Joe Denly is set to open the batting for England in the fourth Test in Manchester. While Denly has opened in first-class cricket just three times in the last four years – two of those occasions coming when he made his Test debut in Antigua earlier this year – he is poised to swap places in England’s Test team with Jason Roy, who is expected to bat at No. 4.
Roy has averaged just 8.85 in his four Tests as opener. His one substantial innings, 72 against Ireland, was made when he came in at No. 3.
It is likely neither Denly nor Roy relishes the prospect of opening the batting at Test level. Neither fulfil the role at county level – though both have in the not-so-recent past – and stepping up against this Australia attack is fiendishly tough. Indeed, you could argue it’s unreasonable even to ask it of them. You wonder, for example, if Roy’s long-term viability as a Test player has been damaged by the recent experience. It can have done little for his confidence.
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Denly, meanwhile, has made one century at the top of the order in first-class cricket – and that in a Division Two Championship match against Gloucestershire in 2015 – in the last eight years. He hasn’t reached 50 in any of his most recent 14 attempts.
You can, to some extent, sympathise with the England selectors. They have tried more than a dozen options at the top of the order over the last few years and could almost be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that the county game simply hasn’t produced any suitable candidates.
Almost. For it seems increasingly odd that Dom Sibley remains surplus to requirements by England. He has scored seven first-class centuries in the last 12 months, all of them as an opener, and has many of the old-fashioned skills required for the role. He is patient, he is disciplined and, most of all, he does the job on a regular basis. One hopes he has not missed out due to his aesthetics. He is not a batsman who is especially pleasing on the eye. But nor was Alastair Cook or Gary Kirsten or Graeme Smith. And how England would dearly love a player of such class right now.
All of which leaves you wondering if the selectors are not being a little stubborn. Reluctant to admit they were wrong to ask Roy to open – and they were, very clearly, wrong – they are now shuffling their pack in the hope they may chance upon an ace. But there are legitimate concerns over Denly’s suitability to open and Roy’s suitability to bat even as high as No. 4.
Perhaps they did not want to make too many changes ahead of such an important game. Such a move could have destabilised the dressing room, it is true – though little more than watching your side bowled out for 67 – and might have also produced a scent of panic for Australia to seize upon. Jos Buttler, now 34 Tests into a career that has produced one century, may count himself especially grateful for that continuity of selection policy. You wonder how many centuries Ollie Pope, for example, may have scored given the same opportunities.
With Denly and Roy set the swap positions, it seems the only possible change in the England team might be to see Sam Curran or Craig Overton replace Chris Woakes. While Overton’s bowling average of 42.28 from three Tests is unexceptional, it does not quite reflect the positive impression he made.
In those games, two on the Ashes tour of 2017-18 and one in Auckland shortly afterwards, he proved himself a brave and committed all-round cricketer who would not be overawed by the opposition or the situation. He played on gamely in Australia despite a broken rib – well, until he worsened it with a typically whole-hearted dive on the boundary in Perth – and batted as well as anyone in top-scoring in England’s first innings in Adelaide. He is not swift – he has been timed at 85mph in recent days – but he is tall, he hits the seam and he has good control. He won’t let England down.
Whether he plays ahead of Woakes – or any of the other seamers in the event of injury – remains to be seen. Woakes endured an off-colour game in Leeds. His worst, perhaps, since the tour to South Africa in 2015-16. He has not been especially sensitively handed by his captain, however – Joe Root has looked as if he’d rather bowl Ben Stokes or Jofra Archer into the ground than trust Woakes with another spell – and you wonder if that apparent lack of confidence has had a knock-on effect into his performance.
Either way, James Anderson’s unavailability – though most unfortunate – does solve one problem for the team management. Had he played, England faced the prospect of a diplodocus length tail featuring Archer at No. 8, Stuart Broad at No. 9 and Jack Leach and Anderson at No. 10 and No. 11. The involvement of Woakes or Overton will stiffen that a little.
And what of Anderson? Under normal circumstances, you would presume this is the end of the line for him. He is 37, after all, and has nothing more to prove. This winter’s Test tours are to New Zealand – where he might have been rested, anyway, as the series is not part of the World Test Championship – South Africa, where he had a tough time on England’s last tour four years ago, and Sri Lanka, where he claimed one wicket in England’s 2018-19 Test series victory. The following winter England travel to India. None of those tours offer the prospect of much joy for a seamer of reduced pace and with a lot of miles on the clock.
But you don’t earn Anderson’s Test record without possessing remarkable levels of resilience and determination. He has come back from stress fractures, poor tours, being dropped and countless other setbacks. And, while the pace maybe reduced, the skills have continued to mitigate. He really has been bowling as well as ever in recent times. He deserves not to be ruled out of contention just yet.