Joe Denly misses out on century but steers England to dominant position
Suddenly Joe Denly is a Test batsman. Actually, he has been tiptoeing in this direction throughout this series, when he has failed to reach double figures on two occasions. But here on a serene September day Denly posted his highest Test score, an elegant yet exasperating 94, in front of a full house.
This will not be as good a feeling as becoming a father for the second time, which was the case on Thursday night, but his future as an international cricketer now looks much brighter. The winter tours beckon. He will surely resume his partnership with Rory Burns at the top of the order in New Zealand in November. Denly and Burns may not have quite the same ring as Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Vaughan and Trescothick or Strauss and Cook but there is now scope to get used to the identity of England’s latest old firm.
Joe Denly sets sights on England winter tours after setting new Test best
Denly had a little good fortune along the way. He was badly dropped before scoring on Friday night by Marcus Harris. On 54, he would have been lbw to Mitchell Marsh if Australia had sought a review and he was also the beneficiary of a track, that was, to borrow the phrase of Joel Garner, sleeping for much of Saturday. The pitch was now biscuit brown and slower once the ball had lost its hardness. It remained trustworthy, a source of torment for willing, yet weary, Australian pacemen, while offering Nathan Lyon occasional turn.
Denly seemed more relaxed than at any time in his Test career; maybe the perspective of fatherhood helps. When Lyon was introduced early on he popped down the pitch to hit him straight for four and then six.
In between diligent defence there were silky cover drives and clips off his legs against the pacemen. No longer did he look like an intruder. Perhaps he froze a little in the 90s. In his final over at the crease he rejected an easy single to cover before edging into the hands of Steve Smith at first slip. By then England’s lead was nearing 300.
In the morning Burns and Denly had compiled 54, doubling the highest opening partnership of the series. Burns had been businesslike again but he edged when cutting Lyon, which has been one of his most productive shots of the summer.
Joe Root started skittishly by the standards of this series but an open-faced push against the off-spinner soon guided the ball to slip. He needs to be prorogued as soon as possible before a busy winter.
The afternoon session belonged to England. It was a rare wicketless one, during which 105 runs were added in 30 overs. Stokes was dropped by Smith on seven, cutting at Lyon but thereafter he looked rock solid, a reassuring presence at No 4. He took his time at the start but gradually expanded the range of his strokeplay, confirming the notion that he would now be a cast-iron regular in this England side even if he was unable to bowl a ball.
As usual in this match there was a rapid flurry of wickets in the final session, six of them as if there was a conspiracy to finish it off in four days. Stokes was bowled for 67 by a beauty from Lyon, which clipped his off-stump. These two have had an absorbing duel throughout the summer with Lyon beating the outside edge on countless occasions while Stokes has resolutely bided his time. Then, after Denly’s departure, Jonny Bairstow could only flicker briefly before being deftly caught at slip by Smith off Marsh.
Next it was Jos Buttler’s turn to benefit from Australia’s ineptitude in their use of DRS. When Buttler was on 19, Lyon, switching to bowling over the wicket, hit the pads and he appealed vigorously. Umpire Kumar Dharmasena was unmoved and Tim Paine declined to review; the replay duly revealed the three red lights, which would have sent Buttler on his way. Paine will, no doubt, have a fruitful career when he tosses his gauntlets aside but it will not be as an umpire.
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Buttler had begun his innings with a stream of drives but then he felt the need for some restraint to ensure a formidable target for Australia, a reasonable precaution given that anything is possible this summer. He has slowly rediscovered his form in this series, which was highlighted by several sumptuous cover drives in the final hour. Assuming he continues as a specialist batsman he should bat at six – and no lower – throughout the winter. Currently, he suggests more permanence than Bairstow.
Meanwhile, the impish Sam Curran batted with fewer inhibitions. He kept swishing at Marsh and occasionally connected but then he glanced against Cummins and was caught down the leg side for 17.
Chris Woakes fell to a superb diving catch by Smith, not bad for a man suffering from a touch of influenza, and Marsh had registered his seventh wicket of the Test. The next ball was bowled by Siddle and Buttler’s pull shot was caught just as brilliantly by Marnus Labuschagne running in from the square-leg boundary.
The lead stands at 382 with two fragile wickets remaining. It should be enough for England – if they can get Smith out.