The respective performances of Matt Prior and MS Dhoni so far in the series have mirrored those of their teams. Prior has exuded confidence and produced some swashbuckling displays, whereas his Indian counterpart has been error-ridden with the gloves and has looked all at sea out in the middle.
Prior’s career has taken a remarkable upward curve since the last time India toured England in 2007. After poor performances with both bat and gloves and the lows of ‘Jellybeangate’ in which Prior was painted by some corners of the media as a lout, it would have been hard to predict that we would be able to sit here today and call him the best wicket-keeper batsman in Test cricket, yet here we are. Prior deserves a lot of credit for turning his career round, as does England’s wicket keeping coach Bruce French (remember too, that Andy Flower was a very good wicket-keeper in his playing days).
During lunch on Day 4 of the second Test, Sky gave us an excellent insight into how Prior prepares for a match behind the stumps and it is evident that all the hard work that he and French have put into his keeping have paid off immensely. It’s rare to see Prior make any mistake at all nowadays (off the top of our heads we can’t remember the last time he put down a chance you’d expect to be taken) and he is capable of stunning moments of glovework, notably some sprawling legside saves when England’s quick bowlers get their lines wrong.
Of course it’s not just his keeping that has improved, for his style of batting at no.7 is a massive fillip to the current England side. Much like Gilchrist used to do for the dominant Aussie side of the previous decade, Prior can come in with a platform of 350-5 and absolutely take the game away from the opposition with an unselfish, rapid century. Case in point, of all the players who have scored more than 1000 Test runs over the past three years, only Virender Sehwag and Tillakaratne Dilshan have a better strike rate. Not only does he bat aggressively, Prior sets an example to the rest of the team and in particular the lower order with his excellent and tireless running between the wickets and it’s characteristics like this that have gone a long way to helping England be on the verge of realising their goal of being the number one team in the world.
But he is more than just a lower order batsman who can pile the runs on when the going is good. His century in the 2nd innings of the 1st Test was a prefect illustration of how versatile Prior has become and how important his role is in this England side. When Prior came to the crease England were rocking after Ishant Sharma lead an Indian fightback, but Prior dug in and resiliently ground away to consolidate his team’s position, scoring his first 50 runs from 78 balls (which still isn’t slow by most players standards!) before blasting his second 53 runs from 42 on his way to a century which swung the match back heavily in England’s favour and crushed any Indian hopes of victory.
By contrast, Dhoni is having something of a nightmare tour. England has never been the easiest of places to keep due to the exaggerated swing and wobble of the ball and touring keepers often struggle, but Dhoni is making especially hard work of it (although he’s not quite reached Kamran Akmal’s level of incompetence). Crucially he has not shelled any chances yet, although his failure to react to a Jonathon Trott edge in the 1st Test led to the ball whizzing between himself and Rahul Dravid at first slip and down to the boundary.
Dhoni has also done little to dispel the rumours that he is a bit of a flat track bully when it comes to batting. He’s never scored a Test or ODI century outside of the subcontinent and his four Test centuries have all come in matches in which a glut of runs have been scored. During this tour he has looked all at sea against the swinging ball and his dismissal in the 2nd innings at Trent Bridge, where he completely misjudged a Tim Bresnan inswinger to be trapped plumb lbw for a golden duck typified his problems. Not to mention his edge off Stuard Broad which sparked India’s first innings collapse which was one of the worst shots you’ll see in a Test match. Despite all this, Dhoni clearly has talent, there’s no way he could have such a glittering CV and bank balance if he didn’t and India will be hoping that he can find some semblance of form sooner rather than later.
PS, a note to MS Dhoni; since cultivating his beard, Matt Prior averages 57.27 in 10 Tests, compared to 42.13 in the previous 35. Maybe the Indian captain should put the razor away for the remainder of the tour?