The selection of 32-year-old Joe Denly, to replace Keaton Jennings at the head of England’s batting order, will have struck a chord with tricenarian sportsmen and women everywhere.
But deserving of his chance as Denly would appear to be, following a strong season for Kent, you have to wonder whether his promotion is actually a result of that modern malaise; being able to bring something else to the table.
Apart from his batting, which has been sound enough to notch just under 11,000 first-class runs over 14 years, Denly bowls useful leg-spin. I hesitate to use the term all-rounder, at least under the old definition which used to insist that players thus designated could justify their place in the side with bat or ball alone, but nobody can deny that it has been Denly’s bowling which has brought him, by bulking up his skills package, to the attention of the England selectors.
I’m not against players making their debuts after the age of 30 if they present an outstanding case, such as Michael Hussey or Ryan Harris both did for Australia. Denly, of course, may sparkle for the next five years as Hussey did, though the odds are against it.
Most making their Test debut in their fourth decade play a match or two then shuffle off into obscurity. Denly is therefore unlikely to be what is optimistically termed ‘the future’ unlike, say, Jason Roy, Middlesex’s Max Holden or Nick Gubbins, or indeed Ben Slater of Notts, all four talented opening batsman and all four 28 or younger.
Their possible promotion to England’s Test squad – or at least the judgment surrounding it – has been clouded by Denly’s ability to bowl some half decent leg-breaks, an ability that should be neither here nor there when considering such a specialised role as opening batsman. Instead, I would have thought it a priority to blood the next, potentially, long-term prospect.
It is not just Denly either. England’s entire Test team seems filled with bits-and-pieces cricketers. Only Ben Stokes can safely make a claim to be worth his place as either batsman or bowler, though from this remove it looks like he is being mishandled, thus reducing his potential potency.
If Stokes is to continue with the heavy workload Joe Root seems to have in mind for him with the ball, then he should drop down a place or two in the batting order. After all, he is only at five presently because of the need for England to fit in all those players down the order who can bat a bit.
It all adds up to a number of players who might struggle to justify selection if their role was narrowed to that of either batsman or bowler. Could Moeen Ali, for example, be considered as solely a top-six batsman or a specialist spin bowler?
The same applies with Sam Curran, where the combination of bat and ball beguiles without either yet being strong enough to justify a Test match existence without the other. And this before even mentioning Chris Woakes, currently out of the side because there is simply no space for either one of his undoubted skills with bat and ball.
England will no doubt point to the fact they have won eight of their past 11 Test matches as proof that their bits-and-pieces strategy has been successful. Yet, if they are to return to number one in the Test rankings, they are going to need at least one successful opening batsman; a spin bowler more reliable than the current incumbents (though it could be an improved version of them); and a fast bowler capable of sustaining 90mph over more than one spell a day.
These are roles that always tended to be filled by specialists. Yet you wonder whether the obsession, from coaches and the players themselves, of being T20 relevant in the player’s case to being able to chip in everywhere, an exercise in arse-covering by coaches, has diluted the drive to be excellent at one thing.
It may be an old-fashioned concept, but when West Indies ruled the cricket world in the 1980s, they did so without all-rounders. Sure, players like Viv Richards and Carl Hooper filled in with a few off-breaks to give the quick bowlers a rest. But apart from them and Roger Harper, a spinning all-rounder who played 25 Tests in the middle of the decade, they were a team of specialists who did special things.
It was the same with England’s one-day side under Mike Gatting, which lost the 1987 World Cup final to Australia. Even though there was more scope for picking bits-and-pieces players and all-rounders in one-day cricket back then, Gatt believed in playing five specialist batsmen, five specialist bowlers and a wicket-keeper. The team which beat the West Indies in a crucial group match in Jaipur was, in batting order: Gooch, Robinson, Athey, Gatting, Lamb, Emburey, DeFreitas, Downton, Foster, Hemmings, Small.
Gatting felt players should take responsibility for their roles, a concept that seems a lot woollier these days where the popular mantra of ‘playing without fear’ seems to require all manner of safety nets like six bowlers and a batting order that goes down to 10.
It isn’t just me who feels this is overkill. In a fine piece for Cricinfo, Sanjay Manjrekar, a former Test batsman for India, reckons the security in numbers approach – an irresistible temptation for coaches of professional sports teams – is removing accountability from players.
“Batsmen must feel that it is only they who are in charge of getting runs on the board,” wrote Manrekar. “If they fail, drop them, but don’t pick lesser bowlers in an attempt to cover for the failures of the batsmen. Sam Curran in place of Stuart Broad is the latest example. This way, you stunt future excellence in both batting and bowling.
“Safety in sport breeds mediocrity. Great teams and great players never think safety first; they think excellence. History and team results in cricket have shown us that picking six specialist batsmen, four specialist bowlers, and the best keeper in the country in the playing XI is a winning combination. When you select bits-and-pieces players, success also comes in bits and pieces.”
DEREK PRINGLE / Photo: Getty Images