His priorities are right

Published : Aug 08, 2009 00:00 IST

“He’s (Bruce French) been absolutely fantastic. He’s changed my thinking towards ’keeping as well as my technique.”-AP “He’s (Bruce French) been absolutely fantastic. He’s changed my thinking towards ’keeping as well as my technique.”
“He’s (Bruce French) been absolutely fantastic. He’s changed my thinking towards ’keeping as well as my technique.”-AP “He’s (Bruce French) been absolutely fantastic. He’s changed my thinking towards ’keeping as well as my technique.”

“He’s (Bruce French) been absolutely fantastic. He’s changed my thinking towards ’keeping as well as my technique.”-AP “He’s (Bruce French) been absolutely fantastic. He’s changed my thinking towards ’keeping as well as my technique.”

England's batsman-cum-keeper Matt Prior has been working hard with former gloveman Bruce French to improve his skills behind the stumps. By Paul Weaver.

At Portslade Cricket Club Matt Prior was scrutinised only by the grinning, upturned faces of autograph hunters; there were no TV cameras and not a single former England captain or 'keeper to make grave, analytical judgments.

In the middle of the industrial sprawl of Portslade, a short drive from his new home in Hove, his comparative anonymity seemed to please him. This dual-purpose cricketer has been under pressure for much of his short international career.

It is his 'keeping, mostly, which has been under the microscope, though such is the forensic detail with which players' performances are examined these days that when he scored 14 and eight between his two Ashes 50s this summer some even questioned his berth at No. 6. "It does turn round very quickly," he says. "There were two innings where I hadn't got a score, in the second at Cardiff and the first at Lord's, and already people were questioning my technique."

In the absence of Kevin Pietersen he is the side's leading batsman (he averages 46.3 after 20 Tests) and its pivotal all-rounder. His batting has retained the fluency that saw him announce himself to Test cricket with a thunderclap, 126 on debut against West Indies at Lord's in 2007.

Like Les Ames and Jim Parks before him, he is probably good enough to play for England as a batsman. A natural counter-attacker, his driving and cutting make him a powerful off-side player but one who has also displayed attritional skills against spinners on the sub-continent. It is the improvement behind the wicket, though, that has brought security. "I'm really happy with my 'keeping," he said. "I've worked hugely hard on it."

He has been working alongside a man who also kept wicket brilliantly, for Nottinghamshire and England, Bruce French. "I got together with Frenchy before the one-day series against South Africa last year. And he's been absolutely fantastic. He's changed my thinking towards 'keeping as well as my technique."

It was technical deficiencies and dropped catches in Sri Lanka at the end of 2007 that re-opened the argument: do you play the purer 'keeper or the man who will shore up the batting even if he performs with less distinction on the other side of the stumps? In the last Test, in Galle, Prior dropped perhaps one too many to save his place and the sight of a furious, festering Ryan Sidebottom, who suffered more than any other bowler, has lodged in the memory. The arrows flew in his direction and he was stung by the criticism.

"My days of being annoyed about it are long gone," he says, not wholly convincingly. "Some things said and written were unfair, and they came from people who had never caught a ball in their lives, let alone with 'keeping gloves on, so they didn't know what they were looking for."

Prior, though, went away and improved. "I was always a batter, always loved batting. I always wanted to go in the nets and hit balls. I wanted to score hundreds. And maybe I didn't work enough on my 'keeping. I worked maybe 80% on my batting and that left only 20% for my 'keeping. That has changed round so now I work harder on my 'keeping than my batting."

The 27-year-old jumps from the dressing room bench he is sitting on. "Let me show you," he says. "Frenchy is massive on the posture of a wicketkeeper. He talks about having a `Z' shape in your body, so you can use your knees and your hips, using both levers. That also enables you to move sideways better. If you're too low, you have to come up before you can move. If you're too high, it's the same thing. My posture wasn't right. It wasn't allowing me to move. When people said I wasn't athletic I found it really strange. Because if I was fielding at extra cover I would be one of the more athletic fielders. I could move well and quickly. But when I was 'keeping that wasn't coming out."

