Matt Prior in Australia earlier this year
In the last decade, England has transformed from an inconsistent, defensively natured side, into a world dominating, aggressive eleven. An influx of fresh faces, a new head coach and completely changed mindset has lead them to the number one position in the ICC Test rankings. Andrew Strauss and his men have looked a different class against Australia, Sri Lanka and most notably India. Having retained the prized Ashes away from home, England decimated India in a 4-0 whitewash where the tourists were completely outplayed.
There are many reasons for the success of this formidable side. Great captaincy, immense depth and a positive outlook are all contributing factors. However, I believe one of the most important, yet one of the most overlooked, is the fact England possess a world class wicketkeeper. Matthew James Prior has had an amazing impact on the side and I strongly believe he is the source of many of the triumphs England has achieved in the recent Test arena.
If we look back at the great Test sides they all contained a great wicketkeeper. The West Indies side of the '80s contained a little remembered face named Jeffrey Dujon. This man scored close to 3,500 test runs at an average of almost 30, in addition to being a great keeper behind the stumps at a time where batting was secondary. The recent world dominating Australian side contained the greatest of them all, Adam Gilchrist. He scored over 5,000 runs at an average of 47, while having an incredible strike rate of 81.95. Gilchrist redefined the modern wicketkeeper as someone who, not only is valuable behind the stumps, but scores heavily in front of them.
While being smashed by the Australians left, right and centre, England has always been searching for their version of Gilchrist. The closest they came was Alec Stewart, until he decided to become a batsman. They then toiled with Tim Ambrose, Geraint Jones and even Paul Nixon to no avail. Then on May 17th 2007, Matthew Prior walked out into the middle to face West Indies.
Unfortunately England, at that point, had not found their Gilchrist. They had found a man with batting talent, yet little wicket keeping ability. Matt Prior looked shocking behind the stumps and needed serious work. Yet, to me, it was clear the selectors desperately wanted a keeper who could provide depth in the batting order. If they did not, they would have picked James Foster, who is excellent with the gloves, but less so with the bat. Some were calling for Prior to be dropped, not from the side, as he had made a hundred on debut, but from the position of wicketkeeper.
To give him credit, Prior worked hard at his catching and positioning at the stumps. Disappointingly he failed to improve as more than a few spilled chances against Sri Lanka showed. He was dropped from the side in early 2008. This reflected his poor form with the gloves, and sometimes inconsistent scores with the bat despite looking in good nick overall. He was a frustrating talent who many believed could do very good things, yet had failed, up to that point, in fulfilling his evident potential.
His new dawn was to come, not when he was recalled in late 2008, but when a fellow wicketkeeper, Andrew Flower, took over as head coach of England. Flower had arguably been as important as Gilchrist in redefining the role of the keeper. The Zimbabwean scored in excess of 4,700 runs at an astonishing average of 51.54, with 12 hundreds. Flower was also a decent wicketkeeper in a struggling Zimbabwe side that eventually got kicked out of Test cricket, before being reinstated early this year. Prior is only half-way to repeating that quantity of runs, but at the age of 29, still has many more matches to play.
The effectiveness of Flower cannot be underestimated, yet it was the introduction of another man that truly changed Prior's career for the better. Former England wicketkeeper Bruce French was the first man to be employed as the full-time wicket keeping coach of England. French helps Prior on a daily basis with all the intricacies of keeping. This one to one time has made Prior the best wicketkeeper in the world, and a valuable asset to the England team.
Matt Prior has averaged 50 in a series six times, out of the ten played since 2009. Batting at number seven, since 2009, he has passed 50 on thirteen occasions and has scored five centuries. These are staggering stats. In his whole career he averages 44.71 with a strike rate of 66.95. This is the third highest strike rate of someone who has batted at seven and has scored over 1000 Test runs, behind only Shahid Afridi and Adam Gilchrist himself.
You may be wondering why I am constantly bringing up strike rates, as in Test cricket they appear largely irrelevant. Yet for someone batting down at seven, behind all the batting strength England possess currently, it is vitally important. England requires impetus and momentum from their lower order. I want Prior to make a run-a-ball fifty and lift the score quickly, so as to leave the bowlers with enough time to bowl the opposition out and therefore win the game. Alastair Cook is a very good batsman, but you would not stick him in at number seven because he could lose you the game. Prior is the icing on the England cake.
There is no doubt that Prior is not only a wonderful batsman, but also a great wicketkeeper. If we look at the series just gone and compare the two keepers there is no question who wins in every category, Prior. MS Dhoni made wicket keeping look painstakingly difficult, however the Englishman (born in South Africa) made it look a doddle. We must remember that there are still some questioning who's better, Dhoni or Prior? I have given you Prior's stats, now I will give you those of Dhoni.
The Indian skipper has a considerably lower average at 38.14, has scored only four centuries and also has a lower strike rate. This all comes having played 25 more innings than Prior. Coupled with the Indian's evidently weaker keeping skills, Matt Prior must be the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the world, no question. The old 'saying stats don't lie' is relevant here. I am unable to comprehend how some still fail to recognize Prior as number one in the Test arena.
These statistics and comparisons all give backing to my argument that Matt Prior has been the most crucial part in the Flower and Strauss reign. I mentioned earlier he is the icing on the cake, yet he can be so much more important than that. He has scored 'big' runs for England as well as finishing the innings. He has the ability to bat with the tail and in doing so crush the opposition mentally. If you get a side five or six wickets down, you would be forgiven in thinking you are almost home and dry. However, with Prior and the tail, another 150-200 runs could be added. The great Australian side pummeled the opposition, often England, physically and mentally. By scoring in excess of 600 runs you virtually remove the opposition's chance of winning, and only having a great lower order batsman can this be regularly achieved.
This is why Prior is so crucial to England's success in the last few years. Not only does he provide tactical knowledge from behind the stumps, but is a batsman who would get in most international team's top five, and every team's top seven. Many believe Prior is wasted at seven, yet that is where his talent is best exploited. Prior is an impact player and has been a huge reason why England has risen to be the number one side in the world over the past two years. He has grown as a player in all departments, and this is great to see.