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.