Denly makes strong first impression
As first impressions go, Joe Denly's maiden ODI innings of 67 from 111 balls was harder to quantify than it really deserved to be. For starters, his international baptism wasn't quite on a par with that of Jonathan Trott at The Oval last week - a soggy field in Stormont could not remotely replicate the intensity of that Ashes decider, while his opponents were not England's oldest and most storied foes, Australia, but a spirited if limited Ireland team who utilised their home conditions to good effect, yet were still found out in the final analysis.
Nevertheless, it was a performance brimful of promise, and from a 23-year-old opener whose credentials have been touted with knowing regularity for the past couple of seasons, that is about as much as England could possibly have wished for. Denly is a man whom English cricket wants to see succeed. Born in Canterbury and brought up in nearby Whitstable, he has developed through Kent's age-group levels from Under-12s onwards, and is seen in some parts as a one-man affirmation of an often-maligned county system that has been undermined of late by gripes about imported talent. The early evidence needs a second opinion, but already he looks as though he's made of the right stuff, technically and mentally.
Though the Man-of-the-Match award eventually went to Ireland's Trent Johnston for an allround performance that all but condemned England to defeat, it was Denly's mature assessment of a potentially dire situation that proved to be the difference between the sides. "It was a bit tense to be honest, we were always chasing the game," he said. "But Owais [Shah] got a few wickets for Middlesex last week with his offspin, he came on and took come crucial wickets, and we managed to scrape home in the end. It was a good victory."
England's captain, Paul Collingwood, admitted after the game that he had misread the conditions when he won the toss and chose to bat, and Denly had not even got off the mark by the time Ravi Bopara and Trott had been dismissed for ducks to give Ireland a flying start to the contest. But he did not bow to the pressure of the situation, nor to any expectation of quick counterattacking runs. Instead he did what he has done throughout a season in which he has been averaging more than 50 in limited-overs cricket, and played each ball on its merit, including a gorgeous cover-drive from the 21st ball of England's innings, which also happened to be their first runs off the bat.
"It was a very tough wicket," Denly said. "The ball was sticking and driving was particularly tough, especially on the front foot. We lost a couple of early wickets which wasn't great so it was a matter of building and getting up to a competitive total, and we thought 200 was so. Trent Johnston bowled very well, he's a very experienced bowler and I suppose those conditions suited him very nicely. He just bowled a good length, nibbled it around, and found Ravi's edge and caught Trotty on the crease."
Prior experience of the Stormont wicket undoubtedly helped Denly to settle in, however, especially as he came into the game with happy memories of batting on this track. "I got my first one-day hundred for Kent here [in 2007], so I've enjoyed coming back again," he said. "But it did feel like an international debut, I was on a high to get that first one under the belt and I'll remember this day for a long time. I was a bit nervous, there were a few butterflies, but then excitement took over, and I was just really pleased to get the opportunity to play. It was a fantastic day."
It must, however, have been a peculiar environment in which to make one's international debut, with six of the squad still buzzing from their exploits in the Ashes, while trying to overcome an unmistakeable air of resentment at the timing of this contest. Denly, though, insisted that their professionalism had shown through, and that there had been no problems getting himself geared up for this match.
"It's been brilliant, they made me feel really welcome," he said. "They've had a fantastic week and this is a bit of a change from five-day cricket to one-dayers and Twenty20s at the weekend, but they've all done it before and I'm sure they are looking forward to it. Coming into any international team is quite exciting, but an Ashes-winning one is even more exciting and I'm very proud. They've played together for quite a while but they are still on a massive high, and we're taking a lot of confidence from that."
After the match, Collingwood praised the maturity shown by his young opener, who has surely done enough already to challenge for a starting place in England's seven-match ODI series that gets underway at The Oval next week, especially seeing as he has already impressed against the Aussies this summer, making twin scores of 66 and 36 for the England Lions in a hard-fought Ashes warm-up fixture in Worcester back in July.
He may have to wait his turn for a while, however, with Andrew Strauss set to resume at the top of the order, and the beleaguered Bopara unlikely to be judged too hastily for his Belfast duck. But Denly's place in the Champions Trophy squad has already been confirmed, and with England's management desperate to move the team's mindset on from the recent glories of the Ashes, another young and hungry challenger is exactly what a much-criticised batting line-up needs to propel its performances.
And to that end, a role in England's winter campaign in South Africa is what Denly now has in his sights, especially given the problems that Alastair Cook has suffered with his technique against the new ball all summer long. "I've got my one-day cap now and I want a few more, but Test cricket is the ultimate, and that would be fantastic," he said. "My aim is to play for England, as many games as I can, and the more you play the more experience you get at playing against the top bowlers in the world. If I can put in some good performances in one-day cricket, then hopefully that will stand me in good stead."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo