Here’s James Ogden with his latest piece on Keaton Jennings, who could be emerging as England’s first ever Asia specialist …
When Keaton Jennings was selected for the upcoming winter tour of Sri Lanka, the response was typically, and some would say understandably, negative. Of all the openers tried in the past decade to replace Andrew Strauss and the now recently retired Alastair Cook, none have received as much scorn as the former South Africa under-19’s captain.
Maybe it’s his rigid stance and unattractive stroke making, or the fact that in home conditions he has been unable to find consistency. However, with two centuries to his name – more than Adam Lyth, Mark Stoneman, Alex Hales and equal in number to Rory Burns – are people being too harsh on the Johannesburg native?
The first thing to acknowledge about Jennings is that when he was selected as injury replacement for Haseeb Hameed, he was heading to India on the back of some incredible numbers. In the 2016 county championship season Jennings scored 1548 runs at an average of 65 – numbers made even more special by the fact he was playing his home games up at Durham against Division 1 attacks. The numbers were hard to ignore and he deserved a call up. He even started well, with a debut hundred and a fifty in his second Test. However, back in England against South Africa (and the moving ball) Jennings struggled mightily and was rightfully dropped.
Herein lies the problem with Jennings. When playing in England, where the majority of fans saw him live for the first time, he simply does not look up to international standard. Yet his numbers do not suggest he cannot be a great opener in English conditions. His career average of 33 might be underwhelming, yet a year scoring over 1500 runs for Durham is no mean feat. Furthermore, when Jennings was recalled for a second time in 2018, it was off the back of a promising start for Lancashire, where he had scored over 700 runs at an average of 47. Jennings can play in England, he’s just yet to show it on the international stage.
The second, and much more prominent point to make when discussing Jennings recent selection, is his statistics in the subcontinent. In 5 matches in either India or Sri Lanka, he’s scored 400 runs at an average of 44, including 2 centuries. To put that into perspective, Joe Root has played 11 matches in the subcontinent, scoring 911 runs at an average of 43, also including 2 centuries. Jennings has clearly proved his ability to play in spinning conditions, where his limited footwork actually seems to help him play the spinning ball late.
In an era of unprecedented innovation, perhaps Jennings is the first of a new breed of England cricketer – the spin specialist. Perhaps this is even something to be encouraged. England have often struggled to bat on turning wickets and Jennings is probably England’s best player of spin since Alastair Cook in his prime. This is something he should be proud of – a leader in a skill that many English players lack.
To make my self clear, I do not for one second believe Jennings is a long-term solution to England’s batting at the top of the order. However, the disgust many expressed at his recall for Sri Lanka was unwarranted. His Test average of 25 is of scant difference to the likes of Malan and Hales, whom many feel were discarded too soon. Jennings also has more Test centuries than those two players combined.
Although the South African born opener may well be the spare batsmen in Sri Lanka, his skill and experience at both Test and Lions level will surely benefit the squad. His help and advice might also help Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley who are two younger batsmen with very little experience in sub-continent conditions.
England’s horses for courses model has been a huge success in white ball cricket. So why not move forward with it in the Test arena? Jennings may never play a Test in England again, but he certainly has plenty to offer the team going forward.