THE BLOG

England at Sixes and Sevens

31/03/2013 10:04 BST | Updated 30/05/2013 10:12 BST

Take that fiercely impassioned South African pride with a truckload of salt. For all of their AB de Villiers bluster (and de Villiers is a magnificent cricketer, this is no slight against him), England's Matthew Prior is the finest wicketkeeper-batsman in Test cricket today and, quite possibly, since the nonpareil Adam Gilchrist hung up the gloves.

Dating back to the beginning of the South Africa Test series at Lord's, Prior has amassed 844 runs at 60.29. With England's number six slot flapping loosely in a wind of indecisiveness, such returns have inevitably led to calls for Prior's promotion. That age old obsession with the inclusion of an all-rounder to provide a fifth bowling option lives on.

Those in favour cite the dynamism such a setup gave to England's Aussie conquering heroes of 2005, and admonish the apparent lack of it in what is, to the chagrin of some, an inherently cautious modern England. There is merit in their observations from a bowling perspective; a five man attack would allow the likes of James Anderson and Steven Finn to be utilised as impact bowlers in shorter bursts. Warwickshire duo Chris Woakes and Rikki Clarke would appear joint favourites to occupy Prior's previous abode, both highly capable stock bowlers at the very least.

Yet what of Prior? As the social media cyber-selectors deliberate ad infinitum, little thought is attributed to the preference of the key cog in all of this. Last summer taught us that Prior is the ultimate team man. Amid a tumultuous period of intrigue and distrust during the Kevin Pietersen saga, Prior revealed a side to his character that set him apart from the rest. He was not Team Prior, not Team Broad, nor Team Pietersen. He was Team England, and it comes as little surprise that, when questioned as to his preferred batting position, he states a willingness to bat wherever asked.

Batsmanship, though, is seldom so uncomplicated. Australian captain Michael Clarke is a wonderful cricketer - perhaps on the verge of becoming the finest number five of his generation - yet move him but one place up the order and his average more than halves. It is almost inexplicable, but the game of cricket has such oddments and quirks. That is not to say Prior suffers from such change, either. His average reduces only minimally at six. Adam Gilchrist's even increased at the same number, yet he remained at seven for the majority of an illustrious career. Such reasoning is surely not devoid of logic.

As much as keeping wicket is a specialist role, the same could be argued of batting alongside the tail, a function which a number seven batsman is often called upon to fulfil. Marshalling the strike, manoeuvring the ball in to the gaps to steal a fifth or sixth ball single and increasing the boundary count are circumstances to which Prior is well adept. England's lower order runs -so often crucial in modern cricket, where the proverbial walking wicket is on the verge of extinction - are regularly propelled by the catalyst that is Prior's batting. Affording such a role to one of lesser nous could well prove disadvantageous; a side should always seek suitable return from what ultimately amounts to 40% of its wickets, after all.

There is little doubt that Prior is an accomplished enough batsman to succeed as a Test number six. Whether engineering such a change would suit England is another issue. Whilst Prior's personal statistics would likely vary little, the efficacy of England's lower order might well diminish - it is probably not a risk worth taking.

Calls for the introduction of an all-rounder are well founded. England's lack of firepower is becoming increasingly apparent, and the effectiveness of their main strike bowler, James Anderson, would unquestionably be enhanced by a reduction in workload. Making best use of another prize asset in Prior must also be considered, a conundrum surely solved by the chosen all-rounder occupying the number six slot. Whether that be Woakes or Clarke is irrelevant, both possess the ability to fulfil the role and, in the case of Woakes, the potential to do so for many years.

Five bowlers could well be seen as a gamble by England's selectors, but tampering with the role of Prior at the zenith of his powers is a greater one. Bring in the all-rounder, but leave Matt Prior right where he is. There is no finer candidate for the role of a Test number seven, not even if Mr de Villiers were English.