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'Never give up on that dream' – Joe Denly reflects on remarkable England comeback

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Joe Denly admits he felt as if he were making a second debut as he made his first international appearance for eight-and-a-half years in Colombo on Saturday.

But, after producing a player-of-the-match performance, Denly expressed the hope his experience would show others they should “never give up on the dream”.

Denly, now aged 32, admits he thought it was “unlikely” he would ever play international cricket again. Especially after a couple of years in which he concedes he “went missing” from domestic cricket after struggling to deal with the disappointment of being dropped by England.

Denly was 23 and an opening batsman when he last played for England. But here, called into England’s limited-overs squad as a replacement for the injured Liam Dawson, he opened the bowling with his legspin and batted at No. 7. “It was a new experience for me,” he said with a smile afterwards.

Denly’s rebirth as a spinner is remarkable. For, up until the end of the 2016 season, he had only ever taken one T20 wicket in a career that stretched back to 2004. And that wicket had come with his first ball in international cricket for England, as Graeme Smith thumped one to long-on (to end an opening stand of 170 in 13 overs…) at Centurion in November 2009. So he had never taken a T20 wicket in country cricket and had only taken 31 first-class wickets in that time, too.

But in 2018 he claimed 20 T20 wickets. He struck, on average, every 12.95 deliveries and, despite often bowling in the Powerplay, conceded his runs at a very respectable 7.76 an over. Underlining the sense that this was no fluke, he claimed 23 first-class and 14 List A wickets, too.

“What’s the lesson? To never to give up on that dream, I suppose,” Denly said. “I’ve had some ups and downs in the last eight years. But, over the last two or three years, I’ve enjoyed my cricket a lot more. I’ve played with a bit more freedom and I’ve learned to deal with failure a lot better.

“I feel a different player to the one I was in 2010. This time I’ve come in with the attitude of embracing it and enjoying every moment of it.

“I was didn’t know what to make of it all back then. But being more experienced and playing in various competitions around the world has put me in a good position to step into international cricket and perform. I’m enjoying my cricket at the minute and hopefully that’s showing on the field.”

That calmer temperament was evident as he negotiated a masterful over from Lasith Malinga early in his innings. At one stage, as Malinga followed a perfect slower ball with an even more perfect inswinging yorker, he was forced to play-out four dots balls in succession. And, with Denly’s first eight balls realising only three runs, the pressure was mounting.

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But he held his nerve. Instead of attempting a desperate heave in an attempt to break the shackles, he backed himself to come through that period and gave himself the chance to catch up. Soon he had hit Dhananjaya de Silva for three boundaries in four balls and, while his eventual 20 from 17 balls may seem unremarkable, it was a useful contribution. His runs were scored at a quicker rate than either Ben Stokes’ or Eoin Morgan’s.

“I think I dealt with that a lot better than I would a few years ago,” he said of the over from Malinga. “I think I would probably have tried something a bit rash back then.

“I knew he was one of the best bowlers in the world in those situations. And you know that sometimes you’re going to be made to look a bit silly. Dot balls put you under pressure. So it’s about understanding that and giving yourself a chance.”

It was with the ball he really shone, though. While he didn’t bowl with the turn or variation of Adil Rashid – who produced a wonderful spell of all-sorts complete with the slowest, loopiest deliveries you will ever see in men’s internal cricket (a couple were timed at around 36 mph), Denly demonstrated a calm head and decent control in bowling at a brisk pace and gaining just a little drift and turn.

His final figures – 4 for 19 – were his best in any form of the professional game. And, had we heard, before the series, that two legspinners would combine to take figures of 7 for 30 in a T20I, we might have been forgiven for shaking our heads ruefully at the grim state of England’s batting against spin. That fortunes are reversed is as surprising as it is encouraging.

“Being, primarily, a batsman, I feel I have a pretty good sense of what batsmen are trying to do,” he said. “I back myself to land my leg-spinner reasonably well and I enjoy opening the bowling. I did it for Kent in T20 last summer.”

So, might this performance help him win a place in England’s Test team? Well, it can’t have done any harm, can it? It was, after all, Dawid Malan’s form in a T20 match (against South Africa in Cardiff) that went a long way towards convincing the England management he was ready to play Test cricket, while the likes of Alex Hales and Jos Buttler also impressed in the white-ball formats. Both in terms of temperament and his all-round skills, he must have impressed.

“I think getting a chance, performing with the ball and chipping in with a little 20 down the lower-order can only give me confidence,” he said. “It’s certainly nice to get a game in before the red-ball stuff starts.

“Obviously there’s a spot up for grabs at the top of the [Test] order. I think being able to bowl might work in my favour. But it comes down to performing in these warm-up games and putting your name forward for that first Test. I’m certainly going into those practice games looking forward to performing, scoring runs and giving myself the best chance.”

It’s already been a remarkable comeback. And there’s no reason there shouldn’t be another chapter or two to come.

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