OPPORTUNITY knocked in St Lucia yesterday and neither Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings nor Joe Denly were good enough to take it.
England will return from the Caribbean no closer to knowing their best top-three than before they set off, a state of affairs for which the selectors and management must accept responsibility.
As England advanced to 325-4 in their second innings on day three of the third and final Test, a lead of 448 that should bring the comfort of a consolation win barring a Devon Loch capitulation, the top-order problem showed no sign of ending.
Worse still, it was seemingly obvious to everyone apart from the selectors and management that the likes of Jennings is not the answer; indeed, to paraphrase the old saying, if Jennings is the answer then there must be a problem with the question itself.
No one who has watched Jennings scratch around in this series – 17, 14, 8 and 23 yesterday –- could not feel sympathy for a likeable fellow or fail to conclude that he has, effectively, been set up to fail.
Deemed not good enough to play in the last Test due to his ongoing struggles against pace he was recalled for this match after England dropped Ben Foakes and reshuffled their pack, with Jonny Bairstow – supposedly inked in at No 3 – now back keeping wicket and down to No 7.
Jennings fell yesterday in laughable manner, so much so that he himself was laughing after somehow contriving to drag on via his trousers a ball that pitched a foot outside leg stump from Alzarri Joseph, while the news was hardly better concerning Burns.
At times the Surrey man has looked good this winter, but the statistics tell a story: 300 runs in eight Test innings at an average of 25, no better than the many tried and thrown out before him.
Yesterday Burns clipped the first ball of the day, a leg stump half volley from Joseph, straight into the hands of square leg. If he survives until the first Test of the Ashes on August 1, as he may well do, it is likely that it will be blind faith on the part of the hapless selectors.
Like Burns, Denly had a great chance to make a big score in England’s penultimate Test before that series. The Kent man – England’s fifth No 3 in six Tests this winter, a statistic that says it all – played well for 69, but it was the 31 runs that he failed to add on top that will gnaw away inside.
What an opportunity he had to cement the No 3 slot going into the Ashes, against a weakened attack missing suspended captain Jason Holder and also Keemo Paul, who was stretchered off with a thigh injury, and with all the time in the world to bat for a long period in a dead rubber game against opposition who have perhaps taken their foot off the pedal with the series won.
He was even given a massive helping hand, Shimron Hetymer dropping him on 12 at third slip off Shannon Gabriel, a looping opportunity that was so straightforward that the bowler’s reaction was hardly reminiscent of the Angel Gabriel.
Why, it was so simple as slip catches go that Geoffrey Boycott’s mother, one imagines, could have caught it in her pinny while doing the washing up with one hand and the ironing with the other. Had that catch been taken it would surely have ended Denly’s Test career there and then.
His eventual dismissal was not pretty on the eye, bottom-edging a wide long-hop from Gabriel to the wicketkeeper just when a hundred was there for the taking. The quality of bowling will be ramped up a notch when Australia visit, not to mention the scrutiny and expectation.
While the top-three failed, the man who does not want to take the responsibility of going up to No 3 in spite of considerable prompting to do so perhaps needed a few runs himself to keep justifying his preference to bat at No 4.
Joe Root will not have too many better opportunities to reassert himself after a recent dry run, and he duly did so with an unbeaten 111, his 16th Test hundred, not his most fluent innings, perhaps, but one of admirable fighting spirit after a difficult few weeks.
Jos Buttler also cashed in to record his second half-century of the game, advancing to 56 before being bowled by Kemar Roach with the second new ball, having added 105 in 35 overs with Root, who then compiled an unbroken 71 in 20 overs with Ben Stokes (29).
It was a fine delivery from Roach that turned Buttler around and disturbed off stump, a rare thrilling moment, in fact, on a day when England were determined to grind out as many runs as possible after the towelling they had taken for much of the series.
The platform to make hay had been given them, of course, by the wonderful bowling of Mark Wood, who, it almost goes without saying, was not picked in the initial squad and then overlooked until the final game.
Still, if you fumble around in the dark for long enough, you are likely to chance upon a light switch sooner or later.