On Friday, we named Matt Prior as our Player of the Day for a typically punchy half-century that helped England to wrestle back some control following their poor start. Despite a slight stumble in the nervous nineties, his fifth Test Match century, from just 107 balls, was rightly celebrated on Saturday morning. In the post-Gilchrist era when wicketkeepers are expected to contribute regularly with the bat, Prior is fast becoming a real bonus for England. Should England opt for a five-man attack – a more likely possibility on the subcontinent – then there is little doubt that Prior could move up the order a place and fill the role of all-rounder; picked for his batting as well as for his wicket-keeping.
England have often been cautious about wicketkeeper-batsmen. Bob Taylor and Alan Knott were consistently swapped for each other. More recently in the 1990s, every time a squad was selected there was a debate over whether Jack Russell should be selected as the authentic ‘keeper or whether Alec Stewart should wear the gloves to offer the side more balance. In the years since Stewart retired, England have gone in circles with their selection policy, with Chris Read and James Foster arguably playing fewer matches than their natural ability behind the stumps deserved (and that is in Tests; in One Day Internationals some of the selections might have been made using a blindfold and a dartboard).
This particular author has always thought Mark Boucher to be one of the most under-rated players in the game. He is rarely spoken of as a great player, but his record is astonishing: 521 dismissals in 139 matches. That’s 105 dismissals more than Adam Gilchrist in second place. This record is not just down to longevity either: of the ‘keepers with at least 150 dismissals, only Dave Richardson, Kamran Akmal(!) and Gilchrist himself have a better rate of dismissals per innings. One theory is that Boucher is often overlooked as his batting average is ‘only’ 30.70, whereas the likes of MS Dhoni, Kumar Sangakkara, Andy Flower and Gilchrist all averaged significantly higher. Nonetheless, Boucher has scored five centuries for South Africa, the same number as one of the first ‘wicketkeeper-batsmen’ Knott and, of course, Matt Prior, though Prior has played far fewer matches.
Simply, Prior’s batting record is now impressive. In less than half the number of innings, he is now one century behind Stewart (in the matches that Stewart kept wicket), with consecutive tons at the SCG and at Lord’s. He has more scores over 50 than Sangakkara made in his 48 Tests with the gloves. His average of 44.58 is higher than any contemporary wicketkeepers, indeed of any regulars from history, only Flower and Gilchrist average more runs per innings. As the Sri Lankan bowlers found out at Lord’s, Prior is a master at playing through the covers. Over the course of his innings, 69% of runs were scored through the off-side, compared with the team’s 56%. It has been pointed out that this might be one reason why his ODI batting form is comparatively poor, as the lines bowled in the 50-over format are tighter to the stumps.
Since his recall to the side, he has worked closely with Bruce French, amongst others, and his wicket-keeping is now much more consistent. Indeed it is hardly an issue; after all, few are flawless. If as is likely Prior continues to improve, it is possible that as England aim to rise to the number one ranked side in the world, he will simultaneously become the first-choice wicketkeeper for a global XI.