Jo Harman speaks to England and Kent batsman Joe Denly about how he has adapted to the various roles he has been required to fill for his country.
In the 14 months since Joe Denly made an unexpected return to international cricket, it’s often seemed England haven’t been exactly sure what he is or what to do with him.
Initially recalled as much for his leg-spin as his batting, Denly took four wickets in his first England appearance for eight years. A surprise call-up for England’s provisional World Cup squad followed, as back-up spinner to Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, but a few weeks later, having been used sparingly – and that’s generous – by Eoin Morgan in the warm-up series against Pakistan, he was dropped from the final squad in favour of Liam Dawson, a decision which Denly conceded at the time was probably the right one.
His role with the bat has also caused confusion. In white-ball cricket the few chances he’s had have been in an unfamiliar middle-order position, and in the 10 Tests he’s played he’s yet to bat in one spot for more than three matches in a row.
A less experienced player might have found it all a bit discombobulating. But Denly, who at the age of 32 became the oldest specialist batsman to make his Test debut for England since Alan Wells in 1995 when he received his cap in Antigua in January, has remained unruffled.
Now, ahead of a four-Test series in South Africa – and having looked in good nick in New Zealand without nailing a big score, taking his average to 30 from 19 knocks – he has an opportunity to cement his place at No.3. Becoming the first England batsman to reach three figures in that position since Jonny Bairstow’s enraged hundred at Colombo in November 2018, 11 Tests ago, would be the perfect place to start.
“I enjoy batting at No.3 and hopefully I can make that spot mine for a while now,” Denly tells Wisden, shortly before flying out to South Africa. “But I don’t take each day for granted. At my age, if I’ve played my last Test, I’ve played my last Test. I’m enjoying my cricket and wherever I’m asked to bat, I’m happy. I’m pretty chilled about it.”
When handing Denly his Test cap at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Michael Atherton spoke of the “resilience” and “endurance” the Kent stalwart had shown to reach that point. “The way you’ve reinvented yourself in the last couple of years is a great example for everybody in the county game,” said the former England captain.
That reinvention, from a batsman who bowled very occasional leggies to a genuine bowling option, led to a haul of 57 wickets across all formats and county cricket’s MVP award in 2018. It also helped pave the way for his reintroduction to the England set-up, even though he’s only bowled 22 overs in Test cricket since.
With a dearth of spin-bowling options at England’s disposal ahead of the 2018 tour to Sri Lanka, Denly’s secondary skill pushed him to the top of the queue of batsmen waiting for a Test call-up – ironic given that he started working harder on his bowling to make himself a more useful asset in limited-overs cricket, particularly with a view to securing T20 contracts around the world.
“The way T20 cricket was going, with the need for wrist-spinners, I decided to take it a little bit more seriously,” says Denly. “T20 and one-day cricket is just crying out for all-rounders. The opportunity to bowl in the powerplay for Kent was exciting, and I really enjoyed doing that. Hopefully I’ll do that a lot more with Kent and England and can continue playing international cricket for a little while longer. And then, once that’s finished, hopefully I can play in these T20 leagues around the world and my bowling will add a bit more value to my name.”
In fairness, Denly had been touting his bowling credentials for a while. But Rob Key, his former skipper at Kent who instigated his move back to Canterbury in 2015 after a chastening three-year spell at Middlesex, was unconvinced.
“He would always ask me to bowl and I’d sort of laugh and think, really?” says Key. “I actually remember Shane Warne watching him bowl in the middle while we were chatting on the balcony and he said, ‘Who’s that bowling? He bowls it nicely’. I probably should have listened to him. Nowadays leg-spin has become so fashionable. Joe’s now better than a part-timer.”
Even more significant than the readjustment of his role has been Denly’s reappraisal of his attitude towards the game following his return to Kent, and the birth of his first child, Henry, in 2016. (A second child, Rosie, arrived last summer, two days before Denly came within six runs of a maiden Test hundred at The Oval.)
Having played nine ODIs and five T20Is across 2009 and 2010 as a 23-year-old, Denly left the club where he’d grown up and moved to Middlesex, determined to win back his England place.
Who are you most excited to see?
Squad: Sibley, Burns, Denly, Root (c), Stokes, Pope, Buttler (wk), S Curran, Leach, Archer, Broad, Woakes, Anderson, Wood, Parkinson, Bairstow, Crawleyhttps://t.co/USP66Hke0v
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) December 8, 2019
After a solid first season in 2012, attempts to modify his grip backfired horribly – “I’d literally forgotten how to hold a cricket bat” – and he eventually found himself dropped to Middlesex’s second team.
“If I get on a little bad trot and I’m not scoring runs, I can reflect on that period,” he says. “Because I don’t think I’ll ever be as low as I was then, and I’ve come through that. I’ve certainly become a stronger and better person for it.”
After speaking to Key, he headed back to the home comforts of Kent, where he rediscovered his love for the game and found new perspective.
“A big reason for my success over the last few years has been coming back to Kent and just enjoying my cricket. And since I’ve got selected for England I’ve taken that same approach. I have a much better understanding of my game and I think I deal with failure a lot better than I did when I was a bit younger. And success, too. I’ve learnt to be pretty level-headed whether I’m doing well or not doing so well. It’s not the be-all and end-all – it’s not the end of the world.”
Key believes his former opening partner is now well set to grasp an opportunity which, by his own admission, Denly thought had passed him by.
“When I watch him now, he learns quite quickly. That’s what you want from a senior player in Test cricket, which he is. He’s not been picked to have 10 games to learn how to play. He very quickly corrects the things that he does wrong. He’s smart and experienced enough to have a game for all kinds of different situations, which is something that not everyone has got in county cricket. He can score quick, he can score slow, he can hang in there, he can see off the new ball, he can hit the spinner, he can block the spinner. He can adapt to the situation.”
Denly will no doubt have his hands full in South Africa against his former Kent teammate Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander – who average 19.12 and 18.65 respectively on home soil – but it’s just the latest challenge for a 33-year-old who’s seen pretty much everything the game has to offer, and learnt to take the rough with the smooth.
To read an in-depth interview with Joe Denly, including how he overcame the batting yips and how it feels to drop ‘the easiest catch in Test history’, buy the January issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly