After the giddying excitement of the second day in St Lucia, one that produced 16 wickets and was headlined by an electric burst of genuine fast bowling from Mark Wood, came a slightly less helter-skelter third.

The DJ in the party stand tried to rouse the audience with an assortment of thorax-thumping tunes. But for much of the action this felt out of kilter, with Test cricket’s more natural rhythms to the fore as England tightened their grip on a game that is leaving a huge sense of “what if” regarding the two that came before.

Having climbed the mountain and secured the series with a Test to spare, the West Indies attack finally creaked. Keemo Paul departed early with a badly torn quad muscle and thereafter the burden became heavier for Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach and Alzarri Joseph, despite support from Roston Chase.

For England’s top three – Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly – this represented not just their final outing on tour but, given a lead of 142 at the start of the day, a golden opportunity to meet Joe Root’s pre-match brief and make compelling cases for selection in this summer’s Ashes series.

With five and a half months before the one-off four-day Test against Ireland at Lord’s – England’s next and final outing in the format before taking on Australia from 1 August – it was bit of a throwaway line from Root.

The World Cup means there is plenty of county cricket to come before the next Test selection and, as Haseeb Hameed discovered in 2017, when the Champions Trophy created a similar delay and he struggled back at Lancashire, even a positive sign-off from a winter tour guarantees little.

Nevertheless England’s openers here in St Lucia, Burns and Jennings, require strong starts to the season and in the case of the latter a compelling one that is not simply about his volume of runs for the Red Rose.

Jennings, bowled off his thigh pad by Joseph after a 99-ball 23, swapped his usual swing of the bat for a wry smile and will doubtless feel unlucky to end his tour in such fashion. But in light of his struggle to play with much conviction up to this point, or indeed in any of his four innings in a seam-dominated series, England’s selectors will surely be looking not simply at his output but whether greater fluidity at the crease is discernible.

Burns, curiously, looks more the part despite his average after six Tests, 25, sitting a tick under his partner’s 25.19 from 17. His flick to square-leg off the first ball of the morning was tame but one can see a Test cricketer in there. The Surrey captain, perhaps conditioned by the demands of his county job, has shown little sign of being overawed by the step up and a pair of fine catches during Wood’s day-two wrecking job point to a clear mind. Provided he does not flatline from here Burns looks better placed to remain in situ.

All of which brings us to the more recently introduced Denly, who, after 20 in the first innings, produced an aesthetically pleasing – but numerically head-scratching – 69 from No 3. How this innings is viewed may well depend on who is viewing it.

Those who feel the 32-year-old has been over-promoted by his former Kent team-mate Ed Smith will point to an astonishing drop on 12 by Shimron Hetmyer at slip and a dismissal, under-edging Gabriel on the cut, that was loose both for the same shot striking fresh air the ball before and as the fast bowler was approaching a rest.

But during his two and a half hours at the crease Denly also threaded crisp drives, played some smart uppercuts and offered stout defence when the trio of West Indian quicks were at their freshest. On calling him up for Sri Lanka, Smith said he had a touch of class in his DNA and this was the first time in the whites of England it came through. Doing so with Root at the other end, in a stand of 74, was a bonus.

Unlike the two above him, however, Denly will have fewer opportunities next summer. Kent play 10 rounds of County Championship cricket before the Ireland Test but, having been signed up to the Indian Premier League, he will miss the first four. Should Denly make England’s World Cup squad – and he is in the ODI squad this tour – this could drop to zero and like his original call-up, he may require cross‑format form to count once more.

source: theguardian.com


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