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Why backing Joe Denly makes sense for England

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner 4 minute read

Ben Gardner examines the contrasting selection cases of Joe Denly and Zak Crawley, and explains why it’s too early to write off the former’s England Test career.

“They are now in a straight shootout. It’s not exaggeration to say that Crawley is one good score away from ending Denly’s career in the next Test.”

Speaking on the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine editor Jo Harman was simply spelling out what has become the prevailing narrative in the media, both written and social, about the apparently overdue end of Joe Denly’s Test career. Zak Crawley now has that one good score, and for Denly, with a batting average five below his age, and with two more neither-here-nor-there scores of 18 and 29 to his name in this game, that surely should be that.

The only issue, as far as that goes, is that it has since become clear that England don’t see it that way.

Head coach Chris Silverwood was asked about the dilemma on the Tuffers and Vaughan Show, and could easily have kept his cards close, spoken about the benefits of robust competition for places and extolled the virtues of each without leaning in any direction. Instead, he offered his backing to England’s incumbent first-drop.

“Joe is in possession at the moment, and I do believe in giving people one too many chances rather than one not enough,” he said. “He’ll be given an opportunity, he’ll be backed.”

The naturally verbose Ed Smith, England’s national selector, was similarly supportive, speaking to the media after the squad for the first Test was announced.

“England have come off the back of three consecutive Test victories and there is clearly an emerging Test plan from coach Chris Silverwood and Joe Root, supported by the selectors, about how they are setting up the team,” he said. “There has been a real emphasis on solidity at the top of the order and getting a bank of first-innings runs so that the bowlers can bowl as a unit and win games of cricket. There has been more solidity this winter and Joe has been a big part of that.

“The standout performances may have come down the order from four, five or six but the platform has been laid by the top order. Joe has made lots of good starts, lots of good contributions. Obviously as a top-order batter he would like to convert those starts into hundreds and big hundreds, that goes for any batsman. But it is fully understood that he has contributed to good team batting performances and contributed very well at times.”

That hasn’t stopped plenty from being read into the pair’s contrasting performances in this game, with Crawley’s 86 runs in the game, compared to Denly’s 47, cited as the final nail in the latter’s coffin. But there is little reason to think England’s view has changed, especially when, by the criteria discussed by Smith, he fulfilled his brief, as he has done throughout his Test career.

In the first innings, after coming in inside the second over, he ensured Crawley didn’t have to come in until the 24th, weathering a testing period on the first day. In the second, it was 51.3 overs until Crawley entered, against part-time spinners, tiring quicks and a wearing ball. Sure, it was the younger man who top-scored with 76, but the England management will view some of those runs as effectively earned by Denly.

In a way, while Denly did his job, of blunting the new ball and laying the platform, Crawley didn’t do his, falling when he could have put the game out of sight and laid down an unanswerable marker. As it is, Denly may well keep his place when Root returns. And it might not be the worst decision either.

Crawley, it should be said, did look excellent value for his 76, and seems to possess that extra split-second of reaction time that can separate the haves from the have nots at the top level. But he also has just three first-class hundreds and an average of 31. For all his promise, he averages fewer than two runs per dismissal more than Denly in Tests and, crucially, faces 64.75 balls per dismissal, set against Denly’s 74.5. England would rather their No.3 score 29 off 75 rather than 31 off 65. There is some sense in that. Denly’s case is bolstered by how often he reaches double figures, which he has done now in 24 of his 28 Test innings. There is arguably no better staller of a top-order collapse in the country.

The other argument is that this isn’t about the present but the future. Denly is 34, Crawley 22, it goes. With bigger challenges in India and Australia to come over the next two winters, now is the time to bed Crawley in, rather than ask him to try and make his way while also facing down the two best attacks in the world.

But 34 is no age really, and nor is 35, as Denly will be when the big rumble Down Under gets underway. While England play so much cricket that their best tend to be burned out by their mid-30s – not since Nasser Hussain have England fielded a 36-year-old Test batsman – Pakistan’s Misbah-ul-Haq scored 4,509 of his 5,222 Test runs after his 35th birthday, at an average of 47.46. England may feel that Denly is doing OK for now, and that Test cricket hasn’t seen the best of him yet.

And building for the future doesn’t mean simply picking all your best young players in the same team. For England’s potential worldie at No.6, it means giving him the platforms to flourish rather than forcing him to counterattack and rebuild, while for Crawley, a season in county cricket, putting together a first proper campaign of note away from the limelight, might be preferable compared to a run in a team against two skilful Test attacks where he’ll be only a few failures away from being the next head on an increasingly bloody chopping block.

Crawley may well be the future. But for right now, with two tricky home Test series against capable opposition in front of them, and vital World Test Championship points to be hoovered up, England seem to have concluded that Denly is the man for present. Wishing that that weren’t the case won’t make it so.

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