This is borne out by Rod Marsh, the former Australia wicketkeeper and ECB academy director, who described Prior as a world-class fielder "in the ring" when he was not 'keeping wicket.

"My set-up wasn't quite right. But we've worked very hard on being in the right position and it's made a huge difference. Those balls down the leg-side that I wasn't getting, I'm now able to reach, and reach comfortably, without having to make a really big stretch. And again it comes down to consistency. If you're doing something comfortably, you can do it consistently. If it's hard, and you're stretching for everything, consistency is not going to be there. That is the major thing - I've got my posture right."

Prior, who is powerfully built by wicket-keeping standards, has also lost weight. "I was pretty stocky. I got too caught up in weights and got a bit heavy. I've made an effort to lean down. I've changed in the way I train. I'm no longer obsessed with lifting weights. And I do a huge amount of running."

In wicket-keeping terms Prior is a cross-dresser, mixing the conventional English style (taking the ball in the middle of his body) with the Australian style (taking it on the inside hip). "I've got bits of both. I like the Aussie way because it gets you moving around. But in England, with the ball ducking and weaving around after it's passed the bat, it's risky. Again, Frenchy has been brilliant, telling me he still wants me to do things my way."

Prior, though, is admirably dissatisfied with the notion of being simply better; now he wants to be a portrait of an artist. England, more than any other country, has enjoyed the services of the craftsman wicketkeeper, the antithesis of the batsman- cum-backstop which has become the modern trend.

Godfrey Evans was brilliant enough to take the breath away, even when playing charity cricket in middle age; at Northampton in the 1950s, slip fielders said that Keith Andrew had such good hands that they could not hear the ball going into his gloves. Then came Bob Taylor, Alan Knott, French and Jack Russell.

"You can't catch everything," Prior says. "But my goal is to become a craftsman of a 'keeper, like Russell, Knott, like all those guys. My real goal is to be the best wicketkeeper in England and average 50 in Tests. That is my ultimate ambition and, if I achieve it, I'll be very proud of myself."

For some purists it is almost as if the batting detracts from the 'keeping, that Taylor must have been a better 'keeper than Knott because he scored fewer runs. Many experts, including his England captain, Ray Illingworth, and opposite number Marsh, placed Knott ahead of Taylor purely as a 'keeper, because of his superior skills when taking spin.

"You can't win," says Prior. "When Alec Stewart retired everyone said what a fantastic 'keeper and batter he was. But until that day he had to fight constant battles with people who wanted Russell in. Well, I don't want to retire just yet."

He has, he says, a certain mental strength. "People like Andy Flower and Stewy, Frenchy and Mushy (Mushtaq Ahmed) have been fantastic. But the mental side of my game is the most important. I've got a huge belief in myself that I can perform, not only in the good times but under pressure too. Outside people can't give you determination. You have to find that within yourself to want to be in the gym at six in the morning, to want to be able to do the extra bit of work after the day's training is over."

When Prior started his Test career he was linked, together with other England close fielders, with putting off the India batsman Zaheer Khan by distributing jelly beans close to the crease at Trent Bridge, as well as some ill-aimed sledging in the same series. "I was accused of being a motor-mouth. When I first came in I was a little over-excitable and maybe I did speak too much - though I didn't say some of the things I've been accused of. All I was trying to do was keep the guys going on the field."

Two years on he seems more rounded, both as a cricketer and as a man. He rarely misses the chance to play golf but his new family, his wife Emily and five-month-old son, Johnny, with whom he is moving to a quieter home, has given him the stability he needed. "When you are playing international sport you're in this bubble and it's not a realistic world. Whether I get 100 or nought, I will go home and my wife will give me a hug. And I will change my boy's nappy and he will smile, because whatever I've just done on a cricket field, in his reality it doesn't matter. That's a great grounding to have."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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