Monday, 11 January 2010

From the highest press box in cricket, Matt Prior insists he won't be a 'nearly man' against the country of his birth

ENGLAND are in Johannesburg. I am writing from the highest cricket press box in the world at The Wanderers, the impressive "Bull Ring" south of South Africa's crime and commerce capital.
Johannesburg is 5,000 feet above sea level. This press box (see picture) is another couple of hundred feet above that.

And today we have Matt Prior insisting England won’t end up being “the nearly men” when they take on the land of his birth this week.

Before the decisive fourth and final Test at The Wanderers starts on Thursday, Prior growls: “We are here to win this Test, not hold on and hope to scrape through, going for a draw.

“We want to go to the airport with a 2-0 in this series. That would be a dream come true. We would have beaten two of the best sides in the world in back-to-back Test series. We aren’t here to be the nearly men.

“We don’t want to go home saying we nearly did it. That we drew the series. We will compete hard. Look for winning situations.”

But a draw is all England need to wrap up a 1-0 win, having taken the second Test in Durban by an innings and drawn – by a nerve-jangling single wicket – in Centurion and Cape Town.

But first Prior and his team mates must get used to coming back up to Johannesburg, where he was born 27 years ago.

Aged eight, the Wanderers, Africa’s biggest cricket venue with a capacity of 34,000, was where he watched his first big cricket game. He recalls: “Yup, it was right here. And I was so excited. I went rushing up to Kepler Wessels and Hansie Cronje for their autographs. They walked straight past me. Blanked me.

“That’s why I always vowed every since never to turn down a young kid who wants my autograph.”

But that doesn’t mean the man educated at Brighton College – he left South Africa soon after the anecdote above – is naturally acclimatised to the altitude and heat of the Highveld.

After an extended session with wicketkeeping coach Bruce French, Prior said: “It’s unbelievable, there’s no oxygen for a start. We could feel our lungs burning in the warm-up. We’ve been at sea level for a long time in Durban and Cape Town.

“But the physical fitness we’ve done should put is in good stead. We should be fine.

“The ball flies up here. The odd one comes through and hits the gloves harder than normal because the air is thin. You have to adapt to it. I had a long session with Frenchy, I have to get used to it.

“It would obviously be a fabulous achievement to beat Australia and South Africa in successive series but it’s important not to look too far ahead.

“What we have done well is break the game down, ball by ball, session by session on this tour. Sometimes, before you ball a bowl in anger, you look too far ahead.

“We start with the first ball, 0-0, making sure we don’t get too far head of ourselves. We want to go home saying we won the one-day series and the Test series.”

England look set to field an unchanged side for the entire epic showdown – the first time the selectors haven’t fiddled in a four Test series since 1884. Prior admits: “It does play a part having a settled team. Guys feel comfortable in their roles. You go out with the same eleven for a few games in a row and you do have that camaraderie.

“But I would emphasise this is a very tight squad from 1 to 16. The guys who haven’t played have been working even harder than us. They have added to the team, it shows the environment we are working in now.

“Those guys are working very hard to get into the team and it adds to this effort.

“The South Africans have come hard all series. That won’t change here. They’re going to be fighting to win this Test. That’s something we will be ready for.

“What their team will be won’t concern us. We’ll concentrate on putting ourselves in winning positions throughout this Test match.”

Prior himself is in good form with the gloves and after a quiet start at Centurion he’s scored valuable fifties in Durban (61) and Cape Town (78).

He said: “It’s been a weird series for me individually with the bat. I managed to get a few important scores at vital times. That’s always a great feeling to help the teaem.

“But if I’m honest I haven’t gone into this in great form. Any player goes through peaks and troughs, it’s as important to make runs when you’re not feeling in good nick. Sometimes you have to get ugly runs. You have to stick in and get those runs when they’re needed.

“The keeping? Touch wood, fingers crossed. I’ve worked very hard, I’ll continue to do so. Frenchy has been absolutely fantastic. Always right there, even if it’s only by text. He watches every ball.”

Quite how England managed to get to this point 1-0 up in the series is hard to explain. In the history of Test cricket only 19 Tests have gone to the last wicket partnership surviving, and England have done that twice in three games – not to mention in the opening Ashes Test against Australia in Cardiff last summer.

England’s incredible rearguard actions have frustrated the South Africans here and the under-pressure hosts must also cope with serious injury to seamer Friedel de Wet, who so nearly bowled them to victory in the first Test in Centurion in a devastating new ball spell which ripped out three England wickets in the final session.

De Wet, who needed injections to get through the New Year Test in Cape Town, has gone down with a stress fracture of his back and he also has a damaged disc. Their coach Mickey Arthur says he’s out for the rest of the season and admits he “fears for Friedel’s future”.

The South African selectors have also been embarrassed by the selection of Pakistan-born Imran Tahir – they called him up to the squad last week but have now been told he doesn’t qualify to play for his adopted nation despite marrying a girl from Pretoria and living here for four years.

And then of course they have the Makhaya Ntini situation – Ntini was dropped after winning his 101st cap in Durban – but took five wickets in a domestic game yesterday. Curiously though, he isn’t even in the squad for Thursday.


  1. I personally, cannot wait for this contest to begin. It's been an intriguing series, of which I had the unfortunate pleasure to attend the Durban test - SA's worst showing.

    Would have been better had it been 1-1, but I really need SA to level; especially after throwing their last series vs Eng at the same ground.

    Should England win, it would be a tremendous achievement. Beating the best two teams back to back is something special. SA needs to go to India now and come back with the spoils to gain some credibility again.

  2. Jeremy, I think Mickey Arthur finally has the attack he wants (a fit Steyn, in-form Morkel and "The New Wasim" Parnell plus a fit Kallis. I don't think De Wet or Ntini were his top choices. England could be in for a torrid time. We may need highveld storms. Lots of them.

  3. Im not so convinced with Parnell just yet; 5 Day cricket is a far cry from 20Twenty. I just hope he has the stamina and endurance for a Test, but either way, my fingers are crossed.