Matt Prior Interview – ‘Jellybean made me look average’

A year ago to the month, England’s wicketkeeper was living a nightmare in Sri Lanka. Matt Prior’s game had fallen away amid rancorous headlines regarding his on-field behaviour, and he was dropped before Christmas. Now, after a hugely successful and redemptive summer with Sussex, he is back.

My girlfriend asks what I’m doing for the day. I tell her I’ve got an interview with a bloke called Matt Prior. “Is he nice?” she says. It’s her standard question. It matters not to my girlfriend if this Matt Prior fellow is the best batsman-gloveman in the country, or if his keeping has improved enough to reclaim the gloves for Test cricket, as he recently has for the one-day side.

She couldn’t care less that he averages 40 at Test level but was dropped after the Galle match in 2007, when some tough months behind the stumps crystallised into one nightmarish unravelling. She would, however, like to know if Matt Prior is nice. Nice is good.

So I tell her that he’s known as a cocksure kid with a bit of mouth on him, possibly honed on the rugby fields of Brighton prep school, whose shaved head and sparkly earring probably makes the mouth seem even wider. I mention that he used to play for England until it all went wrong but now he’s creeping back into favour.

I tell her he was implicated in the great Nottingham jellybean scandal of 2007, and I tell her the Porsche story – the one that blew up when Prior was overheard on the stump microphone saying, supposedly to an Indian batsman: “I’m driving a Porsche Carrera, what’s your car?” “Ah, right,” she says. That was enough. Finally I tell her that I’ve yet to actually meet him in person.

The man is sitting in the Bedser Lounge of the Oval beneath a big sponsor’s banner, dressed in full whites, doing his duties. I have my bagful of preconceptions, and the press clippings from last year logged in the mind. As he gets up from his chair to warmly shake my hand, it occurs to me that he must hate journalists.

The modern sportsman is, of course, well versed in the art of the media interview, but for Prior they must hold their own demons, waiting, as he must, for the inevitable line. Lauded at the start of 2007, he was thrown in the stocks when dropped catches and perceived shenanigans of a gracelessly gobby nature led pundits and bloggers to unleash the rotten veg (“buffoon!” sneered the Telegraph, “arsehole!” went the Times).

At one point the mood got so poisonous that a woman wrote to Prior saying that his behaviour meant her kids were no longer allowed to watch cricket.

Today, in his role as a Slazenger brand ambassador promoting their new range, he’s got to put up with me for half an hour. I’ll understand if he’s a little standoffish. We begin at the end of the beginning. After a handful of ODIs that had hinted at genuine quality but never quite delivered the knockout innings, his Test career began in a frenzy of shots at Lord’s against West Indies.

A debut century there was followed by a measured 75 in his second Test, but the marquee summer series against India saw his form collapse. The runs dried up, and two costly spillages at the Oval to reprieve Tendulkar and Dravid told of trials with the gloves.

Given the gauntlets for the winter tour of Sri Lanka, at Galle in the third Test he let the chance slip through the webbing, when two misses off Ryan Sidebottom took his charge sheet to four missed chances from the left-armer alone in just six Tests. He knew then that his time was up. “I made mistakes in Galle,” he says now, “and I think that was that. That was it. I knew that when opportunities come along like that, you have to snap them up.”

But was it a fair call, getting axed like that, mere months after such a sensational debut? “You can’t blame anyone else,” he says, ingenuously. “It’s easy to point fingers at everyone else, but at the end of it all, it lies with you. You’re out there. It’s your responsibility.

So I made sure I dusted myself down and got on with it. I said to myself, ‘This is where you’re at now. You’ll be playing with Sussex at the start of the season. Score as many runs as possible and continue improving your keeping, and you might get a knock on the door.’”

Prior has had sufficient time to reflect on that first stage of his international career. For an ambitious man, those months among the deckchairs at Hove would have done wonders for focusing the mind.Did he harbour any regrets from that first time? Or worse, resentment?

“That was the one thing. I got back and spoke to a few people. And they were like, ‘Why are you not more angry?’ The reason was, I had no regrets. I’d worked as hard as I could, I prepared as well as I thought was possible, and did everything I could to give myself the best opportunity of performing.

I can look back and say there were a few things that went against me, things that didn’t quite go my way, be it in the press or whatever, but you know what? I gave it my best. And what I’ll do now is to carry on working hard. I’ve had a taste of it, and this is the place to be. Playing international cricket is amazing.”

It’s a persuasive answer, open and candid, and smoothly finished off with the sportsman’s promised rallying cry, repeated as much to himself as anyone else, to keep facing down the challenges; to fight on.

Chris Adams, his captain at Sussex and a man incapable of bullshit, has seen Prior develop over the years and knows the man behind the headlines. “He’s always been a confident lad,” Adams tells All Out Cricket. “He’s always chosen the positive route when faced, as you are, with a crossroads in any career. Certainly the way he played last year against the West Indies was classic, classic Matt Prior.”

So seeing as Prior’s already alluded to the press, it seemed natural to get the awkward stuff out of the way first…

Q: You alluded to the press. You’ve acknowledged that, unfairly or not, a perception had been formed about you. But do you think that during your first time with England, you were too brash, too upfront, too mouthy? Or is this one of those press stories that was just built up and up?

There’s no smoke without fire. But as I say, this last year I’ve learnt a huge amount on and off the field. I think I’ve matured both as a cricketer and as a person as well. You know, I look back and I was excited. I was excited to be playing for my country. I was excited to be playing at Lord’s and the Oval and all these grounds in front of packed crowds, and I was excited, full of energy.

Q: Did it hurt you?

Yeah, I think it did, because of the fact that I was perceived in the way that I was. That was not the person that I am, and it was not the way I wanted to be perceived. At all. Just going back to the initial question, I think that yeah, maybe I was a bit brash and a bit… loud. But I was also accused of doing things that I didn’t actually do.

Q: You mean the Porsche comment?

The Porsche comment, the jellybean incident… there were a lot of things that made me look, I’ll be honest, very average. I was reading it thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is not who I am.’ From that point of view it was tricky.

Q: So it was classic misrepresentation?

I can tell you exactly what happened. The day before (the Porsche furore_ I was speaking on the field about keeping the energy going. Now npower are obviously the sponsors of the Test series, so it was ‘npower energy’. The stump mic caught it, and the next morning I had a bottle of champagne saying thanks from the npower bloke for getting that in. So an absolute accident, whatever.

Alastair Cook saw the bottle and said: ‘Hold on a minute, we can try a few things out here…’ At the time he wanted a Bang and Olufsen television or whatever, and his car was a Ford GT. So he was shouting out “Bang and Olufsen, Ford GT…” and I shouted out “Porsche Carrera!” And from that, I was apparently sledging and all the rest of it. I think I was naive to how it all works, you know? But you learn your lessons. You learn your lessons and you move on.


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