The value of Prior experience
Matt Prior is England's answer to Adam Gilchrist. Matt Prior is the most useless klutz ever to take residence behind the stumps. The truth, as with all such debates, lies somewhere in between, but both have been stated as gospel in Prior's first six months as a Test cricketer. He is, after all, England's wicketkeeper - the most persecuted and scrutinised breed of English sportsmen.
Right now, Prior's media barometer reading is riding high again, following a ballsy display in the first two Tests against Sri Lanka, but he's no longer in any doubt about the fickleness of such measurements. Back at Lord's in May, when he blistered a brilliant hundred on debut against West Indies, his cocky confident demeanour was being written up as a godsend by a sensation-hungry press; two months later, as England slipped to defeat against India, their first at home since 2001, that cockiness had been recast as arrogance - and misplaced arrogance as that, after one or two unfortunately high-profile blunders.
For the moment, however, all that is forgotten. Prior is strolling along the verandah of the team hotel in Galle. His England training top marks him out for what he is, but without it he could pass for just another holidaymaker, such is his current state of relaxation. A shy autograph hunter clocks him as someone he dares to approach, and holds out his souvenir bat. Prior signs it with a smile then, sensing his unease, takes him off to a table in the opposite corner to meet two real superstars, Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen. That's not the behaviour of the devil incarnate.
"The things that happened this summer, I've taken so much from all the experiences," says Prior. "It's made me a stronger cricketer and a stronger person. I'm a big believer in fate, and there's obviously a reason why I saw both sides very early on. I had to make changes and ask myself some tough questions - am I going to lie down and die, or hold my head up and keep fighting and back myself? There are times when you have to dig deep in life and I'm pleased with how I've responded."
Leaving aside the ironies of talking him up too highly, Prior has impressed in every facet of his game on this tour. The pens twitched momentarily when he shovelled a loose shot to midwicket in the midst of England's first-innings collapse at Kandy, but he's since made amends with two plucky and aggressive half-centuries - the first came agonisingly close to denying Muttiah Muralitharan at the Asgiriya, the second went a long way to ensuring a stalemate at Colombo.
His glovework has been first-rate as well, with seven catches in the series, but more than anything it has been his demeanour that has stood out. On the occasions he's spoken to the press, he has done so with honesty and thoughtfulness, taking time to consider each question carefully - not so much because he's wary of having his words twisted, but because he now has a better understanding of what it is to be in the international spotlight. Like most of his team-mates, the circumstances of England's return to Galle has provided an extra reality check. "It's quite horrific when you try to visualise what went on here," he says, looking out towards the horizon. "It puts things in perspective - cricket is just a game in the end. There are other things in the world going on."
With his shaven head and full features, Prior looks older than his 25 years, and it certainly feels as though he's been on the scene longer than a mere nine Tests. No doubt he feels it too. The ecstasy and adulation of his maiden Test appearance seems like a lifetime ago, and if he kept any cuttings of that match, they are doubtless now yellowing in some forgotten corner of his attic.
"After that start I was loving every minute of it," he admits. It was an extraordinary arrival. There were four centurions in England's first innings of the season, but none made a bigger impression than Prior, who slashed and drove the West Indians to distraction on a glorious spring afternoon. It was Peter Moores' first Test as England coach, and Prior - as everyone knows - was his protégé. After the horrors of the winter, and the tiresome tussle between Geraint Jones and Chris Read that had coloured the dying days of Duncan Fletcher's regime, this was a new beginning writ large.
"After Lord's, it was wonderful," says Prior, "and then, winning the series was as big a high for me as anything individual. It was great at the time to read good things about yourself in the press, but you've also got to realise that it's the same people who write that you are brilliant who write that you are terrible two weeks later. I've now started taking everything that's written with a pinch of salt, and learnt methods of dealing with it. One of them for me now is I don't read anything."
It was the India series when Prior's brave new world began to crumble around him, and though he's accepted what happened, he remains somewhat bemused. "It's a weird one," he recalls. "I look back, and I got 42 in the second innings at Lord's and I still felt pretty good. Then came a wettish deck at Trent Bridge, where I got a very good ball from RP Singh, and after a loose shot in the first innings, suddenly that's four innings gone, and everyone's saying you're having a terrible series. But I was like, hold on a minute, I'm not that out of nick."
He was, however, out of luck. It was Prior's misfortune to be chosen to speak to the media on the day the great jelly-bean fiasco erupted at Trent Bridge. Pictures of Zaheer Khan angrily brandishing his bat in the direction of the slip cordon were flashed around the world, whereupon Prior responded on behalf of his team, saying how cricket is a tough game and that the fielders need to hunt in packs and get inside the heads of the batsmen. Unfortunately, Zaheer appeared ten minutes later to explain that what had really riled him was not England's words of aggression, but the apparently childish appearance of sugar-coated candy on a good length.
|"Of all the people to drop, Sachin's probably not the one you want to be dropping. When that happened, I knew that was that and the whatnot was going to hit the fan."|
The response in the papers was merciless. One broadsheet writer described him as a "yobbish buffoon" - an assessment fuelled by some unfortunate comments picked up on the stump microphone. These days Prior wears the insults with remarkable equanimity, although when asked if he felt aggrieved at his treatment, a loud but fleeting snort provides ample confirmation.
"Of course it was tough. Some of the things that were written, by people who don't even know me, were fairly ridiculous to be honest. But that's part and parcel of how things work, you learn how to take it. At first I was probably a bit like, 'bloody hell, what's going on here?' But then you learn about it, grow a few more layers of skin, and become used to it. If people are eyeing you up, then anything you do, they are going to be onto you."
The clamours for his head reached a crescendo in the final Test of the summer, when he dropped none other than Sachin Tendulkar early on in India's vast innings of 664. "I knew going into that Test I had to have a good match," says Prior. "Of all the people to drop, Sachin's probably not the one you want to be dropping. When that happened, I knew that was that and the whatnot was going to hit the fan."
Fortunately for Prior, he's hardly unique in feeling the media whiplash. "Luckily we've got a few guys in the camp who've been through it, and I tried to speak to most of them," he says. "One guy who was actually very, very good was Allan Donald. He came up to me and spoke about how he dropped his bat in the World Cup semi-final. That was a massive, massive thing, but it was great to have people like that and experiences like that to learn off. People can say what they want and write what they want, but for me the important people are my coach, my captain and my team-mates, and trying to do myself justice."
He's been doing just that since arriving in Sri Lanka, aided - by his own admission - by a lucky break. When he fractured his thumb during the ICC World Twenty20 in South Africa, Prior initially thought that his luck couldn't get any worse. The severity of the fracture prevented him from even picking up a golf club for six weeks, but he used the time wisely and set about digesting everything that had befallen him - good and bad - in a crazy first season.
"It forced me to think, to actually use my head," says Prior. "It opened up another avenue even though it had been forced on me, and it's been a massive avenue. I couldn't hit a ball for six weeks, but I thought about what I wanted to do to a level I haven't done before. I spoke to people, did work with [the team psychologist] Steve Bull, and took the opportunity to have some time out. When I came back and had my first net, I couldn't have hit the ball any better, which proved to me there and then that the mental side of it all is as important, if not more important, than the technical side."
The ups and the downs have been dramatic, but as 2007 draws to an end, Prior still brandishes a Test batting average in excess of 40, and an average of three catches per Test. "It's going alright just now," he says, "but just around the corner is the next bloke saying you're rubbish." That may be so, but whatever comes along in the future, it's not going to come as a shock. Prior's been through the fire, and not only has he emerged with dignity; you sense he's emerged as a better player to boot.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo