The Case for Keaton Jennings

Today we welcome new writer Will Symonds to TFT. He argues that it’s time to give Keaton Jennings another crack at the top of the order. They say that England need two new openers. Well, did you know that the two leading runs scorers in div 1 of the championship this year were both openers? One was Ben Compton and the other was… you guessed it.

The eighth of December 2016. Blistering Mumbai heat scorches down upon the Wankhede stadium, roasting players and spectators alike. A loyal handful of Barmy Army supporters are drowned out by the passionate buzz of an Indian crowd. The England subsection hold their breath, sick with an uneasy mixture of anticipation and anxiety. In the middle, a young man battles hard. A week prior Keaton Jennings had been watching the action from his sofa, now he finds himself on the precipice of greatness, edging ever nearer to a century on his test debut. 

The innings had been anything but straightforward, a tentative start saw Umesh Yadav crash a short ball into Jennings’s bat shoulder. The chance falling agonisingly close to Karun Nair at gully, who spilled a tough catch to give England the reprieve. The opener battled back with two imperious boundaries from the over and looked positive against the spin, sweeping bravely to combat the deadly Ravi Ashwin.

After almost four hours at the crease, Jennings does it. A jubilant cheer goes up from the English support as the debutant makes history, becoming the first England batter in for 68 years to register a ton on his first day of test cricket. 

Heavy praise inevitably followed. 

“He looks nicely composed. He has an economy of movement, he stays very still. His footwork is good”, proclaimed former England opener Geoffrey Boycott.

Regrettably, Keaton’s test career has not panned out in the manner many were hoping it would. Inconsistent form in the following summers against South Africa and India exposed a glaring weakness against fast bowling before Jennings was finally dropped after excruciating showing during England’s abysmal 2019 tour of the West Indies. The late Bob Willis slating Jennings final cap as “one of the ridiculous selections I’ve seen in recent times”, and Jennings himself as a “robotic stick insect”. Presently, the 30-year-olds test average stands at a miserable 25.2, having scored only 781 runs in his 17 appearances.

However, times have changed. Nearing four years and seven openers on from his axing, could a Keaton Jennings return be the answer to the ever-present question of who should open for England?

Despite the early success of England’s new ‘BazBall’ era, the three lions are still left wanting at the top. The incumbent men, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley have shown flashes of brilliance yet remain very inconsistent, both averaging well under 30.

Jennings on the other hand, has been imperious this season. Topping the County Championship runs table with 1,233 from his seventeen innings. That too at a formidable average of 72.53. 

There’s been a plethora of memorable knocks, however it was his mammoth 318 against Somerset that really caught the eye. Lasting 426 balls and over nine hours, the Lancashire man methodically picked apart the Somerset seamers while attacking the spin of Amir Virdi, coming down the track regularly to reach his triple century. Particularly eye-catching was the fast pace of the knock. Not known for his shot making, Jennings’s strike-rate of 74.65 could prove especially appealing to England’s attack minded new coach Brendan McCullum.

Should he be picked, Jennings will be contending with the spin friendly pitches of Pakistan, as England make their test return to the nation for the first time in 17 years. These alien conditions may appear daunting to many an England bat, Jennings however, would have no need to worry. His two test tons have both come in the sub-continent, the second of which, an outstanding 146* against Sri Lanka in 2018. A confident sweeper of the turning ball, Jennings may prove a dominant option to combat Pakistan’s high-class spinners.

Regarding the current opening pair, the McCullum policy, so far, has been to show faith. 

“The last two guys who nailed it at the top of the order in this country are both called ‘Sir’, so it’s not an easy thing to do” 

“We’ve got to allow these guys the time and opportunity to develop. You’ve got to allow that talent to come out.”

Given this stance, both Crawley and Lees may just hang on to their places for the upcoming tour. But should their lacklustre run continue, it can’t be too long before both run out of chances. And should the selectors seek a replacement, they must look to the man in form, the obvious choice, Keaton Jennings.

Will Symonds


  • Except that we’ve been here before: Jennings was in wonderful form in 2016 when he was first picked, and it didn’t translate into much at test level. His career average in f-c cricket, even after those two wonderful seasons, is less than 37. If you want a consistent county opener who’s been discarded before, you’d be better off with Rory Burns.

    I don’t see the logic of a lot of this piece. The problem with Lees and Crawley is that they “have shown flashes of brilliance yet remain very inconsistent, both averaging well under 30”. So why is the answer to pick a player who’s shown flashes of brilliance but remains very inconsistent, averaging well under 30?

    Who says the pitches in Pakistan will be “spin friendly”? Isn’t that just a cliche about Asia: “oh well, all Asian pitches look the same”?! They weren’t for the Australia series: they were puddings which negated everyone bar Pat Cummins.

    And Pakistan’s “high-class spinners”? Who? Where?! Fading and inconsistent Yasir Shah, who hasn’t been picked for two of their last three series in Asia including their last home one, whose record outside the UAE is pretty similar to Moeen Ali’s, and who has a somewhat mixed record in Pakistan? Nauman Ali, 36-year-old journeyer who’s resembles Jack Leach a bit in approach and who averaged 42 in their last home series? Sajid Khan, who took a wicket every 234 balls in that series? Mohammad Nawaz, who’s a white-ball all-rounder mainly, essentially a Pakistani Liam Dawson?

    But what Pakistan DO have–and it’s why I’m sceptical that the pitches will be spin-friendly–is a high-class seam-bowling attack. And if Jennings was on dodgy ground with Rabada, Philander and Morkel, then he will be too with Afridi, Naseem Shah and Hasan Ali.

    It’s a bit difficult to see WHO the answer would be–they’ll be hoping that the likes of Orr and Haines continue to develop–so Jennings may well get the gig as the most in-form of a bad bunch, but I’m pretty certain he’s not any kind of decent answer, however many he scored for Lancashire this summer.

    • A bit harsh, I think, Ian. Keaton certainly showed his mettle in the Pakistan 2020, (yes I do know that test cricket is not the same).

      Graham Gooch averaged 27.9 after 17 tests (27 innings). Just saying.

    • Which 20/20s? Jennings has never played one for England and as far as I can see has never played in the PSL.

      You’re not mixing him up with Ben Duckett are you?

    • Agree with every word of this (unfortunately – as I would love for KJ to prove us wrong)…

    • Jennings last played test cricket four years ago, and while he was poor then, a lot can and has changed in four years. Technical changes have been made. A lower stance, more footwork etc, and the runs have flowed. Four years ago, his game was different and, possibly more importantly, his confidence low. Now is a different story, coming off a CC season where he averaged 72, there’s no reason for him to still be judged for his form four years ago.

      Secondly, I’d argue that recent Pakistani pitches have indeed been spin friendly. You mention the recent series against Australia. In that series, about half the wickets fell to spin, there were five-fers four Nauman Ali and Nathan Lyon. The certainly pitches aren’t dustbowls. There were runs a plenty and the pace bowlers were also successful. Yet spin played a massive role and took wickets, the pitches allowed this.

      Thirdly, Pakistan’s spinners certainly are high-class. The reason Yasir Shah hasn’t played in Pakistan’s last two out of three home series was due to form but because of reports of his involvement in a case pertaining to the rape of an alleged minor in 2021. Yasir was cleared of all charges this year. After that, he didn’t play in the Australia series because he was “still regaining his fitness”, according to Babar Azam. Although his numbers have taken a slight hit recently, a leg-spinner who has taken 244 test wickets at an average of 31.4 is certainly ‘high class’.
      Although he’s only played five tests, Mohammed Nawaz averages 27.2 with the ball, impressive numbers not at all comparable to Liam Dawson.

      There are obviously a plethora of other options. I too am hoping Tom Haines and Ali Orr can come into their own, Orr particularly has an England future and I’d like to see him play asap. However both averaged more than twenty less than Keaton Jennings this season, a division lower.

      County form must be rewarded, especially when a player makes technical changes and sees the benefit of it.

      • We might have to agree to disagree about Yasir. On helpful pitches, yes, I’d want him in my side. On less helpful ones (or anywhere south of the Equator!), he can be a liability–and often has been.

        On Jennings–his technique still doesn’t address the fact that he averaged 64 six years ago, and got 300 runs more, in a longer and probably higher quality Championship, presumably giving him equal bags of confidence…and he still didn’t crack tests. Twice. The problem isn’t his technique, it’s that he’s simply not consistently good enough for tests.

