Cricket: England v South Africa

Performance of The Day: Matt Prior

England's belligerent wicket-keeper batsman saved the innings from collapse with his counter-attacking innings of 60

Performance of The Day: Matt Prior

A number of ingredients have come together to create England’s world-beating team. Not the least important is the emergence of Matt Prior as a world-class counter-attacking batsman.

After Alec Stewart’s retirement, England began an obsessive search for a wicket-keeper batsman. They tried Paul Nixon, Chris Read, Geraint Jones and James Foster, but none of them made the weight of runs required in a post-Gilchrist world.

Initially, even Prior didn’t measure up with the gloves, or the bat, and he had to be dropped. But he returned a more skilful and a more determined all-round cricketer.

At times, Prior irritates Channel 5 commentator Geoffrey Boycott, who thinks he gives his wicket away too readily and needs to build bigger scores. There is, of course, some truth in this criticism, which Prior has acknowledged. But it’s an accusation which will forever be levelled against an aggressive player who takes risks (Kevin Pietersen is the best example).

The only way to judge whether he is getting the balance right between caution and aggression is to look at a a batsman's overall record and Prior’s average of 42 is pretty high.  

His 60 in the first innings at The Oval was an important innings for his team. It saved England from being bowled out far more cheaply than looked likely when they made 267-3 on the first day.

South Africa’s bowling was far more menacing than on Thursd. Dale Steyn produced big looping outswingers in the muggy atmosphere, and the first few overs revealed that the battle between bat and ball had swung in favour of South Africa.

Once Steyn picked off Alastair Cook (115) and Ravi Bopara (0) in consecutive overs, the South African bowlers had their tails up and England were in danger of collapsing.

But Prior has dug England out of holes before. The last time was in the 1st game against Pakistan at Dubai, when England imploded to 43-5. He made 70 not out when no one else could buy a run, boosting the score to 192 all out. England lost the game, but Prior had done his bit.

This innings was a reminder of his counter-attacking prowess, as well as his dogged nature.

He survived a severe examination of technique in his first few overs. Philander, finding away swing, beat his edge twice with beautiful deliveries, and rapped him on the pad close to lbw. Then, Morkel passed his edge and got him in a tangle with a well-directed bouncer.

But he was not rattled and struck nine boundaries in his intimidating, brutal way which cows the opposition and lifts the home crowd’s spirits.  

He gave one chance, when Rudolph dropped him low in the slips off Morkel on 17. Had it been taken, England would have been 297-7, and contemplating a much lower score than their 385.

Prior’s importance is even greater in the absence of a convincing England number six. Without Prior at seven, teams would fancy their chances as soon as four wickets were down.

Number 6 Ravi Bopara’s nervous innings will open up the debate about his place. His confidence was too easily undermined by Steyn's hostility.

An early close call for lbw rattled him and he succumbed next ball by making as if to hook, then neglecting to play the shot. Paralysis of mind rather than a technical mistake cost him his wicket.

Prior had close calls, too, but has the ability to forget about it and hit the next ball for four. Bopara has more talent, but is yet to demonstrate Prior’s fortitude in Test matches.