It looks like this game is in the bag. There’s always a chance that something miraculous might happen – although Sri Lanka aren’t exactly blessed with many miracle workers – but one would expect England to romp home quite comfortably from here. I guess the rain might make an unwelcome return too, but we probably only need one of the two remaining days to wrap up a well deserved victory. In the words of a countercultural icon turned middle-aged pop-rock sell out “nothing’s going to stop us now”.
The big talking point of the day was obviously Keaton ‘the punchbag’ Jennings. He absorbed all the media punishment dished out to him last summer – some of which originated from this blog – and finally threw a punch back. His unbeaten 146 was a study in concentration and, erm, the sweep shot. Perhaps a new broom at the top of the order wasn’t required this winter after all.
I’ve already read a lot of praise for Ed Smith for keeping faith with Jennings – I swear Smith is related to Alastair Cook in some way because the majority of English fans seem either enamoured or outright infatuated with him – but I think that caution is the best way to respond to Jennings’ success here.
Yes he played very well indeed, and he deserves huge credit for weathering his personal storm, but it’s just one innings. My former co-editor Maxie used to call it the Collingwood rule. If you pick a guy indefinitely of course he’s bound to score runs at some stage. It’s the consistency with which he scores runs that’s the key. Even tail-enders occasionally come good.
However, I see Jennings’ success in a slight different light. I never doubted that he’s a good player of spin. He proved that in India two years ago. The problem is whether he can play seam bowling. Is it really any surprise that he’s finally scored some runs against a team containing just one seamer – and one with a poor test record at that?
Naturally this argument leads on to the old ‘horses for courses’ debate. Indeed, I read an absolutely terrible article in the Guardian the other day that tried to argue that tinkering with teams, and backing certain horses on certain courses, was a new and ingenious strategy devised by Ed Smith. And in coming up with such a strategy, our national selector had proved himself to be both an eccentric genius and the cricketing equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson. I didn’t catch whether the same writer is one of the guys nonsensically calling for Alastair Cook to be knighted.
The trouble with the horses for courses strategy (which is as old as sport itself) is that you always have to persevere with a winning horse for the next race – irrespective of where that race is being run. Otherwise it’s unfair and the selectors in question get heavily criticised by the media. Basically, if your horse for the course does well then you’re saddled with him for a while. And that can undermine long-term team building.
England used to do this all the time when Ted Dexter, and other idiosyncratic characters (aka madmen), were running English cricket in the 1980s and 90s. We’d call up a medium-pacer like Neil Mallender for the Headingley test, watch him skittle Pakistan under overcast skies with the ball swinging around corners, and then wonder why the horse-for-the-course suddenly looks like a complete donkey in the next game at The Oval when the sun is out. In the meantime they’d missed the opportunity to blood a superior prospect with a higher ceiling.
What’s more – and I really hate to doubt the bloke after he’s done so well today – all evidence suggests that Keaton Jennings isn’t even a particularly good bet as a horse-for-a-course because the conditions he thrives in are particularly rare. He’s an opener that can’t play pace bowling. Although he might be some use in India and the UAE too, it’s worth remembering that India and Pakistan have recently unearthed some pretty potent seamers, and they’re bound to play at least two of them whatever the conditions.
The question, I hate to say it, is therefore this: what good is an opener who can’t play pace? How many matches are England going to play against teams that only pick one (poor quality) seam bowler? Although Jennings’ runs will probably win England this test match, I worry his success might handicap the side in the long run, especially with more important series on the horizon. Somehow I can’t see Keaton enjoying much success with the sweep shot against Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc next summer.
There is a chance, however, that now Keaton has got some runs under his belt he might relax and start moving his feet more. Stranger things have happened. And if that materialises then we really can start celebrating his emergence as an adequate replacement for Alastair Cook. However, it’s going to take some time for him to make the necessary changes.
The one thing, however, that I do like about Jennings – and I’ve read that England’s management feel the same way – is that he has a superb head on his shoulders. He’s really impressive in interviews and comes across as confident (without arrogance), intelligent, and personable. We all know that cricket is a mental game (just ask soon-to-be Sir Alastair) and if Keaton’s tough upstairs then that’s half the battle.
Consequently, perhaps today’s very laudable century was most significant because of what it says about Jennings’ mental make-up rather than the make-up of his technique. My limited experience of psychology (added to my decades of watching cricket) tells me that sportsmen can change their techniques through hard work, but changing their personality and mental resilience is much, much, harder.
My final thought, therefore, is that at least we now know that Jennings indisputably possesses half the qualities required to be a successful test opener. And that’s important progress.