Australia in South Africa 2011-12 November 7, 2011

Ashwell Prince, the quiet hero

Through his career Ashwell Prince has had doubters but he has repeatedly proved them wrong with fighting innings

Mention the Newlands Test against Australia in 2009 and Ashwell Prince's face changes. His expression, usually serious, becomes harder and his eyes, usually deep in thought, become darker. It's almost as though the hair on his arms starts to bristle, his fists clench and he gets ready to do what he has had to for most of his career: fight.

"That particular game," Prince said, frowning to remember. "Not at any stage of my career did I have more of a burning desire to do well. The fact that I opened didn't matter to me, I just wanted to go out there and prove a point. I felt I was hard done by and wanted to prove people wrong, which is what I've had to do throughout my career."

Prince scored an unforgettable 150 in that match but the joy of that achievement was overshadowed by the circumstances. He had to play at a position he was uncomfortable in, as an opening batsman.

The story has been told enough: after Prince broke his thumb ahead of the first Test against Australia in Perth in December 2008, JP Duminy took his place at No. 6 and scored a half-century in his first Test and a hundred in his second. That meant Prince was out of the XI and had to wait for the return series the next year to get another chance. When he did, it was because of an injury to Graeme Smith, who broke his hand for the second time in three months, and Neil McKenzie's loss of form.

Price did not mince his words when he explained why he was so unhappy that it took such an unexpected turn of events for him to get his spot back. "At that stage, when I got injured, I was in the top 10 batsmen in the world and I expected to get my place back. I had scored nearly 1000 runs in a calendar year and was promised that when my finger was healed, I'd be playing."

It's easy to confuse Prince's reaction with bitterness but one only needs to see him soften and smile when he concludes, "Anyway, that's water under the bridge now," to know he has moved on.

Prince has had to move on because tough times have become a regular feature of his nine-and-a-half-year career. Ask him for some of his favourite cricket memories, and he says: "There was a hundred against Australia in Sydney in 2006. If I hadn't scored that then, I probably would have been dropped. And the century at Lord's in 2008. I don't know if I will ever get the chance to play at Lord's again, so it was quite special. Also, we were in a bit of trouble in that first innings."

Prince has been the proverbial bridge over troubled waters for South Africa, often rescuing them from tricky situations. He began his career with a gritty 49 against Australia in Johannesburg in 2002, the highest score on an embarrassing South African scorecard. At least that memory he recalls with a smile. "It wasn't so much of a grind. It was my first game. I was very excited. I just played the ball as it came and that's probably the best way to play."

Circumstances meant Prince has not always been able to play that way. His team-mates describe him as the quiet hero who has saved so many games for South Africa. Though the rescue acts he has been involved in are well documented, Prince's personal achievements often do not get much recognition.

He has scored a century against every Test team except Sri Lanka, who South Africa play next year. He was also an instrumental part of South Africa's first Test series win in England since readmission, with centuries in each of the first two Tests on the 2008 tour. Solid technique may define who Prince is at the crease, but strong will defines him off it.

Prince said he developed his mental resolve when he was dropped after his first seven Tests and made to wait more than two years for another chance. "I had to go back to first-class cricket and formulate a game plan to build big innings, stay out there for a long time and wear the bowlers down because that's what Test cricket is about."

It has been almost a decade since Prince was schooled in this fashion and it's these qualities that he would like to pass on to the younger players. "I try to contribute as much as I can in team meetings, especially because I have played against most of the other teams." As one of the senior players in the squad, Prince has taken a lot of the younger charges under his wing.

"As a player of colour, the biggest thing in my career was to try to prove that people of colour are worthy of their place in the team"

Of particular importance to Prince is the nurturing of coloured players like himself, because he started playing for South Africa at a time when non-white players were struggling to come through. "As a player of colour, the biggest thing in my career was to try to prove that people of colour are worthy of their place in the team. The last thing we want is hand-outs. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing people like Hashim [Amla], JP [Duminy], Lopsy [Lonwabo Tsotsobe] and Robin [Peterson] doing as well as they are doing."

Despite his leadership qualities, and the fact that he has done it before, Prince ruled out the possibility of captaining the side. "We've got enough guys in that department, guys who are a lot younger and who will be there longer than I will. I think we have the right guys at the moment in AB [de Villiers] and Hashim [who are captain and vice-captain respectively of the limited-over side]."

Captaincy is not part of his plans but playing for as long as he can is. "I've still got a few more goals and until I achieve them I will keep trying."

One of them is making a return to the ODI format, which he last played during the 2007 World Cup. "I haven't retired from one-day cricket," he said. "If I look back at my one-day career my strike rate is probably a bit low [67.77] but then when I was selected in the team I was given a specific role. I would only bat if the team was 60 for 3. If we were 160 for 3, guys like [Justin] Kemp, [Mark] Boucher, or [Shaun] Pollock would bat. My role was to make sure we recovered when we were in trouble and if that's your role you can't strike at 100."

It sounds like another battle that Prince has had to fight and if it were anyone else they may have grown weary and considered giving up. Not Prince, who has fire in his eyes when he says that the constant doubt surrounding him has only served to spur him on. "Every time I go out there I have to prove people wrong. I've been in the team for nearly 10 years but I still have to prove a point. It keeps me on my toes because there are a lot of guys knocking on the door. Some people say it's been a bumpy ride but because I have this ambition inside myself it's definitely been worth my while."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent