As the last ball of the third Ashes test was bowled, every spectator inside Headingley or watching on TV held their breath. Many had their eyes fixed to the action, while the rest either watched it through their fingers or could not bear to look.
This was the same for the England players inside the dressing room. During the match’s final hour, Canterbury-born Joe Denly chose not to watch the action unfold. Instead, the number four nervously paced around the adjoining toilet.
England had fallen to 286 with just one wicket remaining. The bespectacled Jack Leach, clad in unblemished white gloves, had joined Ben Stokes at the crease with the side needing a further 73 to win. If Australia took the final wicket, they would have retained the Ashes.
But while the pair were at the crease, Whitstable cricket club legend Joe relied on the impassioned roars of the crowd and updates shouted through to him from teammates Rory Burns and Chris Woakes to keep him abreast of events as he continued to pass sinks, urinals and cubicle doors.
“When we went nine down, I was packing my kit and planning my drive home,” the 33-year-old remembers. “I went to the viewing gallery a bit deflated and I heard Rooty saying to one of the lads ‘Stokesy could win this in five or six overs’. I was thinking that was optimistic.
“Then they slowly ticked off five or 10 runs at a time and I found myself doing laps of the toilet area not being able to watch.
“A lot of the boys found themselves in different areas – some were in the viewing gallery, some were in the changing room, I was in the toilet and there were a couple of guys in the physio room. None of us left our spots for that whole 76-run partnership. It was pretty bizarre.”
As Stokes and Leach attempted to salvage an unlikely win, the England captain Joe Root also developed a habit of standing and sitting before and after each delivery, while the team’s analyst took his shoes off every couple of balls.
As he paced the toilet, former Chaucer schoolboy Joe missed many of the moments that are now etched into the minds of those who watched the final day. This included Nathan Lyon’s bungled run-out attempt, which would have secured a one-run win for the men in baggy green.
“I just heard the boys in the viewing gallery shouting ‘no, no, no’ and then there was a cheer when he fumbled it,” Joe laughs. “I shouted into the changing room ‘what happened? What happened?’ and they explained it. There are a few boys who are chilled when watching it, but I’m not a very good watcher.”
When Stokes – England’s dogged hero – cracked Pat Cummins’s weary long hop through the covers for four, it capped off the most thrilling test match win in recent memory. The drama on that fourth day surpassed the events at Edgbaston in 2005 and secured the centurion a place in the pantheon of this country’s great all-rounders.
“I’m sure Ben is in line for quite a few awards at the end of the summer, and rightly so,” Joe adds. “I was talking to the batting coach Graham Thorpe on the evening after that game and he said that every so often you get a special player and Ben Stokes is one of them – he can change the game from anywhere.”
After the post-match ceremony, the players returned to the changing room trying to make sense of what they witnessed. Later that evening, they sat on the square urging Leach to talk them through the run he sneaked which brought Stokes on strike to hit the match-winning boundary. “He was doing the whole shebang,” Joe says glowingly. “He was cleaning his glasses, running us through his pre-delivery routine and talked us through the single he grabbed.
“We then went back to the hotel, where we had a bit of food and a couple of drinks. It was all pretty relaxed. It was an amazing day and an amazing test match, but we’ve only levelled the series and there’s still a lot to go. We’ll hopefully have the celebrations after the Oval test.”
By this point, Joe’s vital innings the day before was a distant memory. Having walked to the crease with England reduced to 15 for 2, the side appeared to be on the verge of a limp, humiliating loss having been bowled out for 67 in the first innings. During his brief test career, which began in the West Indies in January, the former Whitstable footballer has often been thrust into challenging circumstances. Consequently, he is yet to score his maiden ton and doubt continues to surround his place in the team.
“As a top-order batter you find yourself in all kinds of different scenarios and there have been some tricky periods throughout my test career, that’s for sure,” he continues. “I wasn’t thinking too much as I walked into the middle. As a batter the key to being at your best is blanking everything out and being 100% clear in what you’re trying to do.
“When you first go out there, the Aussies are always in your face talking to you, trying to get you to nibble. They were calmly explaining to me that Joe Root would want to bat at number four in the next game because he hasn’t done too well at three and that I’m only playing because Joe has to try to fit me in the batting order somewhere.”
‘When we went nine down, I was packing my kit and planning my drive home’ – Joe Denly
But under the beating Yorkshire sun, Joe scored a battling half-century off 155 balls. The 126-run partnership he shared with Joe Root spanned 53 overs and laid the foundations for the storied run chase. “If they don’t get you out in the first two or three overs they go a bit quiet. They were certainly getting a bit nervous as the partnership developed.”
Now, the build-up to the fourth test at Old Trafford has begun. After the squad is announced this week, Joe will rejoin the team ahead of the start of the first day on Wednesday, September 4. There is debate surrounding opener Jason Roy’s place in the side, with most observers calling for Joe to take his place at the top of the order.
“I’ve opened the batting before and if they want me to do that then I’ll happily do it,” he insists. “But I’m reasonably happy at number four at the minute.
“If you’d have asked me a few years ago whether I’d be playing in the 2019 Ashes series, I probably would have laughed. It was a long way from my thoughts. But I’ve never given up on the dream of playing for England, although my main focus over these last few years has been on enjoying my cricket and seeing where that goes. Thankfully, it’s led to me being in what could be one of the greatest Ashes series to have been played.”
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