was expected that Prior would play at No. 6 with England fielding an extra bowling option - either Luke Wright or Ryan Sidebottom - but Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower went for six batsmen which shunted Prior down a spot. It was seen in some quarters as a defensive approach, but has worked a treat so far with the extra batsman - Ian Bell - helping to win and draw a Test.
However, Prior was adamant that even though England only need a draw at the Wanderers to take home the main prize there won't be any thoughts of playing it safe.
"This team is going out to win this Test match, not to hang on to a draw or try to scrape through," he said. "If we can go back 2-0, that would be a dream come true for all of us. It would obviously be a fabulous achievement to beat two of the top teams in the world, in back-to-back Test series.
"We didn't come here to draw a series; we came here to win one. The coach had a long chat with us this morning and was pretty adamant on that. We don't want to be the nearly-men."
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala