Matt Prior believes Jonny Bairstow will be as determined as ever to win back the England wicketkeeping gloves this year despite a sensational start to Test cricket for Ben Foakes in Sri Lanka.
Foakes, 25, was only called up for that tour as injury cover after Bairstow injured an ankle playing football in the warm-ups during the one-day series against Sri Lanka back in October.
But the Surrey wicketkeeper did not look back after scoring a century in the first Test at Galle, being named man of the series as his form with both bat and gloves helped England to a 3-0 whitewash.
Things actually appeared to work out well for England when Bairstow returned to the team as a specialist batsman for the series finale in Colombo and scored a century in his first Test innings at No.3.
It’s a position Bairstow resumed in the ongoing first Test between West Indies and England, with Foakes keeping the gloves.
However, Prior, who averaged 40 in 79 Tests before retirement in 2014 and who, alongside Alec Stewart, is England’s finest wicketkeeper-batsman of the modern era, does not think that will necessarily be a permanent situation.
“I do feel for Jonny,” he said. “It was a silly injury and I told him my thoughts on that. He promised me he will never be playing football again in the warm-ups. But he just has to do what everyone does in that position. Look at yourself in the mirror, dust yourself down and ask, ‘how much do I want it?’”
Prior knows exactly how Bairstow feels having considered giving the game up entirely when he was dropped by England in 2008.
“You get dropped and you have to do that little bit of self-reflection and then it’s how you come back,” he said.
“In Sri Lanka in 2007 I had a good tour with the bat but a shocker with the gloves and I got left out for the post-Christmas tour of New Zealand. Everything goes through your mind then from giving it all up and going to play baseball, which was obviously ridiculous, but you get angry and illogical.
“During that period, I thought, ‘I know I can perform at this level with the bat but it’s the gloves I’m not sure about’. I had a long chat with Alec Stewart about giving them up and he said, ‘you’d be crazy to do that, you’ve worked so hard at your keeping why not get hold of [England wicket-keeping coach] Bruce French, work your socks off and see where you get to because if you’ve got two strings to your bow it’s going to be better’.
“That’s what I did and that’s the exact same advice I’d give to Jonny.
“He won’t give up on the gloves. He will just go away and work harder. The other thing to remember is that sport changes so quickly. We obviously want Foakes to keep on smashing it but the reality is he won’t score a hundred every Test because he’s human. It could all change and Jonny has to keep working hard and put the pressure on to get that place back.”
Prior will be in the Caribbean working for talkSPORT, a position he started in Sri Lanka. “I’ve absolutely loved it,” he said. “Ultimately I love the game and I’m England’s biggest fan so to sit in the best seat in the house watching them have success has been great.”
Beyond that tour, England’s focus in Test cricket is next summer’s Ashes series and Prior has Joe Root’s team down as firm favourites to win back the urn. “The Ashes is still the biggest thing,” he said. “Both teams have been in transition but England are coming through it and Joe Root as captain is really stamping his authority on the team.
“He knows what kind of cricket he wants to play and how he wants to lead and he’s just growing into the job. Right now, Australia have got some challenges so you’d have to have England as favourites.”
Australia are likely to welcome back the banned ball-tampering duo of Steve Smith and David Warner for the Ashes and the pair’s return is likely to intensify the hype around this year’s series.
Prior, though, has urged England not to get drawn into the hype.
“That’s the biggest challenge when you go into something like the Ashes,” he said.
“You get drawn into this battle, almost like it’s a war, and it’s not. When you finish playing, come out of the bubble and go into the big wide world you look back in and think ‘maybe that wasn’t the be all and end all’. When you’re in it it’s life or death. The fact is, it’s a game of cricket.”