Initial misgivings prove false as Prior underlines his credentials

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IF there is one player I feel that I have misjudged in the course of writing about cricket it is Matt Prior.

When Prior first played Test cricket in 2007, I thought the Sussex batsman-wicketkeeper was the wrong choice.

I was firmly with those who believed that Nottinghamshire’s Chris Read should have got the job, following the interesting era of Geraint Jones.

Not only was Read the best wicketkeeper around but his batting had come on leaps and bounds since he first played Test cricket in 1999 as a callow 20-year-old against New Zealand.

Although I stand by my support of Read and consider him one of the most unfortunate players of the modern era, I can only admire what Prior has gone on to achieve.

Yesterday, after his entertaining 82 helped England to 465 on day two of the second Test against New Zealand in Wellington, which the home side closed on 66-3, Prior found himself dead-batting suggestions that he was the greatest batsman/wicketkeeper in England’s history, fit to rank alongside such as Alec Stewart and Alan Knott.

“As far as I am concerned those guys are legends of the game and I have a long way to go before I class myself alongside them,” said Prior.

“Fingers crossed, maybe one day I might be able to say ‘yes, I had a good influence on the team’.”

There is a natural tendency among those who watch and write about sport to compare and contrast players from different generations, and Prior’s statistics rank with the best.

Les Ames, who played Test cricket in the ten years leading up to the Second World War, is considered by many to have been England’s best batsman-wicketkeeper, yet Prior averages 43.72 against Ames’s 40.56 and, at 31 years old, has power to add.

He also has a superior average to Stewart, who scored 8,463 runs at 39.54, and a significantly better one than Knott, who averaged 32.75.

Although no one has been fit to lace Knott’s boots in pure wicketkeeping terms, Prior can already claim to be the best England have had in both disciplines combined, not that he ever would do, of course.

For Prior – and this is again something I underestimated – is the very definition of a team man.

Watching his early Test career, I had little inclination of it when all I saw was the brash and often irritating figure seemingly more interested in sledging opponents than getting them out.

Although Prior still talks too much on the field for my liking, with inane cries of “Bowling, Jimmy” or “Good areas, Monty” making one reach for the whisky and sleeping pills, he has always struck me as a decent chap when I have seen him in press conferences: friendly, articulate and refreshingly honest.

Yet Prior’s biggest quality is his selflessness, which is why I admire his batting so much.

He plays for the team and not for his average; you only had to watch his dismissal in Wellington – caught at short third-man reverse-sweeping in an attempt to get quick runs for the side - to understand that.

Were Prior not so selflessly minded, his statistics would be even better than they are – as they would if he batted higher than 
No 7, which he could easily do under different circumstances.

But none of his batting consistency – six hundreds and 25 fifties in 64 Tests – would have been possible but for improvements to his wicketkeeping, which is now so solid you hardly ever notice it.

That was not the case six years ago, when infuriating blunders were commonplace and Chris Read’s supporters apoplectic.

Credit must go not only to Prior but also Bruce French, the former Nottinghamshire and England wicketkeeper who helped Prior improve his footwork and speed to the ball behind the stumps.

Now Prior’s efforts in windy Wellington have put England firmly on course to take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.

After England began day two on 267-2, Jonathan Trott failed to add to his overnight 121, caught behind off Trent Boult to the first delivery of the morning he faced.

Kevin Pietersen, 18 overnight, was uncommonly watchful and typically determined, going on to 73 before holing out to deep mid-off off left-arm spinner Bruce Martin.

There were failures for Ian Bell and Yorkshire’s Joe Root, the former captured at mid-off and the latter caught behind trying to drive a wide delivery from Martin, who finished with 4-130, while Stuart Broad’s woes with the bat continued when he was caught behind for six off Boult.

But Prior and Steven Finn (24) steadied the ship, adding 83 for the eighth-wicket, Prior facing 99 balls and striking 10 fours and two sixes.

After Anderson had Peter Fulton caught at slip early in New Zealand’s reply, Broad struck twice in two balls to remove Hamish Rutherford and Ross Taylor to leave the hosts trailing by 399.

England off-spinner Graeme Swann has had a successful operation on his right elbow. Swann will undertake a six-to-eight week rehabilitation programme.