Right man for the job

Matt Prior during a practice session.-AP

Matt Prior has improved behind the stumps, and his aggressive, sturdy and sometimes long-lasting batsmanship has a proper back-up so that there will always be an argument that says he can bat at No. 6 in a Test and keep wickets, writes Ted Corbett.

I am sorry to say that, both in print and in private, I have been pretty downbeat about the abilities of Matt Prior as an England wicketkeeper fit to stand up to the stumps as well as a distance back towards the sightscreen.

I recall an incident at Bristol where England were playing Australia in a limited overs game. The ground is, to be absolutely frank, not the right place for such an important match. The seats were filled, the food stalls attracted long queues as they attempted to feed the many thousands and merely walking from the TV studio to the Press Box, which I had to accomplish all too often that afternoon, was a trial.

I was not the only person who found it trying. Ian Chappell caught my eye from his Press seat and asked in his uniquely straight forward way: “Who thought this ground was the right place to stage a one-day international?”

My reply did not take long. “The same people who thought that guy was the best wicketkeeper in this country,” I answered. Chappelli nodded and gave me a long hard look and disappeared but I heard from another famous commentator later that my riposte had been the talk of their dinner that night.

I dare say that in the middle of all that chat Prior’s indifferent keeping was raised repeatedly; it was clumsy. He had arrived on the England scene with a bang by scoring a two-hour century on his debut and in 300 Tests I have never seen a better innings than that bombardment.

Sadly, for a long time his keeping was less than perfect. As someone who relished watching the perfection that was Bob Taylor, the eccentricity that was Jack Russell and the fine art that Ian Healy brought to catching the ball regularly — never mind his excellent batting — and detecting what Shane Warne was bowling, I was less than impressed.

Healy is still, by the way, my personal favourite, even though for a long time I could count Taylor and Russell as friends. What is more both Taylor of Derbyshire and Russell of Gloucestershire came from unfashionable counties, won caps and never wanted to move.

Taylor, the son of a professional footballer and the father of a lad who, he told me with a tone of deep regret, “will never be more than a club ’keeper”, never wanted to play anywhere else and Russell, lived in his county, painted his county superbly and relished every moment of his life there. I find that an attractive characteristic particularly, I guess, since I have a gypsy streak crossed with wanderlust.

There is one other ’keeper who is a friend although we rarely meet now. Bruce French was another ’keeper in the Taylor mould. He played for Nottinghamshire and briefly for England since, like Taylor, he was not a great batsman. (Actually neither was Russell but he scored a Test century and sometimes his resolute runs saved England as they did with Mike Atherton in Johannesburg nearly 20 years ago.)

French, who now climbs mountains and walks the fells, is still the same cheerful character who used to tease me about my Socialist tendency. He and his brothers came from mining backgrounds and were just as anti-authority as me — or Red Ted as I was known to part of the England team in the days when Mrs. Thatcher tamed the miners.

Prior had the good luck to meet French and learn the true art of keeping wickets. He has improved behind the stumps, and his aggressive, sturdy and sometimes long-lasting batsmanship has a proper back-up so that there will always be an argument that says he can bat at No. 6 in a Test and keep wickets.

He is as good as anyone whether it is dealing with the spin of Graeme Swann or Monty Panesar or waiting for the rearing, snorting, head high swing and swerve of Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and James Anderson and the direct stump-kicking speed of Steven Finn. Prior has the additional duty as a disciplinarian, urging wakefulness to the dozy, and greater attention from those who think deep fine leg is an excuse for forty winks. Besides that he is the constant chatterer that the professional batsman learns to ignore but whose words remain in the ears and might — it’s not cheating but gamesmanship so they tell me — disturb his concentration long enough to bring a catch to those oversized gloves.

What makes a great ’keeper? Concentration whether that is a day-long intensity or the ability to switch on and off, according to need. All these abilities make Prior the right man for the job in 2013. I have not relished his South African background — a far too frequent feature of the modern England team — and I would rather every man jack of the side were, to quote the great writer John Woodcock on Tony Greig — “English through and through.”

Instead he is one of the best in the world at the moment, fit to bear comparison with M. S. Dhoni, a cricketer from the soles of his shoes to the top of his helmet. As he approaches 33, Prior ought to be at the top of his game, with a chunk of time ahead to hone those French-induced skills and his own remorseless energy.