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Learning on the job: Joe Denly shows his worth at the top

by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 5 minute read

Joe Denly may have fallen six runs short of a maiden Test century at The Oval, but he should remain a part of England’s future Test plans, writes Yas Rana.

The American author John Green once said: “The nature of impending fatherhood is that you are doing something that you’re unqualified to do, and then you become qualified while doing it.”

The same logic can be applied to being an England opener.

Joe Denly isn’t really an opening batsman. Before being promoted to the top of the order for the Manchester Test, he had opened the batting just once in the last four years in county cricket. But here he is doing it in the Ashes against the best new-ball pairing in world cricket.

After being afforded a second life late last night courtesy of a drop from Marcus Harris, Denly knuckled down to produce his most accomplished innings of what could still be the nascent phase of his Test career. Whether it was becoming a father for the second time or knowing that this may well be his last outing as a Test cricketer – Tom Westley’s most confident innings for England was his last, a fluent 44* in a small run-chase – there was a controlled freedom to Denly’s batting.

He was confident from the outset, clipping Pat Cummins off his pads for two off the first delivery of the day and following that with a glorious straight drive to the fence two balls later. Denly is arguably the most aesthetically pleasing batsman in the England side. We know that he’s good to watch. He’d shown guts at Headingley, but what we didn’t know until today was whether or not he possessed the bloody-mindedness to lock away his shots when necessary to compile a match-defining score.

Too often this series he’s been guilty of gifting his wicket away to the opposition. Twice he’s edged behind when driving extravagantly, another time he handed Peter Siddle a simple caught & bowled chance on a plate. Only Matthew Wade has been out more times than Denly while attacking this series, according to CricViz.

A source of frustration until now has been that Denly has the defensive game to succeed in Test cricket. Of the 390 balls he’s defended or left this series, he’s been dismissed just twice. For context, only Steve Smith has got out defending or leaving the ball less frequently than Denly.

So he’s got the shots and he can defend. Handy, right? He married those two facets perfectly today. After taking six off the first three balls of the day, he went 26 deliveries without adding to his score. After hitting Nathan Lyon for 14 runs off six balls, he scored just 13 runs from the next 15 overs as Rory Burns and Joe Root departed at the other end.

What’s more, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Denly and his opening partner are laying the blueprint for how this England side goes about their batting as England approach the post-Bayliss era. The changes are already in motion: England have batted for at least 87 overs in each of their innings since being bundled out for 67 in the first innings at Headingley. Not long ago, that would have been nothing to write home about. But this is England in 2019 we’re talking about.

And it’s Burns and Denly who are leading by example. Both batsmen have been more than happy to occupy the crease and negate the Australia attack when they’ve bowled well, showing the ‘over my dead body’ attitude so often missing from England’s recent Test cricket. Both have adapted admirably over the course of the series. Burns in his approach to the short ball, Denly in his more selective shot-making.

Denly wasn’t totally chanceless today. Marais Erasmus and Tim Paine conspired to somehow not give out and subsequently review an adjacent lbw appeal off Mitch Marsh – the roar from the crowd when the DRS timer hit zero told both all they needed to know.

But Denly deserved his slice of fortune. It’s been well documented just how difficult opening the batting is in Test cricket at the moment. It’s hard enough succeeding as a specialist, let alone as someone parachuted in at the last minute.

You could argue that Denly is an ‘accidental’ Test cricketer. Debuting as a 32-year-old a decade after his first go as an international, he was brought back to the England set-up almost as much for his part-time leg-spin as his batting. There will be a handful of county cricketers out there looking at Denly thinking, ‘that could have been me’.  If he might be an accidental Test cricketer then he is definitely an accidental opener. Both of his stints as opener have come replacing a horribly out-of-form incumbent.

Although he fell six short of a maiden century, you’d think that he’ll have plenty more chances to try again. Something that seemed unlikely at the start of the day. His innings today has not only assured that England are overwhelming favourites to level the series – a win that would stretch their unbeaten streak at home against Australia to 18 years – it’s all but guaranteed Denly a prolonged spell in the side.

It’s unlikely that Denly will ever average 40, but that’s okay. There’s a glaring shortage of top-order batsmen banging down the door in county cricket and Denly has more than shown that he’s up for the job. After all, Atherton, Hussain and Butcher, three of England’s finest batsmen of their generation, all ended their careers with sub-40 averages. Nor at 33 is he a long-term fix to England’s top-order problems. He’ll probably secretly hope that his 94 today will be rewarded with a move back down to his favoured number three with Dom Sibley a near-certain pick for the winter tours. But for now, he can rest assured that he now belongs in this team. Forget his route into the side, he’s shown that he deserves to stay.

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