Joe Denly prepares for ‘biggest challenge’ in new role as England’s number four


Like mayflies and First World War pilots, the lifespan of an England top-order player has looked painfully short in recent times.

Increasingly, Andy Warhol’s suggestion that everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame seems to have had England opening batsmen in mind. Most candidates in the county game have had a go – 13 of the most recent 30 Test caps given out by England have opened the batting – but with little success. Around the England squad there is a weary sign of resignation that Joe Root’s decision to move back to No. 3 is to prevent 10-1 becoming 10-2.

So it is that Joe Denly finds his unlikely way into the Ashes firing line. Having become England’s oldest Test debutant this century when called into the side in the Caribbean, he now finds himself with a third different batting spot in his fourth Test. He confirmed, on Tuesday, that Root had phoned and “told me he wanted me to go to No. 4.”

At this stage, you will find few who see Denly as anything other than a temporary solution. Already there is talk of Jason Roy – just one innings into his career as a Test opener – moving to No. 4 and a suggestion that two new openers, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley, could be in action before Christmas. Rory Burns, in particular, needs an improved performance at Edgbaston if he is to play at Lord’s.

On the face of things, Denly may be a little fortunate to have won this opportunity ahead of the likes of Sam Northeast, James Hildreth or even Gary Ballance. He secured his selection here, in part, with 69 in the second innings in St Lucia – an innings in which he was dropped on 12 and benefited from a weary West Indies attack that had already won the series and was a man down through injury – and his captain running him out in the second innings at Lord’s. Root couldn’t drop him after that; he had denied him a proper opportunity.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and he has done far more to earn this opportunity. He made a century – 167 not out – against a strong-looking Nottinghamshire attack which included James Pattinson in June and followed it with another – 154 this time – against Hampshire a couple of weeks ago. There was an innings of 88 against a Surrey side containing Morne Morkel, too. And, over the 2017 and 2018 county seasons, he scored another nine first-class centuries; most of them elegant innings that hint at real class. He is in form, he is – on the surface at least – relaxed and he is not putting too much pressure on himself. He’s 33; he thought this opportunity had passed him by; everything from here is a bonus.

“Is this the highlight of my career? Yeah, probably,” he said at Edgbaston on Tuesday. “Did I see it happening? Probably not.

“It’s probably the biggest challenge of my career, too. There’s no doubt the Australian bowling line-up is one of the best in the world and, as a top-order batter, that is where you want to be, testing yourself against the best.

“But I learned from when I previously played for England, I put too much pressure on myself. Getting back in the England team is certainly not something I’ve been focusing on recently. So playing in an Ashes series, for me it’s just about enjoying my cricket and scoring lots of runs for Kent and seeing where it takes me.

“It took me a while to get back to any kind of form when I got dropped all those years ago. I went missing for two or three years, with all my focus on trying to get back in the England side. In recent years I’ve enjoyed my cricket a lot more and reaped the rewards for that. This week is going to be a very proud moment and a very special occasion for me and my family.”

His reputation was not enhanced by the attempt to shoe-horn him into the World Cup squad as a spin-bowling all-rounder. It was a role for which he was never suited and for which he admits Liam Dawson was, in the end, a more natural fit. If he has any regrets, you suspect it is simply that he wasn’t given the opportunity to show what he could do in the role in which he is best: a top-order batsman.

“Liam Dawson is certainly more of a bowling all-rounder than I am,” Denly said. “I think it was the right decision to pick him for the World Cup squad. And it was a great opportunity for me to go back and play some red-ball cricket with Kent and get some good form going into this series.”

He is, at last, in the role for which he is best suited. He is not an opener: he had not opened in County Championship cricket for three-and-a-half years when picked to open in Test cricket; and he is not a leg-spinning all-rounder: he had only once taken more than eight first-class wickets in an entire season. He is a good top-order batsman who is probably best used at No. 4.

There are some concerns. For one thing, he looked rushed by the quick bowlers in the Caribbean in a way that James Vince, for example, rarely did in Australia. For another, most of his runs in recent years (though not this season) have been scored in Division Two of the County Championship; this will prove quite a step up in quality. And while he plays the cover drive as sweetly as anyone, the manner of his first innings dismissal at Lord’s – beaten by one that nipped back – suggested the flaw that troubled him during his first incarnation as an international player, a decade or so ago, remains. And if it remains, this Australia attack may well find it.

But he is calm, he is experienced and he has more class with the bat than some have given him credit. He really does have a chance to take his career to another level.

There was one other familiar face at England training on Tuesday. Marcus Trescothick, finally coming to the end of his illustrious playing career, has been drafted into the England coaching set-up for the first two Ashes Tests and was on hand to provide throw-downs and, where necessary, impart advice and encouragement. After all he has been through, it was good to see him back in an England shirt. And, after all he has been through, he will have valuable perspective to pass on to today’s players. Most of all, like Denly, he provides a reminder that, whatever happens in the next few weeks, there are a great many things more important than cricket. Even Ashes cricket.

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