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In 10 Tests so far, Joe Denly has struck five fifties
Three years ago, Kagiso Rabada turned up at Kent for a short stint as the county's overseas player. Already an international star, it was quite a coup for a club who were, at that time, in the second division of the County Championship. Great for the club maybe but not so much for their batsmen. Facing the 21-year-old Rabada in training was not a nice prospect. "I opted for a few throw downs when he was bowling in the nets," jokes Joe Denly.
The pair will face off again during the four-Test series between South Africa and England which begins on Boxing Day at Centurion. Rabada trying to remove Denly, England's increasingly assured number three, and Denly trying to repel Rabada, currently at number two in the Test match bowling rankings. Teammates turned opponents. It should be an interesting battle. "He is a special talent," says Denly. "He was quite young back then at Kent but he's developed into a world-class bowler. I am looking forward to facing him."
As well he might. Denly has kicked on himself since his Test debut against West Indies in January. While an overall average of 30 from ten matches is hardly spectacular, five half-centuries in all and a number of important innings during the Ashes have seen the 33-year-old grow in confidence and stature at the top of England's order. As good a judge as Nasser Hussain reckons Denly looks like a bona fide Test player. "It's rare I've seen him and thought, 'he doesn't seem like an international cricketer'," Hussain told Sky Sports in November.
The 94 Denly scored in the second innings of the fifth Test at The Oval in September felt like a breakthrough moment. He had made fifty-plus scores in the previous two Tests, including a vital knock during England's remarkable chase at Headingley, but the innings at The Oval was the first time he had really shaped a game. When Denly walked out to open, England had a lead of just 69. Given their well established batting frailties, collapsing in a heap and losing the game was still a distinct possibility. When he was dismissed, the lead was 291 and England, who went on to win the game, were in control.
There were more runs in New Zealand last month, albeit not as many as Denly would have liked. He made 70-odd in the first innings of the first Test before Tim Southee nicked him off. It was a fine innings until that point but Denly admits his frustration at not being able to go on to register the sort of game-defining score that England have lacked. "A few of us got in and weren't able to go really big like BJ Watling and Mitchell Santner did for them," he told Cricbuzz.
"I'm fairly honest with myself. It was nicely bowled. He came wide of the crease and dragged me in a little bit. But I am on 70-odd out there and he had done that a few times and I didn't get sucked in. That one I did unfortunately and that was pretty frustrating. At a crucial time as well, nearing the end of the day. Had myself and Ben [Stokes] been there in the morning we would have been able to kick on."
Despite that frustration, Denly says he feels more comfortable at Test level now, more understanding of what he needs to do to be successful. He learnt a huge amount facing up to the likes of Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood during the summer's Ashes. "That's one of the better bowling attacks that I will ever face," he says. "Playing against them made me a better player and made me realise where I need to sharpen up on my game to succeed at Test level."
The difference between batting in county cricket and batting at Test level has been most obvious in two areas. "You get tested more often than not around that fourth stump, good line, coming back into you," Denly says. "Your forward defence has to be rock solid. You have to have a good understanding of where your off-stump is. You can probably get away with it a little bit at first-class level but at Test level, you get tested there over and over again.
"They test you with the short ball too. In the Ashes, it was a ferocious series in terms of players getting hit in the helmet or body. Coming into Test cricket I thought I played the short ball pretty well but there's always room for improvement and that was highlighted in that series."
There was plenty of short bowling in New Zealand too, particularly from the indefatigable Neil Wagner. After lunch on day one in Mount Maunganui, Wagner and Denly had a real battle over the course of four or five overs. The bowler ran in hard, flung it down short and followed it up with some verbals. There were a few uncomfortable moments for Denly but he wasn't content to be a sitting duck. He responded in kind with four pull shots to the boundary. There weren't many words from Wagner after those.
"You are coming up against bowlers with that pace and level of fitness like Wagner," says Denly. "You get tested in first-class cricket with the short ball, don't get me wrong, but in Test cricket it's a lot more accurate, the pace is up. There's less room for error. I practice the short ball a lot. For me, it's about being positive, to try and be as instinctive as I can. Firstly looking to play the shot if it's in my area but backing myself to get out of the way if it doesn't quite feel right."
The balance between defence and attack is something England haven't always got right of late. Under a new head coach in Chris Silverwood, there has been talk of a more conservative approach, batting time and eschewing the more aggressive outlook of the Bayliss-era. Denly says there has been no real change of message, no edict handed down to the batsmen that they have to play a certain way, a more defensive way.
Instead, the message has been a simple one. "It's very clear: it's about scoring big runs," Denly confirms. "Spoons is very clear that he doesn't care how you do it. Especially first innings. That's where the game is set up. Whether it takes you 100 balls, 200 balls or 300 balls, it doesn't matter. Five days is a long time in a Test match and if we can post big scores in those first innings there is a lot of time in the game, no matter how long it takes us."
Silverwood is right to focus on England's first innings batting. It has been the major reason for the inconsistency which has dogged the side since Joe Root took over the captaincy in the summer of 2017. They have passed 400 in their first dig just five times in their 35 Tests since then. "It's about being better and more skilled at assessing conditions, assessing the different plans the bowlers have against you and becoming better that way," Denly adds. "There's no real set plan of how to go about that. It's just about scoring those big runs."
The four Tests against South Africa are another opportunity for Denly to continue his development and another chance to score the big runs he talks about. Not that batting is likely to be a walk in the park given the pitches England expect to confront. "I don't think the wickets will be quite as flat as they were in NZ," Denly says. "Your game is going to have to be in top order to succeed.
"But at the same time, speaking to people who have played in South Africa before, it might be tricky to start your innings but there's a lot of value for runs once you get in. They have a very good attack and I am sure we will be tested. But I'm very much looking forward to getting out there and taking them on."
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