‘There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.’ – Gladiator (2000)
As an avid proponent of Kent Cricket, over recent seasons the prospect of one of our players gaining that ever elusive Test cap has felt remarkably similar to Marcus Aurelius’s vision of Rome. Yet change is in the air. Kent are back in the First Division and Joe Denly is on the plane to Sri Lanka, what next, Steve Smith signing on for a season at the Spitfire Ground?
So with just over two weeks to go before we get a glimpse at England’s latest offering to Test Cricket, the question on every fan’s lips is who will be in England’s top three for the first innings at Galle.
Joe Denly would certainly not have been the first name to come to mind before before Ed Smith’s squad was announced last month. I myself was certainly a bit taken aback given that the last time I recalled hearing Denly’s name being banded around as an England hopeful I was playing for the same county, albeit for the under-12 side.
For years Denly has been the poster boy for unfulfilled potential that has seemed to hang like a dark cloud over Canterbury, with runners up including the likes of Sam Northeast and Robbie Joseph. Added to this, a mediocre spell at Middlesex where he managed just two centuries in three seasons, left any England hopes in ruin.
However, in the last two seasons Denly has found a fresh vein of form, topping the runs list at Kent this year and was the most valuable player of 2018 according to the Professional Cricketers Association. On top of this, the 32-year-old net bowler turned full-time leg spinner took 20 wickets at 18.90 this season, a fact that will no doubt be in the back of the selectors minds.
Yet for the part of me that hopes Denly is the answer to England’s top order crisis, the other sees it as a desperate quick-fix from a selectors panel out of ideas. Many will expect to see Keaton Jennings and Rory Burns walking out to kick off England’s first innings in Galle with the former seeming to be the recipient of the longest cricketing apprenticeship scheme in recent memory, and the latter a rising star of English cricket, topping the County Championship runs list at an average of 69 this season.
What’s more if the ECB’s social media is anything to go by, Moen Ali isn’t just being elevated to Number 3 but an omnipotent cricketing deity. Whilst they clearly hope we’ve all forgotten his painfully scratchy 50 in the last innings of the summer, it seems likely the experiment will continue into the current tour.
This is also ignoring the growing clamour for the inclusion of white-ball superstar Jason Roy in the Test side. Whilst his mercurial performances may not offer the consistency England’s batting so desperately needs, Roy is undeniably an exceptional talent. We have already witnessed the substantial impact Jos Butler has had on the side and it seems a waste that his immaculate cover drives should be confined to limited overs cricket.
So where does this leave our protagonist? Well the numbers certainly aren’t on his side. Despite an undoubtedly successful season his average of 37 in the Second Division isn’t going to set the world alight, and will leave the likes of Vince and Hildreth scratching their heads about what they have to do to get in the side. Moreover, at 32 he doesn’t offer a long term solution and only adds weight to the argument that his inclusion was more of an afterthought – who knows, maybe the fact he made his fist class debut with Ed Smith had something to do with it.
Yet if England’s recent batting failures have taught us anything it is that stats reflect precious little about how a player is going to react on the biggest stage. A glance through the leading averages in recent seasons reads like a morbid hall of failure for England batsmen – Compton, Balance, Lyth, Stoneman, need I say more.
It is because of this that I truly believe Denly has a chance. He quite literally has nothing to lose. He’s already tasted the bitterness of not living up to his billing at international level and despite this has played his way back from the brink of obscurity into the limelight. Therefore, the decision to fill the void left by Alasdair Cook with a wily county veteran rather than a nervous youngster could just prove to be the missing link England have been searching for.