Steve Waugh is his hero

Prince has made the right strides this season. His valiant but fruitless 97 in the first Test against India at the Wanderers was a knock oozing character. Then, his first innings 121 at Kingsmead proved a match-winner. The South African spoke to S. Dinakar.

There is no love lost between the Australians and the South Africans. Steve Waugh batted right-handed, yet it's not really surprising that the left-handed Ashwell Prince admires the former Australian captain.

Says the 29-year-old from Port Elizabeth — "He was tough. He never gave away his wicket easily."

Prince puts a price on his wicket — "I don't mind if I get out to a good delivery. But I hate being dismissed playing a rash stroke."

South African captain Graeme Smith calls him a "serious pressure player."

Smith knows. Time after time, the tenacious Prince has bailed South Africa out of stressful situations. He makes his starts count.

Prince's cricket conceals a combative streak. He travels back to Waugh. "I still remember the picture, Steve Waugh and Curtly Ambrose glaring at each other from close in the West Indies."

Prince is intense and focussed in the middle-order, cutting out the frills for solidity. He also believes in rather old fashioned but timeless virtues — "give the first hour to the bowler, take the rest."

He comprehends the percentages, squeezing the ball through the gaps, running hard between the wickets. On the field, he can be deceptively quick in the circle; a shoulder injury prevents him from patrolling the outfield.

The left-hander has made the right strides this season. His valiant but fruitless 97 in the first Test against India at the Wanderers was a knock oozing character. Then, his first innings 121 at Kingsmead proved a match-winner.

Prince was the critical link between the South African top and the bottom half and the host desperately needed runs from him. The top-order was wobbly, and there was no Jacques Kallis at No. 4. in the second Test. Prince dug in, then consolidated.

He has worked on his technique. He no longer crouches as much in his stance as he used to and plays closer to his body. His backlift is straighter and this has improved his judgment in the corridor outside the off-stump.

Actually, Prince has a lot more strokes than he appears to possess. He can strike the ball crisply through the off-side — in the wide arc between point and extra cover — and whip it off his legs. He is stronger off his back-foot, which also reflects the kind of pitches he has been brought up on.

He does not get ruffled by either pace or bounce and is adequate against spin, without being authoritative. Kallis, with his technique and levels of concentration, is his favourite South African batsman.

It must have been satisfying for Prince to combine well with the right-handed Kallis when South Africa was in a spot of bother on the final day of the Newlands Test. Their partnership shut India out and a series was won.

Prince does revel in adversity. His 138 against the Pakistanis in the recent first Test at the Centurion — his sixth Test hundred — was a typically gutsy effort. Once again South Africa carried the day.

Along the way, he has handled well, S. Sreesanth's two-way swing, Zaheer Khan's precision, Mohammed Asif's swing and seam and the guile and craft of Anil Kumble and Danish Kaneria.

He found Sreesanth tough to handle — "He gets the ball to hold its line across the left-handers."

Prince is also an honest, practical man who admits his job in the middle-order is easier than that of the top-order batsmen, who have to face the new, shiny ball.

Importantly, Prince fits in the South African gameplan. The patient left-hander can string together partnerships with the right-handers and the bowlers are forced to switch their line. Prince — 27 Tests, 1698 runs, 43.53 — has matured into a reliable batsman after a hesitant start. His 119 against Australia in Sydney, 2006, was, in several senses, a path-breaking innings for him.

Shane Warne harried him subsequently, but Prince rates Glenn McGrath as the most difficult to face. "He gets bounce and movement from a great line."

Prince became South Africa's first coloured captain when Smith and Kallis were injured, and led the national side to Sri Lanka last year. He almost snatched a series-levelling victory in the second Test with a depleted team and says ruefully, "We didn't deserve to lose 2-0."

His ODI record — 38 matches, 870 runs, 39.54 — is not something to be scoffed at either, although he does not figure in the side these days. He was allotted Jonty Rhodes' scuttling role in the middle-order before the team-management decided to opt for a bigger hitter.

Prince, though, has hit big times in Tests. The man who plays the waiting game is leaving the rest behind.