In the course of his long and not-entirely-lustrous career, Joe Denly has come to know all about being on the outside looking in – he spent nine years and an England-record 384 matches in the wilderness, after all, before his remarkable recall in Sri Lanka in 2018. For the next two weeks in Manchester, however, he can brace for something of the inverse experience – a wistful, poignant period of being on the inside looking out.
Inside England’s bio-secure bubble at Emirates Old Trafford, looking out on his team-mates as they move on without him. Inside the team environment, for now, but looking out towards his new life as a former international cricketer – the status that will surely be conferred on him for good this time, after his run of 15 consecutive Tests ended as it had begun, one Test into a losing campaign against West Indies.
Never say never, you might argue. The door is not closed, as Joe Root insisted, but that’s surely only because to open it would risk allowing a series-threatening lurgy to breach the team’s inner sanctum. At the age of 34, and with the rising star Dan Lawrence already straining for the next opening in the team, there can be no way back from here.
Instead, it seems that Denly’s final innings against West Indies last week will stand as testimony to every attribute – good, bad and infuriating – that he brought to a doughty but ultimately inadequate Test career.
On Saturday at the Ageas Bowl, Denly was faced, not for the first time, with reinvigorating a failing England batting display. He showed grit in abundance as he settled in for another of his long hauls. But then, with the hardest work done, a flaccid clip to midwicket off the spin of Roston Chase meant that he bowed out for the 28th and final time with 29 from 70 balls – barely half a point shy of his final Test average of 29.53, and just five balls short of his mean stay at the wicket.
There have been other, more lauded, Test batsmen who’ve averaged worse than that – Mark Ramprakash (27.32) and Moeen Ali (28.97) among them, while Graeme Hick (31.32) and the still unimpeachable Jos Buttler (31.46) are only a tick above.
A degree of mockery is inevitable, not least because of the close attentions Denly received from his former Kent team-mate and chief selector, Ed Smith, who talked him up as a “genius” prior to his Sri Lanka recall and tried so hard to crowbar him into England’s World Cup plans too. But Denly’s durability deserves to be celebrated with something more than just an ironic cheer.
For history may record his highest Test score as 94, but it would be remiss to ignore his haul of nine “Denturies” in the space of 13 innings: stays of 100 balls or more that have entered a certain niche of cricket folklore, much as the “Cowan”, of Australian Ed fame, did during Michael Clarke’s rebuilding years of 2012-13.
For that has been Denly’s fate in the course of a cross-over era for English cricket. Consider the chaos that he was asked to help sweep up on debut in the Caribbean 18 months ago – England had just been bowled out for 77 in the first Test in Barbados, losing nine wickets in a single session. And if that was bad, then at least it was a slight improvement on the ten-in-a-session that they had squandered at Auckland, Dhaka and Nottingham in the preceding seasons.
The Test team was rudderless. Alastair Cook was long gone, the one-day stars were preoccupied with staying in character for the fast-approaching World Cup, and though England in theory had the most awesome lower-middle order in the game, with every man-jack from 5 to 9 considering himself an allrounder, there was no hope of them getting a toe-hold in any contest if the team was 30 for 3 in every innings.
What England needed in that period, more desperately even than runs, was time. A chance to take a breath, whether that was the middle-order themselves, or England’s seamers who were getting justifiably sick of having their feet up for barely half a day at a time. And Denly, with the unglamorous grit of the seasoned pro, was able to oblige.
In a five-month zenith between August 2019 and January this year, Denly evolved into a batting barnacle straight out of Chris Tavare’s playbook. It started most famously in the second innings of the Ashes Test at Leeds, where Denly’s dour, uncelebrated but ultimately priceless 50 from 155 balls provided the grit for Ben Stokes’ Headingley oyster.
The pair did not share so much as a single delivery in that historic second innings – instead they crossed in the outfield after Denly’s dismissal in the 60th over of England’s innings. And yet, by enduring for that long, and in helping to gnaw 141 runs out of an improbable victory target of 359, he did what few England No.3s had managed since the demise of Jonathan Trott. He gave England’s middle order a rare chance to bed in before the new ball, and flourish thereafter.
And more recently, his efforts gave England’s next big thing the leeway to blossom too. By drawing the heat away from Ollie Pope in the early months of his return to the side, Denly allowed him to settle into the team at No. 6, Ricky Ponting-style, rather than leave him to become yet another sacrifice to the team’s waning standards in the top three. That’ll be Pope’s berth soon enough, you sense. But doing things in a rush has been England’s downfall in Tests for far too many seasons now.
“‘It’s never an easy decision to lose someone from the team,” said Root on the eve of the Test. “Joe has done a brilliant job over a period of time for us and I suppose he’s helped show our identity as a side and the way we want to play moving forward. He’s been a big part of that by batting long periods of time and laying the platform for the middle order to go on and make big scores.”
That much is true, and at least on this occasion, Denly will depart with some gratitude ringing in his ears – unlike his experience back in 2010, when he was dumped on the eve of the World T20 in the Caribbean, and had to look on from the outside as England lifted their maiden global trophy.
He spent the rest of the decade presuming he’d never get another chance. At least this time he gets to finish as an insider.
Source: ESPN Crickinfo