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Joe Denly could be the guy leaving for Joe Root’s return to England after Zak Crawley reaches classy 76

Since the ball described a short parabola to Jason Holder on the short midwicket, Joe Denly would have been forgiven if he wondered if the blow was his last as an English cricketer. If so, an innings of 29 would be an appropriate farewell: neither here nor there, not insignificantly, but not exactly unanswerable.

For a while, Denly’s conversion rate – from the 1920s to the 1950s (low) and from the 50s to hundreds (nonexistent) – has been tolerated as England forged a new top order in the post-Alastair Cook era. But it is dangerous to become his epitaph.

Joe Root is returning from paternity leave for Thursday’s second test in Manchester, and the question that didn’t require a solution in Southampton will promptly answer. Who makes way for the captain: Denly or Zak Crawley? With Crawley contributing a classy 76 to this engaging test yesterday, the pendulum vibrates.

Joe Denly hit 29 against the West Indies and his consistency was more stable than amazing

Joe Denly hit 29 against the West Indies and his consistency was more stable than amazing

The batting order in this game favored Denly as Crawley apparently kept Root’s shoes warm at number 4. Then there is the perception that Denly has a strong support for Ed Smith, the national selector, although Smith is too smart to pull in such debates, and would speak out on allegations of favoritism.

But when does he and his co-voters decide that an England No. 3 should do more than 29 on average, with only two scores above 69 in 28 tests and not a hundred? It is not strange to speculate that the moment is approaching.

Denly has offered England some sort of consistency since entering the second test in the Caribbean 18 months ago, despite changing positions four times in the first nine games. But the consistency was more plateau than peak.

Since he made Centurion 50 in the Boxing Day Test against South Africa at 50, he has scored 31, 38, 31, 25, 27, 8, 18 and now 29. He’s been hanging around repeatedly for a few hours and then the kind of shot you would expect a batsman who is new to the fold. Too often, his hard work is undone too easily.

Zak Crawley was fired by Alzarri Joseph from the West Indies on an exciting fourth day of the test

Zak Crawley was fired by Alzarri Joseph from the West Indies on an exciting fourth day of the test

Zak Crawley was fired by Alzarri Joseph from the West Indies on an exciting fourth day of the test

Early in his tenure, English national team coach Chris Silverwood imposed a template for a top order that, under Trevor Bayliss, had battled for an identity. He wanted old-fashioned folding, high scores and game-determining first innings totals. Denly gave him a little bit of that, but maybe not quite enough. His clock is ticking at the age of 34.

Crawley, 22, doesn’t deserve to crawl his teammate for youth alone, but an admittedly small sample size has provided far more than that so far.

At Hamilton in November, he made only a single during a nervous debut against New Zealand. When he got another chance in Cape Town in January, he fared slightly better, with four and 25, but stuck to a smart slip catch late on the last night when Ben Stokes swept aside the last three wickets of South Africa.

He nodded and grew in confidence: 44 in Port Elizabeth, then 66 and 24 in Johannesburg. During England’s unsuccessful March tour in England, he made 43, 91 and 105 in the warm-up games before the corona virus intervened. The 10 he scored in Southampton on Wednesday went against the tide.

Yesterday it was impossible to resist comparisons. While Denly occasionally got bogged down by – and eventually fell – on Roston Chase’s steady off-spin, Crawley used his height (he is 1.8m) and his feet to knock him over the top. Once he got away with a miscarriage; twice he lofted him for four.

Crawley had 24 when Denly fell, and had already accelerated the innings after half a century from opener Dom Sibley: sixty balls: the second fifty from England had made 180 deliveries, the third 86.

Shortly after tea, he spawned his own half century with a four-turn backward on Chase – a daring shot on a slow surface. Later, he took Shannon Gabriel armed with the second new ball through the covers. He scored high on both style and substance.

So there was disappointment when Crawley, after Stokes dropped for 46, Alzarri tried to work Joseph on his leg and got a lead back to the bowler.

A first Test century would certainly have ended the debate. Still, if England stays with Denly, the concern is that they will do this as much as out of hope as out of expectation.

Joe Root returns to England on Thursday for the second test after paternity leave

Joe Root returns to England on Thursday for the second test after paternity leave

Joe Root returns to England on Thursday for the second test after paternity leave

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