No hundred, but no complaints for England's nearly man Joe Denly

ESPN Cricinfo

ESPN Cricinfo

Author 2019-09-15 03:55:00

Nearly but not quite. It has been that sort of summer for Joe Denly.

Cricket can be a cruel game, never more so than when the hard work and concentration that goes into scoring a Test hundred comes to naught with the milestone in sight. Denly was close enough to touch that elusive, maiden three-figure innings in an England shirt, only to trudge back to the Oval dressing rooms after five hours' painstaking work an agonising six runs short.

Never mind the fact that the difference between a century and the 94 Denly made was negligible in the context of the match. His efforts on day three of this final Test ensured that England were able to cruise comfortably into a position of series-levelling intent, their lead picking up steam towards 400 in front of a well-oiled Saturday evening crowd.

Team success is usually held to trump individual achievement, but Denly's disappointment is bound to niggle for a while. You'd speculate about whether it might keep him up at night - but with his second child having arrived just a couple of days ago, that box is probably already ticked.

ALSO READ: Denly and Stokes build England's chance for series-levelling win

With the flak flying for England's underperforming batting line-up during a series in which only Rory Burns and Ben Stokes have stood up squarely to the challenge posed by the touring attack, Denly has found himself repeatedly in the firing line. He has been a moving target - shunted from No. 3 to No. 4 and then up to opener in the space of five Tests - but an easy one, too, as a 33-year-old who averaged in the mid-20s and yet seemed to have the favour of England's national selector, and fellow Kent man, Ed Smith.

There has been a method at work here, however. For a while now, England have used a system of "weighted averages" to provide a more contextual view of batting performance, in relation to factors such as conditions and opposition. In a Financial Times interview this week, Smith revealed that Denly's weighted average in Tests was 46, compared with just under 25 (before this match) going by the traditional metric.

And the evidence of the series has been that Denly, even while visibly struggling, has poured himself into the job. He scrapped for 155 balls for 50 at Headingley to help lay the groundwork for Stokes' miracle turn. In the fourth innings at Old Trafford, with the Ashes on the line, no-one batted for longer than Denly's 177 minutes or scored more than his 53 runs.

Still, a couple of fighting fifties would probably not be enough to prevent those on the outside looking from wondering whether England shouldn't just quietly move on this winter. A hundred on the CV would have strengthened his case, but Denly was nevertheless hopeful of prolonging his involvement.

"It would have been nice to get to that milestone, of course, having worked so hard to get into that position," he said. "But England are in a very good position going into day four, hopefully we can get a few more runs and put them under pressure.

"When you're batting at the top of the order for England there's always that pressure and expectation for you to score runs and do well. It's been frustrating at times this series to get starts and not be able to capitalise. I felt pretty good today. This Australian attack is certainly up there and make you work hard for every single run. Hopefully I've impressed the selectors and the guys who pick the winter tours. We'll have to wait and see."

There have been several career-shaping hundreds scored by England batsmen at this ground in recent memory - from Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott in Ashes contests, to the innings that salvaged Alastair Cook's game, against Pakistan in 2010. Had he got there, Denly's would probably not have echoed quite so resonantly, with the Ashes already gone, but it would nevertheless have been the bellwether achievement of his 15 years as a professional.

In keeping with his series, he gave Australia some chances. If Marcus Harris had held on to a regulation catch at gully as the shadows lengthened on Friday, he would not have been out to take his guard beneath a blazing September sun on the third morning. As it was, he was able to clip Pat Cummins calmly off his pads from the first ball of the day, before confidently stroking four down the ground in the same over.

His pre-emptive attack on Nathan Lyon helped settle home nerves, and consecutive lofted drives down the ground for four and six put England's openers on course for their first 50 partnership since the Bridgetown Test in January. Whether Denly and Burns will be the men to face the new ball in New Zealand later this year remains a question for Smith.

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He was floored by a blow to the box from Cummins, but dusted himself off to go again - just as he did each time the ball passed either his inside or outside edge. Had Australia chosen to review a Mitchell Marsh lbw appeal on 54, he would have been sent on his way by DRS. In the 60s he just managed to clear the clunking leap of Marsh at mid-off; in the 70s, he edged Peter Siddle half a yard short of Tim Paine.

It seemed a dirty-but-sweet hundred was his for the taking. But moments after Siddle had brought one back through his defence, Denly's mouth forming a Munchian scream as the ball passed silently over the stumps, the outside edge was clipped again and this time the catch was held.

In one of the other trouser legs of time, Denly is a World Cup winner. His inclusion in the preliminary squad, before subsequently being omitted for Liam Dawson, provided a rare loose thread in England's white-ball tapestry. There were no complaints, however, as Denly went back to Kent and prepared for Test duty.

An Ashes hundred would have been fitting reward, but even without both he and England look set to finish the summer on a high.

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