Ed Smith doesn’t look as if he goes around punching the air much, at least not in public. But then England’s national selector doesn’t really resemble an England selector either, traditionally the home of the florid, blazered eminence. Smith tends to look as if he’s stopped off briefly on a motoring tour of 1930s Tuscany or, like James Joyce, has unaccountably been offered a job as senior vice-president at Morgan Stanley.
New things, new people, new methods. Smith has also been the object of some ambient chuntering during these last few weeks of Ashes cricket. This is a chief selector whose picks have been bold at times, hard to decipher at others, and which will be marked now by a series during which England have failed to regain the Ashes urn.
With this in mind Smith might have been forgiven a punch of the air, or at least a studied flush of pleasure, as Joe Denly walked off at tea on a sunlit afternoon at the Oval having batted through two sessions, and with a first Test hundred in his sights.
Of all the new picks during the last 18 months Denly has perhaps been the most thoroughly Smith-flavoured, albeit not for the reasons some have assumed. One former Kent player laughed out loud at the idea Smith might pick his former teammate out of ties of matey loyalty. The response, in essence: if you think that, you obviously don’t know Ed Smith very well – with the suggestion good old Joe from Canterbury is unlikely to figure too prominently in Smith’s list of vital VIP personages to please at all costs.
Instead the inclusion of Denly, and the continued inclusion of Denly, is a function of Smith’s methods, his theory on transferable skills; and perhaps also, as some maintain, the simple desire to be proved right.
It is exactly a year since Denly, 30-something veteran of the Dhaka Dynamites, Karachi Kings and the Barisal Burners, was recalled for England’s Test tour of Sri Lanka. It was a funky-looking pick at the time, based on Denly’s success in T20 cricket, some excitable talk about his leg-break bowling and above all because Smith had detected a shadow of genuine class in his cricket, yet to reach its full expression.
His presence since has felt like a point of principle being put to the test. The recall of Jos Buttler, a debut for Sam Curran, the promotion of Rory Burns: these have all been logical, even quite conventional selection calls for the Smith regime. Judge me, instead, by my Denlys.
It has been a grind. From North Sound to Manchester Denly has been biddable, brave, adaptable and short of runs. Something began to shift at Headingley. He has been lucky with drops and play-and-misses. But Denly has also begun to look more poised and even rather classy here in his final knock of the Ashes summer.
Four not out overnight, Denly was imperious against Nathan Lyon in the mid-morning sunlight. He skipped out and lofted him into the pavilion with a beautifully high front elbow. Later he came down again and carved a chest-high skimmer past mid-off’s right hand.
There was another working-over from Pat Cummins, who hit Denly in the box, then bounced him repeatedly. This has been an area of discomfort. But Denly has adapted. Here he simply ducked. There were some dreamy drives through the covers and a sense above all of a man finding his rhythm.
Last September Denly had looked like a moneyball-style pick, an informed hunch at best. The case against Smith, from those who like to have a case against people, has been that this kind of racy, deconstructivist thinking will be found out by older truths. Or more simply that it will create a clique of entitled star players, the white-ball fancy boys, beneficiaries of all this fresh attacking thinking.
The facts are different. Dom Bess was also in that first squad, an injury-forced selection. Since then England have given debuts to Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Rory Burns, Ben Foakes, Denly, Jason Roy, Olly Stone, and Jofra Archer. Of these only Roy as an opener has been a howler. And post-World Cup most of us were ready to buy into that one.
At the Oval Denly chugged through the afternoon session. His third fifty in his last four innings came up with a scorching clip through midwicket. An inside edge to square-leg moved him to 70 and a new top score. It took a fine delivery from Peter Siddle to catch the edge and cut him off six short of a first Test hundred.
Denly has done enough to earn a winter tour, perhaps even the most unexpected of central contract awards in Friday’s roll-out. It would be reward for a hunch, for continuing to graft – and above all for that niche but increasingly visible touch of class.