ENGLAND IN WEST INDIES, 2019
Even with luck on his side, Joe Denly will rest knowing he did not use it fully © AFP
You need luck to be an international cricketer and even more to continue as one. Ed Smith knows as much.
The national selector, who fulfilled the first part by breaking into the England side but only managed a stay of three Tests, wrote a book on the phenomenon. In it Smith talks through the tangible examples of luck, such as your upbringing or the school you attend, and the vagaries of, say, the bounce of a ball. Among many conclusions is Smith’s belief that the amount of luck that contributes to success is often underestimated.
So when Smith picked Kent’s Joe Denly to tour this winter, after a summer of due diligence from the selector and years of improvement from the selected, success for both could be determined by elements beyond their control.
Smith watched the 32-year-old during the latter part of the 2018 season, watching the quirks and movements that don’t necessarily show up in a highlights package – certainly not one shot from a single stationary camera behind the bowler’s arm. He also crunched Denly’s numbers over the last couple of seasons of first-class cricket to calculate an expected Test average, with those runs weighed down accordingly to reflect the fact they were scored in Division Two. Even so, the Kent man still stood out among his peers.
Denly had also put the work in. A tighter technique and a more trusting mind helped furnish those two seasons with 2,200 runs – nine centuries and eight fifties in there – at an average of 48. Twenty20 returns were also reflective of this change, and it was in the shortest format that wider recognition came with stints at the Pakistan Super League and Australia’s Big Bash League off the back of commanding T20 Blast summers. But even with his improvement bringing opportunity, the cards had to fall his way.
His first favourable hand came when he profited from Keaton Jennings’s dire form to earn his debut in the second Test in Antigua. But it was on day three at St. Lucia, in the space of three balls, that Denly earned his most sizeable strokes of fortune.
Both came during the 14th over, as Shannon Gabriel was tearing in. Rory Burns had been dismissed off the first ball of the day and Keaton Jennings was being read his last rites. England had a first innings lead of 156 that soon became 160 as Denly lashed a fine drive to the cover boundary. As it happens, it should never have got there, but Keemo Paul, catching up to the ball, aborted abruptly as his right quadricep pinged. Two deliveries later, a sharp delivery off a good length caught Denly by surprise to offer a simple catch to Shimron Hetmyer at third slip. It was not taken. Gabriel roared in anguish.
Not only did the batsmen get a life on 12, but the West Indies had lost their fourth seamer, Paul, who was the pick of their bowlers on the opening morning of the Test. Gabriel’s dismay, while primarily aimed at the drop, was also a release of frustration at a hamstring niggle he was doing his utmost to stave off. An opportunity had opened up for Denly to make hay against a bowling attack a man-and-a-half down, with England already in a commanding lead. And make hay he did.
The most impressive thing about this iteration of Denly is how he has been able to keep his shot-making ability while developing a more reliable defensive game. The disappointments of his first stint with England around 10 years ago and an erratic stint at Middlesex have not phased him. He was keen to cut on a pitch where the bounce could not be trusted and what edges came were high and over the cordon as Denly ensured he was not pulling his punches. The shot off his 73rd delivery to bring up his maiden Test fifty – a push back past Kemar Roach – was the best of the lot.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this knock was how he already seems to be learning from his mistakes. His second innings dismissal on debut saw him bowled while leaving a delivery from Alzarri Joseph that cut in sharply. To ensure he would not be undone by such a delivery again – Roach, too, brings the stumps into play from a wide angle – he simply moved across to off stump. It is a fairly straightforward remedy but only one a seasoned professional with 15 years as a professional can make with such ease and in so little time between Tests. England may look to younger batsmen to solve their top-order issues, but here was a situation in which Denly’s 32 years were a clear strength.
Yet even with luck on his side, Denly will rest tonight knowing he did not use it fully.
On 69, he tried a cut too many and under-edged Gabriel through to the keeper. It meant he missed out on cheap runs when West Indies leaned on Roston Chase and Kraigg Brathwaite to take them to the second new ball. Runs that would have taken him to three figures. Runs that would have cemented his spot for the upcoming summer Tests against Ireland and in the Ashes.
Joe Root and Jos Buttler were beneficiaries of this particular passage: the England captain registering century number 16 while Buttler notched his second fifty of the match. The lead is now an insurmountable 448.
England look set to leave these shores with at least a tan and a consolation win, which is far less than they expected when they arrived at the start of January. While there will be an inquest of sorts to determine just how badly selection and performance had been in the first two Tests, they do at least leave with a handful of certainties. Jennings’s time has passed. Mark Wood can be a force at this level. Root should be left at four with Buttler, Stokes and Bairstow behind him.
Denly, though, fell short of making No. 3 his own. He may get the nod come the end of July, but he will return to county cricket with something still to prove and, like Burns, hope heads are not turned by other contenders. A little bit more luck would not go amiss.