One isn't sure if poltergeists from the past haunt Matt Prior — wicketkeepers, because of the nature of their job, develop the facility to swiftly banish them — but there's a particularly scary one in the woodwork here at Trent Bridge.
It was here that Prior was allegedly overheard boasting to a senior Indian batsman that he drove a swank car. Not much later jelly beans appeared on the pitch, incensing Zaheer Khan enough to bowl India to a famous victory.
Prior was inextricably linked to the episode because he was England's representative at the press-conference in which the Indian fast-bowler spelt out, missing no detail however slight, the order of the infantile proceedings.
By the time Prior's wicket-keeping broke down, in the next Test at The Oval, he was so reviled in England that he later confessed he felt he was “Public Enemy Number One”.
But so marvellously and completely has Prior recovered in the four years since that the experts who pilloried him are falling over themselves to say he is England's finest ever and the best in the world today. That's not accurate. But there's no denying that Prior has won the right to enter the discussion; redemption against India after the misery of 2007 will further his case.
“For me it's a huge series, for those reasons as much as anything,” Prior admitted. “I've been through some challenging times. But it's not whether you go through those challenging times, it's how you come out of them.”
The turnaround was due to hard, informed work. The batting came easier: Prior has always been a beautiful ball-striker, particularly on the off-side, and he worked to tighten his defensive technique. The results showed in vital cameos in the 2009 Ashes at home and his first century against Australia in Sydney this year.
Prior's unbeaten 103 at Lord's against India — his sixth Test century — was much like his hundred against Pakistan here last July. Both were sturdy innings that put off the opposition because it struck just the right note of aggression. While it isn't certain if the weakness against pace and bounce has been corrected, he's the most complete batsman at number seven in world cricket.
But the most dramatic improvement has been in Prior's glove-work.
Wicket-keeping is about repetition, about being consistently able to stay low for long, about being balanced in this half-crouch so one can push off either foot, and about ‘giving' with the ball when catching it with as large an area as possible. The difference-maker in keeping, much like in batting, is sighting the ball.
Prior worked tirelessly with former English keeper Bruce French to groove his technique. In his early days, he rose late from an awkward wide-based crouch that anchored his bodyweight in his heels and prevented him from skipping sideways; the method was refined so he could move on the balls of his feet more often. His natural athleticism, with which he flung himself when standing back, was thus easier expressed.
Inevitably, Prior has been compared with M.S. Dhoni. “It inspires you to play against the best in the world, and Dhoni is one of those,” he said. “You go into Test series and look at your opposite number and think let's have a better series than that man.”
Prior had the better of Dhoni in the first Test: two game-changing innings compared to none and a steadier display of keeping. While Dhoni is still marginally better than Prior standing up to the spinners, he struggled with the ‘wobble', the strange phenomenon of the ball swinging and dipping after passing the stumps here in England.
Kiran More, who was at Lord's, had suggested he step closer to counter-act this. But India's keeper and slip cordon (who base themselves on his position) were guilty of standing too deep in the first Test even accounting for the variable bounce, which made judging where to stand trickier.
An old flaw showed itself on occasion when keeping to the quicker bowlers in the first Test. A preliminary shift of the inside foot robbed him off the power step needed to spring across. Incidentally, Prior had the same weakness in 2007, but where the Sussex man tried to compensate by diving anyway and falling short, Dhoni, as is common with his conservative style, chose not to go.
The misses (Jonathan Trott, Stuart Broad) hurt India as much as Dhoni's lack of runs. To be fair to him, the Indian captain batted with more patience than he normally displays, but 638 runs in his last 23 innings is under-par. The battle of the wicketkeeper-batsmen mightn't define the rest of the series, but it'll be both fascinating and significant.
Keywords: India's tour of England