Wicketkeeper Matt Prior on the mouth-watering series with South Africa which begins on Thursday
There is no doubting Matt Prior’s excitement as England prepare to face South Africa in the First Test at The Kia Oval on Thursday.
South Africa, third in the world, could replace England at top of the rankings and the wicketkeeper is expecting a series worthy of the prize, even if it is over three rather than his preferred five Tests.
“This is a sterner challenge than the team’s had for a long time,” says Prior. “It’s going to be massive but the guys are really excited. You always want to face the best.
“I would have loved to have played five Tests, absolutely. It would have been a great series. Three Tests means we have to hit the series running. There is no margin for error. In a five-Test series, you can get away with making a slow start, pull it back.”
Prior believes the challenge is greater because “South Africa are actually a very similar team to us”.
“Both teams have strong bowling and batting line-ups,” he adds.
Like England, South Africa play one spinner, Imran Tahir, and although he is no Shane Warne — they did both play for Hampshire — Prior insists: “Tahir’s a decent spinner. He turns his googly quite a lot.”
Dale Steyn, the best bowler in the world for the last three years, already sees South Africa as No1 and will use his pace to help prove the point but Prior is certain Jimmy Anderson can match him. “They’re both class acts, very similar,” he says. “Both are genuine away swingers. I wouldn’t say one is quicker than the other.”
Is England’s batting better than the tourists’, particularly after the dreadful eye injury that forced Mark Boucher home? Prior seems ready to agree but then checks himself: “I’m slightly superstitious, so I don’t want to say that and then they end up scoring 500 every time they bat. They’ve got some class batters: Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla.”
England did revisit their horrific batting collapses of the distant past against Pakistan in the winter but, for Prior, that is history. “We’ve got that comfort zone of playing in the home conditions that we enjoy,” he says.
“If both teams perform to their best, I believe that we’ll win the series.”
Of course, no discussion about the teams’ similarities would be complete without cynics scoffing that four of the side England will field for the first Investec Test — skipper Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Prior, himself — were born in South Africa.
Now 30, Prior lived there until he was 11 — he can still recall being caned during his strict South African schooling — but dismisses any talk of divided loyalties.
“In our dressing room we’re very proud of being English and very patriotic,” he adds.
Sitting in the Hove Long Room surrounded by portraits of cricketing greats such as Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji and CB Fry, Prior conveys a sense of the new England that has emerged over the last couple of years.
“It is probably not very English to be ruthless and, when a team are down, to really hammer them. It’s a mentality that we’ve identified and taken on. When you get half a sniff of winning, make sure that you nail it and win well.”
The change has come, in part, he says: “Because a lot of the guys had experienced the ruthlessness of the Aussies over a 10-year period.”
It has also helped that many of the players grew up together.
He adds: “I’d played a lot of cricket at youth level with Anderson, [Stuart] Broad, [Graeme] Swann and [Alastair] Cook. We played in a certain way that developed and we all ended up in the full England team together.”
This has bred a club England feeling, although Prior does have a special bond with Broad.
“Stuart’s my best mate in the team,” he reveals. “I enjoy batting with Broadie. We play very well together and we’ve had some really good partnerships. He likes to play attacking cricket and so do I and we run hard. He is a talker.”
Prior feels he owes his century against Sri Lanka at Lord’s last summer to Broad’s promptings.
He says: “He really helped me get from 90 to 100. If I played a loose shot, he’d come down and have a go at me almost like my mother would.”
There is, however, nothing motherly about off-spinner Swann. “In the dressing room, he’s the joker in the pack. He and Jimmy are a pretty good double act, taking the mickey out of Tim Bresnan the whole time. Any dressing room would love to have a Graeme Swann. The only time he is quiet is when you are batting with him.”
Prior wishes that Swann would be a bit quieter when England are deciding whether to use the review system to challenge an lbw decision. Prior, Strauss and the appealing bowler are the trio which decide but England’s premier spinner can make the job challenging.
“When Swannie’s bowling, he’s adamant everything’s out,” says Prior. “So he’s running down going, ‘That’s out, we have to refer, we have to refer.’
“Strauss looks at me and I say, ‘I don’t think that’s out,’ and we don’t refer it. It’s a very nervous couple of minutes before you see the screen. Then you see the batsman’s either hit it or it’s bouncing over the top by two foot and going down leg side and you can relax.”
Swann’s histrionics apart, Prior feels that England have worked out the system. “When the DRS first came out, you almost saw it as a chance to try and nick a wicket. But that’s not the point of it. It’s just to eradicate that really bad decision. That doesn’t happen often.
“We’ve worked out that, for a decision to be overruled, it has to be clattering all the stumps, it can’t just be clipping. Sometimes you have a nightmare and you get it wrong. But we’re getting pretty good on what to go for and what not to. You just hope to God that you haven’t got it wrong, especially with Swannie bowling.”
And what if Swann were to become captain? Prior laughs, “He thinks he’d be a good captain. I don’t think he would be but he would be good fun.”
The one England bowler who gives Prior the jitters is Graham Onions. “I always get a bit nervous when I see his name on the team sheet. For a wicketkeeper, he is an absolute nightmare because he gets the ball to wobble so much more than any other bowler. It makes me look a complete idiot.
“You have no idea because the ball suddenly moves. He’s not got any control over it, that’s the thing. Arrgh, it’s an absolute nightmare.”
Prior’s introduction to Test cricket was marked by a similar nightmare. Having become the first England keeper to hit a century on his debut (at Lord’s in 2007) against the West Indies, he was dropped for the 2008 tour of New Zealand. He says: “I felt absolutely devastated. As a young kid, you dream of making 100 on your England debut at Lord’s. The dream comes true but then your nightmare happens and you are dropped. Where do you go from there?”
Prior found out he’d been axed while on holiday in New York but, nine months later, he was back to defy the doom-mongers.
“Athers [Michael Atherton] said to me once, just remember you’re never as bad as they say you are, but you’re never as good as they say you are either. If I I’m not keeping well, I’ll speak to Bruce French. If I’m out of nick with the bat, I’ll speak to [batting coach] Graham Gooch or [head coach ] Andy Flower.”
All this has made Prior so indispensible that he says: “I love being the drummer of the England band. I thrive on the responsibility of it.”
But he knows very well that this series and the next one in India will define how good this band really is.
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