England selector stands by 'team man' Denly for Windies opener
National selector Ed Smith had no qualms justifying the inclusion of batsman Joe Denly in England's 13-man squad for next week's first Test against the West Indies at Southampton after the experienced pair of Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali failed to make the cut.
With regular England captain Joe Root unavailable for the opening contest of a three-match series after already leaving the hosts' bio-secure bubble to attend the birth of his second child, there was a vacancy in the top order.
But there was still a chance the 34-year-old Denly, averaging a modest 30 from his 14 Tests, could have made way for the uncapped Dan Lawrence in a match that will mark the return of international cricket from lockdown.
Nevertheless, the veteran may need a major score if he is to keep his place, with Root set to return for the final two Tests at Old Trafford later this month.
"As a top-order batter Joe would obviously love to convert those starts into hundreds and big hundreds -- that goes for any batsman -- but also it is fully understood that he has contributed to good team batting performances," Smith told a conference call after unveiling the squad on Saturday.
"The England team has been batting with more consistency and solidity throughout the order and Joe has been a big part of that."
- 'Good performers' -
Bairstow and Moeen have 130 Test caps between them.
But as England try to cram in a full international schedule, despite losing several months of their home season to the pandemic, the pair may both be set for more of a white-ball role this season, with the 50-over world champions likely to field two separate squads because of the impending fixture congestion.
Bairstow's fate for this match was effectively sealed when fellow wicket-keeper Jos Buttler, the current Test gloveman, was named as vice-captain to Ben Stokes after it was confirmed family duties would keep Root away from the game.
And although Moeen has made himself available for Test cricket again after taking a break from red-ball cricket, England have kept faith with rival off-spinner Dom Bess as their specialist slow bowler after he impressed during a series win in South Africa.
"With Moeen and Jonny part of the calculation is obviously that they have been in the white-ball squad and been very good performers in white-ball cricket," added former England batsman Smith.
"You know if they're not in the 11 here it's good that they're playing cricket in the white-ball team.
"Moeen being available is good news for the talent in the spin department but it's also the case that Dom did very well in South Africa.
"We're glad that Moeen is available again but there's no change: Dom Bess is in possession, and Jack Leach takes the reserve spot."
Veteran new-ball bowlers James Anderson and Stuart Broad are among a group of five seamers along with Barbados-born Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Chris Woakes. But only three are likely to play given Stokes is himself a seam-bowling all-rounder.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Lakruwan Wanniarachchi