For so long the heartbeat of the England team, Matt Prior reminisces with Henry Cowen about his career-shaping moments.
Getting back on the horse | Sussex U13s v Shropshire U13s, 1993
There’d been some rain about, it was a bit slippery, I took the short ball on, missed it and it hit me straight in the head and ripped my eyebrow. Where my eyebrow was, you could see my eyeball. That was the first bang on the head I had and it was a good lesson. I had my hand over my eye, I pulled it away and there was a puddle of blood in my hand – that’s a very vivid memory. We went to the hospital, got stitched up and went back to the ground – we were still batting. As every hard, pushy father does, my dad said, ‘Right, you’ve got to get back out there.’ The same bowler came back on, bowled the short ball again and thankfully I connected with it. It was literally the dream.
THE LUCKY NUMBER
Sussex U18 Tour | South Africa, 2000
I went on a Sussex under 18 tour to South Africa and we were given numbers – which was very exciting. In the end, they were just given out alphabetically so I happened to be given the number 13. I had a really good tour and it was the reason I got a contract with Sussex. Since then my lucky number has always been 13. It was the first time that Sussex thought I could make it as a professional cricketer. If I’m honest, nothing was going to get in my way when it came to playing professional cricket. From the age of eight I wanted to be a professional cricketer and believed I was going to be – but it’s special when it begins to become reality, and that tour stands out in my mind.
I remember my debut innings for Sussex, against Worcestershire – it was when my love for the battle in the middle started. Andy Bichel ran in hand and I really felt it. That was the first time I’d come up against an Aussie playing hard cricket and I just loved it. I loved the battle and I loved being in the fight. We had a real do in the middle – it was brilliant – but, most importantly, I remember being at lunch just after and Andy Bichel walked in. He is a strong bloke and I was just out of school; I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what is he going to do here?’ He came over to me and I was a bit nervous but he shook my hand and said, ‘Great competition, mate. Loved it.’ There and then, I knew that that is what it’s all about. You can battle on the pitch, not an inch given, but the minute you walk off the pitch you leave it out there. Win or lose, you look your opposition in the eye, you shake hands, and you do it right.
100 | Sussex 2nd XI v Hampshire 2nd XI, 2nd XI Championship, Hastings, 2001
In my first year playing for Sussex I was dropped. I went to the second XI, scored a big hundred, and got back into the first XI. What that set me up for was the understanding that things might not always go your way, and you have two options when you get dropped: one is to blame everyone else, make excuses and fall by the wayside; the other is to go back to the drawing board, get better and kick the door down to get back in the team. That was a very valuable lesson to learn early in my career.
THE FIRST HUNDRED
The County Championship titles at Sussex were huge but, from a personal point of view, my first hundred was a big moment for me. It was against Hampshire, I think it was 2002 – my second year – and Shaun Udal was bowling. I remember being on 99 forever; he brought the field up, a genuinely old-school ring field, and just bowled darts. I reckon I must have been on 99 for probably 20 balls but I finally got there. Your first first-class hundred is always a special moment.
We were fighting for our first County Championship title and we were in trouble. It was a game that, had we lost, we probably would have lost the title. Mark Davis got 168 and I got 148. I went in at not many for five [82-5] and I ended up putting us in a position to go on and win the game. That was my first experience of walking into a real pressure situation and turning it around through being counter-attacking; soaking the pressure up and putting it back on the bowlers. That’s something I tried to continue throughout my career.
Six catches & 45* | England v South Africa, 2nd ODI, Trent Bridge, 2008
Being dropped by England, and my reaction to it, goes back to the original lesson I learned when I got dropped from the first XI at Sussex. It was a really tough time: I had come into the team, scored a debut hundred at Lord’s and thought it was an easy game. Suddenly, it unravelled quite quickly. I came back for a one-day series against South Africa in the second half of the summer of 2008 and I took a good catch off the bowling of Stuart Broad. It was with my left hand, diving in front of slip; Graeme Smith was batting. I ended up taking six catches in the game and I kept well. I could feel that I was a far improved wicketkeeper from the one who last played for England. To be fair to Bruce French, he never let me take my foot off the gas for one second, he pushed me all the time. The amount of run-ins we had over the years was incredible, but rightly so, it was because he was pushing me the whole time.
We were bowled out for 51 in this match and went on to lose the series but this was when we had the conversations about where we wanted to go as a team. I’m so proud to have been involved in a team that built from nothing to become the best in the world, and to be involved in that whole journey of blood, sweat and tears – that doesn’t happen overnight. I learned so much from it. I’ll be able to take that on into the next stage of my life. That whole period was just a fantastic time for English cricket and the fact that I was in that dressing room is something that I’m very privileged and proud to have been a part of.
The celebrations were phenomenal, of course, but the thing that really stands out for me is after we’d had the photographs, we’d seen the fans and we’d seen our families in the changing room – after everyone had gone home – we stayed behind and we wheeled an esky out to the middle at the SCG. It was just the team and the backroom staff. We went round, one by one, talking about our best moments of the whole journey. We sat there, having a beer with our mates – we’d all been there and we all knew what had gone into winning that series.
As an individual that was my best day in an England shirt because I was able to save the game for my mates. That was a very proud moment. Ironically, I stood in the huddle at the beginning of the day and said, ‘Days like today are when heroes are made.’ You think back to Atherton and Russell at the Wanderers, these are opportunities to stand up and make your country proud, and little did I know that I would be the one at the end of the day with my arms aloft in the air. That meant so much to all of us and I just happened to be the lucky one who had my day. It’s the picture I’ve got in my gym. When I was going through my rehab, with the dream to play for England again, that picture was always my motivation. That moment, that feeling, was what I always looked at because I wanted it again. That’s why I was doing it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, but it will always be there.