        On the Australia tests, it’s the other figures about spin that matter, not the number of total wickets taken (which was actually 40%, which I’m not sure I’d quantify as “about half”). Both second spinners (specialists both) averaged over 100 and had strike rates of 234 and 272 respectively; the first spinners averaged over 40 and had strike rates of 80 and 110. Only two seamers out of seven had a strike rate of less than 69. In one test, fourteen wickets fell in five days. That’s simply not a series of remotely spin-friendly tracks: it’s a bunch of pretty dead parrots. Of course spin played a big part on them: it’s more economical of energy and spines than bowling your precious fast bowlers into the ground and into a six-month layoff! If they produce the same type again, expect Wood/Stone/ Overton or whoever England’s most injury-prone bowler currently is not to be playing until 2024…

  • He had plenty of cracks, more than most and was found wanting. It’s not a confidence issue it’s technical. That will still be there. It also illustrated the difference in standard between county and country.

    • I’ve never really been a Jennings fan but he last played for England a long time ago. Maybe he’s a better play now? Plenty of players have been found wanting after their first stint in Test cricket but come back stronger. Hashim Amla is a prime example.
      The other point I’d like to make is that, at some point, the selectors surely have to start rewarding county form. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all? I have no idea whether Jennings would be more successful second time around, but if the incumbents are struggling, and the two leading championship run scorers are both openers, at some point we’ve got to select on merit.

      • Totally agree.
        If Jennings has improved his technique (if memory serves me he nicked off to balls slightly short of a length on 4/5th stump?) then he S/B “next cab off the rank” – I have not seen anywhere near enough of him to judge if he has.
        Personally I would pick Sibley. Not a popular choice but I believe that he has the potential to be a significant test cricketer.

    • Mark
      I think that is the key issue. Have his technical issues been sorted out ? John Bartholomew rightly mentions Gooch and it’s a good comparison. Having been castled – and he was not alone – by Lilley and Thomson, he went back to Essex and worked on his game, emerging as an opener rather than a 3. If he has done that successfully he deserves another chance. If not, history will repeat itself. I do agree with James, if you are going to ignore County form when picking the Test side what is the point of County red ball cricket.

    • It wouldn’t be Jennings’s second time, James–it would be his third.

      I agree that, given there are apparently no good options, rewarding those who have done best seems logical. But that’s precisely why I’d pick Burns in this situation–his test figures are considerably superior to Jennings’s. I also agree that the selectors have to reward Championship form–but only up to a point; if you make it into an attribute which literally can’t be ignored, then you ignore the fact that there’s a difference in quality between domestic and test cricket, and that some players fail to bridge it. (I mean, who’d pick Hannon-Dalby for England on that basis?)

      And that’s why it’s important that it’s his third chance not his first or even second.

  • I’m not sure it matters who hate at the top, because there really isn’t a decent Test opener in the country. Blimey Crawley, before the last couple of innings, averages 17! Yet he’s still there. Lee’s isn’t much better, a good county opener, no more. Jennings, Duckett, Compton, Gubbins, the Somerset bloke who’s name I can’t remember, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. The game for a host of reasons we have endlessly discussed, doesn’t produce your traditional opener any more. To be honest, as Ian says, Burns is as good or better than any of this lot, and has a better average than any of them. Hasn’t had his England contract renewed, I suppose Key and McCollum don’t like him. Pope has at least been good enough to adapt himself, albeit uncomfortabley, at 3 which effectively is an opener anyway. Sibley anyone? Well at least he can stick around.

    • The Somerset opener who’s name you can’t remember–three possibilities:

      Option 1. The main issue was that he was only given one chance with England, although he scored runs. Hasn’t done too badly as a left-arm spinner though….-)

      Option 2. Great idea! Another Yorkshireman (via Taunton) in the side. Only problem is that Australia got there first…-)

      Option 3. He’d be better than most of the alternatives, right? On the other hand, he turns 47 just after the series ends and it might be better to leave him as coach…:-)

  • I thought Jennings was appalling when he last played for England, one of the worst of many awful openers. However when I saw him bat (on TV) earlier in the season he looked a different player – he’s obviously done a lot of technical work and seemed much less rigid.
    Alex Lees hasn’t received any sort of contract so presumably is about to be discarded (a good call I think – although he had a couple of unlucky dismissals he never looked like a Test-class opener). If a county opener has worked his socks off and topped the averages with over 1,200 runs at 72, then surely that opener has to be first pick irrespective of how he performed 4 or more years ago? Many batsmen are at their best in their 30s. Jennings is 30 so England could easily get 5 or 6 years out of him if he can perform. He’d certainly be my pick for Pakistan.

  • Well he is in the squad. I saw quite a bit of him playing for lancs this year he was in excellent nick. Competing with duckett for the openerw slot.


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