|Men’s Ashes: England v Australia, fifth Specsavers Test (day three of five)|
|England 294 & 313-8: Denly 94, Stokes 67, Lyon 3-65|
|Australia 225: Smith 80, Archer 6-62|
|England lead by 382 runs|
“It’s an easy game when there’s no pressure on, eh?”
They were Steve Smith’s words to Joe Denly after the England opener had danced down and hit Nathan Lyon back over his head for six.
The Ashes are gone, yes. But whether Smith wants to believe it or not, Denly is under pressure. Pressure to prolong his Test career. Pressure to make the winter tour. And he’s had a long, exhausting week.
Denly, 33, smiled when asked about Smith’s comments after play. “He asked me if I’d had any sleep. It was pretty friendly banter,” was the reply.
At the end of day one, Denly left The Oval and drove 60 miles to get to Whitstable, in Kent, to be present for the birth of his daughter.
He stayed with his wife overnight, then drove the round trip back to London and by 6pm that night, he was at the crease, facing an angry Pat Cummins and a shiny new red ball.
It’s not the first time it’s happened to Denly – in 2016, he finished a day’s play for Kent against Derbyshire with 34 to his name, when he received a phone call from his wife.
“I was in Derby, batting overnight and got a call about five in the morning,” Denly said. “She said I think the baby is on the way, but the midwife said don’t rush, so I didn’t.
“I strolled down, had some breakfast, hit rush hour traffic on the way back and missed the birth by about five minutes.”
Luckily, Denly made it the second time around. And there was one, small benefit to being away from home – “I had a good kip last night because I stayed at the hotel and got about 10 hours. The previous night I got about three hours.”
As Denly said, it’s been a “pretty special” few days. While he may rue those extra six runs that would have taken him to a maiden Test century, the determination and mental strength he showed in making a Test-best 94 was admirable.
Denly played and missed. Matthew Wade, who England may wish came installed with a mute button, commentated non-stop from short leg. Denly was dropped in the gloom on Friday evening. He benefited from Australia’s dreadful use of the review system to avoid being given out lbw to Mitchell Marsh.
He has had a difficult series. He and a handful of England players over the past few years have pogoed up and down the batting order and being asked to open against fast bowlers as accurate and hostile as Australia’s is no easy ask.
But Denly grafted. His assault on Lyon was a glorious show in moving your feet to throw a bowler off line. He cover drove, he ducked, he weaved, and he had a bit of luck, right up until Peter Siddle found the edge of his bat and Smith gratefully took what was offered up.
The disappointment in the England team was obvious. Captain Joe Root, watching on from the dressing room, dropped his head straight away, eyes averted. Ben Stokes, who shared a fine partnership with Denly in the afternoon, hid his face in his hands. Root gave Denly a standing ovation as he left the field, as did the Oval crowd.
But Denly’s innings was vital in helping England reach 313-8, leading Australia by 382 runs and putting them in prime position to draw this Ashes series 2-2.
Denly is an affable man. He was relaxed in the post-match news conference, waving away questions about Wade, describing him as “a very competitive player trying to do the best for his team”, adding he had heard “nothing too over the line”.
He also, with a wry grin, admitted he thought that he was out when Marsh pinned him on the pad. But Australia captain Tim Paine, who cut a slightly tetchier figure when speaking to the media, opted not to review it.
“I’m going to do some umpiring school when I get home,” was Paine’s sardonic reply to a question about the review system.
“I’ll enrol in a level three course and see if I can get them right.”