Matt Prior is currently regarded as one of the finest wicketkeeper-batsmen in Test cricket, so you wouldn’t expect him to be ruffled by the prospect of a little competition. With England set to give a debut to Jonny Bairstow in the first Test against West Indies at Lord’s, Prior said he is actually enjoying the presence of a fellow gloveman in the dressing room – though if his 22-year-old team-mate enjoys a similar Test debut to the one Prior made five years ago, he may scratch his beard and mull the question a little more deeply next time he’s asked.
Prior made an unbeaten 126 in his first Test in 2007, against the same opponents on the same ground, and despite a brief period when he lost the gloves to Tim Ambrose at the start of 2008 has carved an unassailable niche for himself as England’s wicketkeeper in the long format. Bairstow, who keeps wicket for Yorkshire and was behind the stumps for the Lions’ ten-wicket win over the West Indians last week, is expected to play as a specialist batsman, coming in at No.6, but Prior is not worried about welcoming a man who could become a rival for his spot into the side. At least not yet, anyway.
“If he smashes a double hundred and I get nought he’ll probably become a rival pretty quickly,” Prior said, with a laugh. “He’s a team-mate, obviously he’s a wicketkeeper as well, but there are a number of wicketkeepers around the country and there always has been. Whether they’re in the team or playing county cricket I know that I have to perform well to keep my place.
“It’s always exciting when a player like Jonny comes through into the squad, he’s settled in very well. It’s nice to form a relationship with another keeper because ultimately he’s the only other bloke in the room that knows what it’s like to be a keeper. It’s hugely exciting for Jonny this week and if he does get selected to make his debut it will be a great feeling I’m sure.”
Prior, who has made three of his six Test tons at Lord’s, including two in his last two Test matches at the ground, is the sort of player who would not begrudge Bairstow success, even if his place were less secure. He may have received a ticking off from the ICC for breaking a window in the pavilion and discombobulating a few MCC members during the Sri Lanka Test last year but it is team achievement, rather than individual accolades, that gets Prior worked up, a trait that is common to Andy Flower’s hard-working England side.
“I’ve never been a big stat watcher. I’ve always tried to play the role that’s needed to win the game, or save the game, or whatever it may be, so that’s for me more important than the individual score,” Prior said. “I’ve always played like that and I think I would struggle to play any differently. I find it more exciting to play for the team and to win a Test match.
“I believe it is one of our strengths. The team goal and team performance comes ahead of any one person’s own goals and ego and I think it’s vital in any successful team to have that.”
Similarly, he will happily resume his place at No. 7 in the order, having been promoted to No. 6 on England’s tour of Sri Lanka, as they supplemented their four-man attack with Samit Patel as the spin-bowling allrounder. In English conditions, on green pitches and against green opponents, a return to four bowlers and six batsmen is almost certain.
“I really don’t mind. It doesn’t make any difference, really, batting six or seven, that one spot,” Prior said. “Batting at six you potentially have more opportunity to get a bigger score but then batting a seven has its challenges as well and that’s something I enjoy doing. I genuinely believe the most important thing is getting the balance of the team right to win the Test match and if I bat at six or seven, I’m easy with either one.”
While West Indies are depleted by the absence of key players at IPL, Prior was unequivocal about what his priorities are. “Personally for me no, because Test cricket is my life, all my goals are based around Test cricket at this moment in time,” he said, when asked whether he would put an IPL contract above playing for England. “But it’s an individual choice and it’s up to those people to make their decisions. For me, I love playing Test cricket and it’s something I want to do for a few more years to come.”
It is perhaps easier to be enthusiastic when you are ranked No. 1 in the format, as England are. West Indies are currently rated the world’s No. 7 Test side, a position they have not been higher than since the summer of 2000, when England beat them in a Test series for the first time in 31 years. But while Prior was not taking victory for granted, he denied that England needed to reassert their credentials after losing four Tests out of five over the winter and with their closest challengers for the No. 1 spot, South Africa, arriving later in the summer.
“I don’t think we need to prove anything, as such, I think we’ve played pretty good cricket over a number of years now so I don’t know about that. But certainly we want to get off to a good start this summer, after a few little glitches in the winter I know that everyone’s very keen and pumped up to perform well from the off. There are two big series coming up, we want to play well, we want to win those series.”