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Joe Denly: A new beginning or noble end?

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner 5 minute read

Ben Gardner reports on day three of the third Ashes Test at Headingley, where Joe Denly played a gutsy hand of 50 to keep England afloat in the series.

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On July 14, Joe Denly made 138 for Kent against Hampshire. You might not have paid attention to this, since at Lord’s the greatest cricket match of all time was taking place, but it happened.

It was an innings that sealed his place in England’s side for the opening throes of the Test summer, and one which demonstrated his mental fortitude. It’s hard to imagine being inside Denly’s head, as a squad he was excluded from at the last possible moment embarked on an era-defining adventure, but whatever it was, it didn’t affect his batting; between his axing and the start of England’s Test against Ireland he scored more Division One runs than any other middle-order candidate. That strength was on show again today as he entered with England 10-2, the Ashes all but gone less than halfway through the series, and a general assumption that he’d be gone by Old Trafford.

But it was also an example of his innate ability to fade into the background at any given moment, like a khaki-clad chameleon. Before today, after making six in his maiden Test knock, he had made it into double figures in 11 consecutive innings, but passed 30 only once, never truly failing, but definitely not succeeding either. In the debacles against Ireland at Lord’s and Australia here, he was England’s least bad player in each. He has averaged either 39 or 40 four of the last five calendar years in first-class cricket, which is the exact definition of neither here nor there.

Even today was not really about him as much as it was about Marnus Labuschagne, Joe Root, and the prize at stake. Root outscored and outplayed him, and a score of 50 might not be enough to secure his place at Old Trafford, with England likely to ring the changes after a still-probable defeat.

In many ways it’s been an accidental Test career, with Denly sticking around like that gifted box of herbal tea – it’s not hurting anyone, and there’s no real reason to get rid of it. Who knows, one day you might fancy a cup of lemon, ginger and manuka honey?

After a precocious start, some time in the wilderness and a few years of solid if not extraordinary run-scoring, he earned a spot for England’s Sri Lanka tour mostly because he’d improved his part-time leg-spin. He didn’t play but England won 3-0 so stuck with their group, and he was picked only when the management looked around and realised they didn’t have a third opener knocking about. Then in his last innings of the series he made a good half-century, kept his place, and here we are.

If England do lose and the axe does fall, maybe that’s fair. His false-shot percentage today was his lowest in a Test innings worth more than 11, but also only just below the series average. It feels like maybe Denly’s best is just about good enough.

But if it wasn’t that good, it was an immensely gutsy knock. Most impressive was how, despite getting hit on the body and edging and missing, he never let it faze him, always focusing on the next ball and never attempting to hit his way out of trouble. No Englishman has faced more than 50 balls in an innings this series and left a higher percentage of deliveries than Denly did today.

The only time he attacked was when Australia dug it in, scoring 22 off 34 balls which were either short or bouncer length, and these included the shot of the day, a front-foot pull which raced through midwicket to take England’s runs required below 300. It was maybe the first moment today victory didn’t feel totally fanciful. But it was a bouncer too which brought his downfall, gloving behind trying to get out the way, 21 balls and no runs after bringing up his half-century.

After he was dismissed he remarked his guard, a bit like Jonathan Trott used to, scuffed the turf, and hung around. He chatted to Root, though there can have been no thought of review, and then trudged off, perhaps wondering what might have been, perhaps just hoping to extend what might be the last moments of a Test career which, evaluated right now, can be seen simultaneously as hard-won and lucky to have happened, and extended past its due and just getting started.

If this is to be the end, it was a valedictory knock, one to remind England, who may be about to embark on a Test tear-up akin to their seismic style shift in ODIs after the 2015 World Cup, of some of the virtues required of long-form batting, and one to give the fans hope, pride, and something to cling to when all seemed lost.

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