The Ashes 2013-14 December 1, 2013

Prior searches for an end to slump

Cricketers often face demoralising periods of failure which they are resilient enough to survive. Matt Prior needs to arrest a prolonged batting decline to lift England's Ashes challenge

This England side relishes adversity. In fact, considering their habitually poor starts to a series, they don't just relish it, they are inured to it. And this time the adversity comes with emotional hurt attached. After the traumatic defeat in Brisbane, one of their number is missing. The imperative in Adelaide will be to give Jonathan Trott some good news to sustain him through difficult times.

Kevin Pietersen has become the image of England's "tight unit". He has slapped on the shades and the earphones and waved aside attention, especially attention from anybody resembling an Australian journalist. As he stares meaningfully into the mid-distance, one likes to imagine he is listening to something suitably reverberating. It would be a surprise to learn he is mentally crooning along to Robbie Williams.

Alice Springs, Graeme Swann and Gary Ballance apart, seemed to bring as much benefit to those who did not play as those who did. There is nowhere better than the Northern Territory, the land beyond the black stump, to hole up for a while, stare down the critics, and concentrate on the task that lies ahead.

That Alastair Cook now faces the sternest test of his captaincy should not be up for debate. The suspicion that this England side might be past its peak is stronger now than when they went 1-0 down to India in Ahmedabad a year ago but recovered to take the series. Cook's leadership is underpinned by many good qualities: personal weight of runs, conventional captaincy based on proven statistical data, and the authority arising from his understated toughness and essential fair-mindedness. But now he needs to drag a response from England that will tend to the more remarkable.

It is as such times when a captain looks to his second in command - but when Cook does he discovers one of England's most pressing problems. Matt Prior is England's Player of the Year but has had such a thin time of late that those achievements seem a world away. When he received that award at a function in London - a debatable choice ahead of James Anderson and Cook himself - his acceptance speech was strangely uncertain, as if he was not entirely comfortable with the recognition. It amplified his reputation as the ultimate team man, but he has seemed discomfited ever since.

Occasionally, a player becomes so overtaken by stress that, as in Trott's case, he can bear no more. More often than not, players are beset from time to time by something more mundane - demoralising periods of failure that bear heavily upon them but to which they are resilient enough to survive. Sometimes they bounce back, sometimes decline sets quietly upon them.

Almost nine years after his England debut in an ODI against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, Prior's career has hit problems. In his last six Ashes Tests, five of them during England's 3-0 series win in their own summer, Prior has scored only 137 runs at 15.20, hardly the contribution England would have anticipated from a player who before facing Australia last summer had a Test average of 44.34. Australia have starved his strength square of the wicket so skilfully - occasionally they have even trapped him there - they have made him look one-dimensional as a result. He has not passed fifty in first-class cricket since May, a brief restorative period with Sussex proving just as unsuccessful.

When Prior returned from New Zealand in March, the Auckland Test heroically saved and his own backs-to-the-wall hundred at the centre of it, he was hailed as a rival to Kumar Sangakkara as the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, a position achieved by maximum commitment. But as England retained the Ashes, he was outplayed by his opposite number, Brad Haddin. In Brisbane, too, it was Haddin who revived Australia's first innings from 132 for 6 in league with Mitchell Johnson, while Prior fell to two weak dismissals - a first-ball duck in the first innings, 4 in the second - two vacillating pushes to leg against the offspin of Nathan Lyon.

The observation by England's team director, Andy Flower, in the wake of the Brisbane Test that it was not just Mitchell Johnson who had wrecked England, but that soft dismissals against Lyon could not be ignored seemed aimed at Prior as much as anybody. It even encouraged speculation that Jonny Bairstow, far from being out of favour, could replace Prior at Adelaide and bat at No 7. Bairstow, after all, had been on stand-by in Brisbane before Prior's recovery from a calf injury was confirmed on the morning of the first Test.

It is just about possible to contend that Bairstow in Adelaide, on a slow, low drop-in pitch, might have a better chance of making runs than Prior in his current frame of mind. But then England move to Perth, where more pace and bounce can be expected, and where Prior, such a strong cutter, might just come back into his own, bent as he will be upon proving Australian suggestions that England are vulnerable against fast bowling are, in his own words "just plain wrong".

England, in any case, showed what they thought of the theory that Prior might be stepped down in Adelaide by batting him at No. 4 in Alice Springs and declaring their first-innings before Bairstow, coming in well down the order, got too many runs for it to be embarrassing. Prior looks bound to play his 59th consecutive Test in Adelaide.

Prior's pugnacious nature has shone through before, in good times and bad, never more so than when he phoned up Kevin Pietersen at the height of his stand-off with the ECB

"Obviously I am in a slump of form," Prior accepted in his ghosted column in the Daily Telegraph. "The only thing you can do is front up and get stuck in." But the uneasy feeling remains that as well as his struggles with Achilles problems, the vice-captaincy has not sat easily on him. To combine the formidable equilibrium of Cook with the more vigorous, outspoken Prior, on the face of it, was a sound move, but the longer he goes without a meaningful score, the more one wonders if the additional role really suits him.

Haddin, by contrast, is clearly an ideal foil for Michael Clarke. Haddin steadies Clarke's captaincy on the field, and he is even more important off it, the solid senior professional who acts as a conduit between the players and a captain who can become a little distant from the earthier aspects of a cricket dressing room.

Prior has conquered tough times before. It is too late in any case to consider moving to America and taking up baseball like he did the first time he was dropped after 10 Tests by England, back in 2007 after a bungling keeping display on a tour of Sri Lanka. Now, unusually, it is his batting which is under review. But his pugnacious nature has shone through before, in good times and bad, never more so than when he phoned up Pietersen at the height of his stand-off with the ECB and told him that the dispute was damaging the dressing room and had to end.

Ahead of him lies Alan Knott's England record of 269 dismissals, but he would be foolish to look that far into the distance. If he focuses his craggy stare on anything, it should be Adelaide and Haddin in particular because a recovery would begin by outdoing his opposite number. That he would outperform Haddin was regarded by many observers as a formality in May, but six Tests into a 10-Test contest, it is Haddin whose stock has risen. If Prior does not reverse the trend, England's task will be so much harder.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo