Joe Denly does enough to stay in Ashes contention ... but nothing more

Joe Denly acknowledges his maiden Test fifty Getty Images

As Joe Denly leant into another perfect cover drive, one of several he played on the way to his maiden Test half-century, it was tempting to believe England had, at last, found the No. 3 batsman for which they have been searching for so long.

And maybe that will prove to be the case. This was a pleasing innings, for sure, and demonstrated some of the talent and character that won Denly this selection. When England's selectors discuss their team for the next Test - against Ireland at Lord's in late July - his name will be in the mix, for sure.

But it would disingenuous to pretend this innings resolved anything. Denly had failed in his three previous Test innings, after all, and was fortunate not to suffer a pair on debut in Antigua. Even here, he was badly missed in the slips on 12 and, with Keemo Paul injured and the demands of back-to-back Tests starting to show on Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel, he was confronted by a West Indies side that, for the first time in the series, looked just a little beleaguered.

Indeed, Denly's success here - his partial success - may simply have complicated matters. Had he failed, England may have felt they could have moved on without him. As it is, he has - like so many before him - done just enough to deserve continued consideration and not quite enough to have put the issue beyond doubt, as the man himself perhaps recognised at the close.

"It was pleasing to spend a bit of time out there and get that first fifty under the belt, but was a bit of a tame ending," Denly told Sky Sports. "I've toed it to the keeper again, but the team's in a good position, so I'm pretty happy."

"It's a long way away, but I've said before that playing in the Ashes would be an absolute dream," he added. "Every English cricketer dreams of playing in an Ashes, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it. But there's a lot of cricket between now and then, and a lot more cricket to focus on."

Denly may face an interesting dilemma now. Having been picked up for £112,000 in the IPL auction, he is due to spend the first few weeks of the county season with Kolkata Knight Riders. That means he will not have the chance to prove his worth against Division One attacks in the County Championship - his side, Kent, were promoted at the end of last season - and might, in the past, have compromised his chances of a Test place. Not so long ago, he might have been persuaded to pull out of such a deal.

Whether these things matter anymore is highly debatable, though. By picking Jos Buttler last year, the selectors showed they would consider success in white-ball cricket and Denly may conclude he has a better chance of impressing in high-profile matches and against some fine bowlers in India as he does against the Duke's ball in the early weeks of the Championship season.

What all this means, though, is that England have made almost no progress in finding a settled top three. Despite all the miles they have travelled and all the games they have played this winter, not one of the top three involved in this Test is certain to play against Ireland.

Keaton Jennings may be the least likely to be involved. It is not just that he has endured a disappointing tour - he averaged 15.50 with a top-score of 23 - but that he cannot be said to have lacked opportunities. He has now played 17 Tests and averages 25.19. That is not a small sample size. He will need to score prolifically for Lancashire to win a recall.

Rory Burns has not secured his future, either. He has, at times, looked to have what it takes to prosper as a Test opener and he has, at times, taken some excellent catches. But, after six games, he is averaging 25 - a fraction lower than Jennings. While he made 84 in the second innings in Barbados, has suffered too many soft dismissals - the second-innings late cut to the cordon in Antigua was a particular low point - to have made the most of this opportunity. He, too, will need runs for Surrey if he is to be considered for the Ireland Test.

There will be other contenders for all these positions. Despite little experience opening for Surrey or England Lions - he went in at No. 3 in his most recent first-class games for both sides - Jason Roy is one who will be considered, while it remains to be seen what the selectors are planning for Jonny Bairstow. He was a No. 3 batsman last week, after all. Who knows what he will be by July.

It will be interesting, too, to see where James Vince bats for Hampshire, too. It is understood that it has been suggested by some in the England management that Vince might like to consider opening. While Vince's initial response to that idea is said to have been cool, he may yet conclude it offers his best chance of a recall.

Perhaps Max Holden or Nick Gubbins might force their way into contention, too, while Ben Duckett and Haseeb Hameed could, with good starts to the season, win recalls. Ian Bell and James Hildreth will have their supporters, too, though the former will be 37 in April and the latter is 34 and uncapped.

The fact that the debate continues, though, underlines how little progress England have made. Instead of going into the Ashes with a stable side, they will go into hoping that the next round of candidates do better than the last. With three top-order places available and an Ashes series looming, county batsmen may never have had such opportunity.