By Bharath Ramaraj
As New Zealand prepared to take on their formidable foes England in a three-Test series, everyone expected nothing less than the English bestriding the Kiwis, and completing a whitewash. But cricket, as the cliché goes, is a game full of glorious uncertainties. On the fifth and the final day at Auckland, it was surprisingly the Kiwis who needed just six wickets to checkmate England, and win the Test series 1-0.
At 159 for six on the fifth day, England found themselves in a precarious position. With the English team’s hopes of salvaging a draw hanging by a thread, it needed someone to step up-to the plate to thwart the Kiwis from causing a gargantuan upset. Enter England’s wicket-keeper Matt Prior, who pulled off a coup de theatre act to steer England to safety with a match saving hundred.
In a cauldron of bubbling tensions at the Auckland stadium, Matt Prior with his trademark fortitude and immense concentration prowess was able to blunt New Zealand’s attack into submission. During his defiant rearguard action, Prior also did shepherd the likes of Broad and Monty Panesar, and guided them during their stay at the crease.
Prior’s game is built on the old adage of playing each ball on its merit. If a ball is there to be hit, Prior will waste no time in taking advantage of it by sending the ball racing to the boundary boards. At Auckland, the Kiwis had pinned down the English batsmen with parsimonious bowling. With those dramatic flourishes of swivel pulls and rapier-like cuts, Prior changed the scenario by transmuting the way his teammates played. His great extension of hands, and the precise metre of timing helped him to penetrate the interstices of the ring field that had been set to entrap Prior into making a mistake.
If we look back at Prior’s career with a bird’s eye view, he went through hard facts of life very early in his career. His parents separated when he was young, and he had to go through the mental trauma of watching his mother battle for life with breast cancer. Prior was gritty enough to face the hard truth and take the life head on.
The then Sussex coach Peter Moores, who always had a great eye for spotting young talent took him under his wing, and selected him to play for Sussex against Worcestershire in 2001. In spite of some consistent performances for his county Sussex, he was largely ignored by the national selectors. Duncan Fletcher always seemed to prefer Geraint Jones to the likes of Read, Foster and Prior. Prior did make his one-day debut in Zimbabwe in 04-05, but playing Test cricket still remained a distant dream. It finally took the resignation of Fletcher, and the appointment of Peter Moores as the coach of England, for Prior to be selected to play test cricket in ’07.
Prior’s critics weren’t convinced about his selection, as they said that Peter Moores was biased in his judgment. It didn’t bother Prior one bit, as he answered his detractors with a sparkling century in his debut test against West Indies. There were still lingering doubts about Prior’s ability as a wicket-keeper.
During the series against India at home in 207 and in Sri Lanka in 2007-08, Prior went through a horrible period as a wicket-keeper. Every time the left-arm swing bowler Ryan Sidebottom induced an edge, it seemed like Prior would drop the chance. The left armer’s angle proved to be the Achilles’ heel for Prior.
With a willow in his hand, he was still able to shrug off his poor form as a keeper by scoring runs. For his poor wicket-keeping form, he was subsequently dropped from the test side. Interestingly, he was replaced in the test side by his former Sussex teammate Tim Ambrose.
Prior took that major setback in his stride, as along with former English wicket-keeper Bruce French, he worked hard on his keeping, and made a stunning comeback into the test side in 08-09 in India. In that series in India, he didn’t just shore up the brittle lower-order of England with vital runs, but it could be noticed that his keeping attributes had come up by leaps and bounds. Even as a batsman, he had added another string to his bow by improving his defence. With an abundance of sweat, blood and toil, Prior had passed his trial by fire with flying colours.
Since his comeback into the test side, Prior has not only amassed 3075 at an impressive average of 46.59, but has also effected 168 dismissals as a wicket-keeper. At Auckland, by bouncing on his toes, and with a superman-like leap, he took a stunning catch to send Peter Fulton back to the pavilion. In many ways, it was a testimony to the hard work he has put in as a keeper. Prior is also the quintessential team man. When England was dogged by internal conflicts last year, it was Prior who tried to be the peacemaker between Kevin Pietersen and rest of the players.
When English cricket’s resurgence in the last few years is talked about, the contributions of Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann and James Anderson are highlighted. But we rarely see Prior’s name being discussed. Hopefully, his heroic rearguard action in the final test at Auckland would bring his name further into the limelight. Matt Prior is no doubt the unsung hero of English cricket.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)