Prior: a man for all seasons

It can take the bumps in the road to jolt the senses. When England steamrollered West Indies at the start of the year, no England cricketer stood out from the pack; no-one had to. During the last two weeks, the most difficult of Andrew Strauss’s captaincy, the call came and one player answered it resoundingly. Leadership, eh? It comes from strange places.

Strange when you consider that five years ago, this was a headline in a national newspaper: ‘Matt Prior the buffoon should grow up.’ The headline wasn’t underserved either, although those who recall the ‘Jelly Bean row’ of the Trent Bridge Test of 2007, when England were accused of childishness by garlanding an incoming Indian batsman’s path with Jelly Beans, will remember that Prior was falsely accused.

Falsely accused, but fair game.  At that stage, Prior was regarded as world-class at only one thing, being lippy and irritating behind the dollies. As for the rest of his game? Well, that was what coaches like to call ‘a work in progress.’ His ambition was never in doubt, but he had a long way to travel. He was talented but inconsistent with the bat; slow and ponderous behind the sticks, with hands as hard as a dictator’s heart.

He is now an outstanding cricketer, world-class with bat and gloves and, as we saw perhaps for the first time publically this week, not without leadership claims. His playing ability, there for all to see during the attempted heist on the final afternoon, has been long recognised, recognition that was capped off by his recent nomination for the ICC Test cricketer of the year, 2012. His leadership claims have been more obscured, though, but they came to the fore in the build-up to and during the Lord’s Test.

Whilst Pietersen was sulking outside the tent in the run-up to the game, the reaction of those within the England dressing room varied. Some, sensibly probably, kept their heads down; others, Jimmy Anderson for example, wrote newspaper articles hinting, but not having the courage to say, that it was time to move on; others toed the party line; Tim Bresnan, put up before the media two days prior to the Test, gave the impression of a man who had just woken from a year-long sleep, unaware of any developments in that time. The Andocracy turned their backs.

Only one man, to our knowledge, behaved with a mixture of maturity, good sense and courage and that was Prior, who took it upon himself to ring up Pietersen and talk to him about what was going on. He didn’t do it for his own benefit, or because it would make him look good, rather he did it selflessly for the team, much in the same way that he has always batted, putting the team’s needs ahead of inflating his average.   It was Pietersen, not Prior, who referred to the conversation with a team-mate in his YouTube mea culpa. He did not name Prior, rather talked about a team-mate with whom he had had a clear-the-air conversation which, according to Pietersen at least, had done exactly that. Prior told Andy Flower of his efforts only after the phone call and when asked was at pains to say that he had not done it because he was a ‘mate’ of Pietersen’s, rather because it was in the team’s best interest.

If that was the first eye-opener, there were a couple of other moments during and after the Test that made me think. The first was when he dropped Hashim Amla on two on the third evening, a mistake that, it could be argued, cost England the match. By any standards, it was a difficult catch given that he had to make ground down the leg-side and then take the ball one-handed. Prior’s reaction on Twitter? ‘Bad day at the office for me. Gutted about it, but we’re only human and tomorrow is another day.’ There was no attempt to hide behind the degree of difficulty of the catch or the consequences, rather it said a great deal about the standards he now sets himself and the honesty with which he deals with any disappointments.

There was further disappointment to follow the day after the game. There was some expectation that Prior’s outstanding form might earn him a way back into England’s one-day plans, but instead the selectors kept faith with Craig Kieswetter, so that looks as though Prior’s time in one-day cricket has gone. His reaction was similar: he said he was ‘gutted’ but at the same time he was generous towards a Sussex team-mate, Luke Wright, who was given the nod for Sri Lanka.

A difficult week, then, but one in which Prior has done himself no harm. On the field, not everything went his way, what with the dropped catch and the two dismissals to Vernon Philander. Driving without due care and attention to the second new ball once was fair enough; twice was sloppy. Still, his brazen optimism and wonderful skill on that final afternoon won a lot of hearts, just as his behaviour on and off the field suggested his character has deeper fathoms to explore.

The point about leadership is apposite. Whilst Strauss ponders his options, it is highly likely that he will take the team to India, but the questions marks are far more relevant now than they were, say, before the Colombo Test in March this year. His batting appears to be in gentle decline and should things not go well on the sub-continent, he and the selectors may feel the time has come for a change.

Alastair Cook is the anointed successor and there is little to suggest that he will not get the job. But it is always good to have alternatives. There has never been, to my knowledge, a great captain who has been a wicket-keeper, although Mahendra Singh Dhoni has done a good enough job in one-day cricket, and only nine wicket-keepers have captained ten or more Tests. The demands of both are simply too great.

But what Prior has shown over the last two years is that he would walk into England’s top six as a batsman alone. There are plenty of good young wicket-keeper batsmen out there, Kieswetter being one, Steven Davies and Jonny Bairstow being others. If wicket-keeping is a young man’s game, captaincy, as Strauss has shown, is best experienced at full maturity. It is an intriguing thought.