"The thing that drives you is not the technique; it comes from inside. It's not that you are fit if you hit the ball, or it's not that if you hit ball hard then you become a good sportsman," Ashwell Prince once told an interviewer. "I don't know how to explain it. I can't express my sentiments, but for me something you paint in your mind, some picture in your mind, and the next day when you wake up you want to become that. Every day I have to do my best to get closer to that picture. I have many friends more talented than I am, we played together, but you may get side-tracked by different things in life. For me it was not difficult, because I was trying to get to that picture."
That picture, on the evidence of this South African summer, is of a dogged batsman, a pressure-soaker, a fighter preying on the opposition's psyche. And an accumulator of runs that matter: 444 runs this summer, with two tons and a fifty, in four games at an average of 74, to give his team three Test wins on the trot. Prince, whose wife is Indian and who recently showed his preference for Indian bowling, has shown a stomach for bowlers from Pakistan as well. Mohammad Asif, the talented seamer who harassed the batsmen, the ambitious Danish Kaneria who sought to bend it more than Shane Warne, the support staff of Naved-ul-Hasan and Shahid Nazir; Prince made them all pay.
He's not pretty to watch; not for him the flash of the blade to decapitate the bowlers. Instead he will take the blows, soak up the pressure and counterattack with a few telling thrusts. Schoolboys won't fall in love with the game because of him but the cynical older men, who are juggling life with sport, will nod in respect.
At Centurion, he chose to bide his time against Asif and Kaneria, taking 35 runs off 102 balls, and saved the punches for Naved and Nazir. The full ball was driven past cover, the short stuff punched past point, for 91 runs off 81 deliveries. All through he displayed compact technique, remaining side-on, following the advice he received from Eldine Baptiste, the overseas player for Eastern Province and an early influence in Prince's life.
When Inzamam brought back Asif and Kaneria Prince showed them due respect with nudges and dabs; when the profligate seamers returned, so did his strokes. Finally Inzamam opted for Mohammad Hafeez, the off spinner. You could see the captain's thinking: Prince won't show Hafeez much respect, will probably attack him. The pitch is turning, it'll be an offspinner v left-hand bat, crowd the batsman in, wear him down. The trap was set.
But they reckoned without Prince, who was in no mood to flirt. He did attempt the sweep but there was no risky drive against the turn, no inside-out shots. He defended, prodded and pushed his way around. No wild swipes to massage the ego, no relaxing for a moment. Finally, after 349 minutes, and after adding 90 runs with Amla and then a massive 213 in four hours with Herschelle Gibbs, lifting South Africa from a wobbly 53 for 3 to 356 for 5, he slipped. Even then his wicket had to be prised off him as Kaneria beat him in flight and Akmal pulled off a smart stumping down the leg side . It was a marked contrast to his debut Test against Australia, where he'd scored 49 and then given his wicket away. A few more such performances and he was out of the team. But the lesson was learnt. "I was too relaxed, because I had achieved my goal: to play for South Africa. A year later I was left out of that team. That was the worst moment of my career ... I had a good look at myself. I knew what I had to do."
What he's done is post five hundreds in the last two years as he follows the road to his picture. He will never take the escalator to stardom, to paraphrase Vinod Kambli, he'll take the stairs. It's just that he'll be climbing them two at a time.
The number game
Only 57 runs of his 138 came on the off side. But interestingly, 44 of them came in boundaries
What they said
Inzamam: "I think the Prince-Gibbs partnership was key because, without that, South Africa may have been chasing about 300-400 runs, which is not easy on this track. That partnership changed the match."