After a record breaking dig in on day five, England escaped from their test series with New Zealand with a 0-0 draw. After victories in the T20 and ODI series that proceeded the Tests, the final score is something of a disappointment. England's bowlers were out bowled by the hosts, especially in the spin bowling department, with Bruce Martin coming out on top over Monty Panesar in the battle of the stand ins (New Zealand were missing Daniel Vettori, while Graeme Swann missed the Test series after electing to his his troublesome elbow fixed). The batting honours between the two sides could be said to be even, with the Kiwi batsmen enjoying themselves with the freedom given to them by their bowlers successes in the first and third test, while England showed superior mental and technical fortitude to recover and see off the hosts in the final innings of the same tests.
The only area in which it could be said that England enjoyed a distinct advantage was at the position of wicket keeper. Matt Prior topped the series averages for both sides, his 311 runs coming at 103.66, with his seventh Test century saving the final test in concert with 2 more 50s. He also snaffled 10 catches. BJ Watling in comparison managed 9 catches, but only 99 runs at an average of 24.75.
Prior is clearly the best wicket keeper batsman in the Test arena at present. When you consider his rivals, there are weakness as well as strength. AB de Villiers is one of the worlds best batsman, and is a more than adequate keeper, but his ongoing back issues pose the question as to how long he can continue in his dual role. MS Dhoni is a plunderer of attacks on the subcontinent, but his keeping is often suspect and his batting has tailed off away from home. Matthew Wade of Australia continues to attract criticism for his glove work, especially to spinners, while Ramdin, Chanidmal, Kamran Akmal and Rahim seem unable to marry good form with the bat with sure handedness behind the stumps.
So the question must be asked : is Prior the best wicket keeper batsman OF ALL TIME?
He is currently third on the English list of keepers in terms of runs, with his 3637 runs behind only Alan Knott (4389) and that often reluctant custodian Alec Stewart (4540 as designated keeper). However, his runs have come in 50 fewer innings than his rivals, while he enjoys a healthier average (45.46 in comparison to Knott's 32.75 and Stewart's 34.92). If, as expected, he continues to enjoy form and fitness for the next five years, he will easily eclipse both of these totals. In the all time list, he ranks 8th in terms of runs, with the great Australian Adam Gilchrist leading the way with 5570 runs at an average of 47.60. Following him is recently retired South African Mark Boucher (5515 @ 30.30), Stewart, current England Team Director Andy Flower (4404 @ 53.70), Knott, Gilchrists predecessor Ian Healy (4356 @ 27.39) and Dhoni (4209 @ 39.70) . Prior has 97 Test innings, fewer than anyone else on the list (Prior's current boss Flower had 100 as a keeper batsman)
Focusing on the other aspect of "Keeper Batsman", Prior is 4th on the list in terms of catches held by English keepers, with his 180 catches (along with 18 stumpings) behind Knott (250, 19), Stewart (227, 14) and another Kent legend Godfrey Evans ( 173, 46). His glove work has improved immensely (after once being described as "a fielder with gloves on, and not a very good one" by your humble author) since a disastrous tour to Sri Lanka in 2007 saw him dropped in favour of former club mate Tim Ambrose. Ambrose enjoyed early success with the bat, but a poor series against South Africa in the summer of 2008 saw Prior return (and aside from a missed Test in the Windies in 2009 due to the birth of a child) and remain.
So back to the big question, is he the best EVER? In my opinion, no. He is undoubtedly England's best ever, and when he finally puts away his gloves he will own all the England keeping records. But for my money, Adam Gilchrist is still the yardstick by which the expanded role of keeper batsman should be judged by. Gilly changed the game in a way similar to that his frequent team mate Shane Warne, by reinventing a role within the game. Before Gilchrist, a keepers job was to catch the ball and chip in with the bat. AFTER Gilchrist, every nation immediately started looking for THEIR Gilly, a dynamic keeper who could turn a match in a session with the bat. Very few have found him, but it looks like England have.
However, it would be remiss of me to not point out that I write this the day after Prior played an outstanding rearguard counter attack to save England from defeat in the face of serious pressure from an underdog bowling attack, bearing its teeth against a "mightier" foe. This situation happened to Gilchrist in England 2005, as the far and away World number One Australian team were matched punch for punch by the hosts in one of the great Test series of all time. And how did Gilchrist fare in this environment? Five matches, 9 innings, 181 runs @ 22.62 with a high score of 49*.
So, could Gilly have done what Prior did? We'll never know now, but its always nice to wonder.