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Keaton Jennings is ready to show his worth to England

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Keaton_Jennings_England_CricketOn a tour which began with so much promise, England have had it tough of late. Poor sessions at crucial times in both the second and third Tests, together with the awesome form of Virat Kohli, batting with the added incentive of a point to prove against his bogey team, resulted in comprehensive defeats and a post-match search for ‘the positives’ that familiar first resort of the outplayed.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been any, of course. Adil Rashid has had an excellent series with eighteen wickets to show for his increased control and threat. Ben Stokes continues to underline his reputation as England’s go-to man, a player with a happy knack of making things happen with both bat and ball. And Joe Root has again demonstrated his importance as the binding force in a batting line-up that has been placed under severe, and increasing, pressure.

The biggest positive, though, has been the extraordinary rise of Haseeb Hameed. After only three Tests the young Lancastrian is already playing like a veteran and his enforced return home, for an operation on a broken hand, has dealt a significant blow to England’s prospects for the remainder of the contest.

There is still much to play for, however, and in Keaton Jennings England has called up the best replacement possible.       

Jennings’ elevation to the Test side caps a season in which he scored 1,548 first class runs at 64.5 to finish as the leading run-scorer in Division One of the County Championship. It is form that must have brought Jennings close to a plane ticket for Bangladesh but instead saw him on a trip to Dubai with the England Lions. Playing against UAE as his selection was announced, Jennings marked the occasion with an unbeaten 101. England will hope for plenty more of that.  

Like Hameed, Jennings is a batsman in the old-fashioned mode: an accumulator who builds his innings on patience and classical technique. Solid English traits - a firm defence, elegant cover drives and, not least, a well-judged leave - are the hallmarks of his style.

 

The selection indicates a way of thinking that appears to have changed in the England management, a move away from the search for a David Warner-style figure at the top of the order and toward a more traditional style of opener who can provide the solid foundation on which the middle and lower order can make hay. Although adding yet another left-hander to the England line-up is not ideal, in Jennings England has a steady head who is unlikely to be fazed by the job to come.      

The son of former South African wicket-keeper and coach Ray Jennings, Keaton made his first-class debut for Gauteng against Free State in his native Johannesburg in December 2011 and captained South Africa’s U19s before committing himself to England and serving his four-year qualification period.

Durham was the natural destination for Jennings junior, his mother being from Sunderland in the north-east of England. Although he took a while to adapt to the famously bowler-friendly conditions at Chester-le-Street, a maiden Championship hundred against Derbyshire in the side’s title-winning season of 2013 set him on his way, and by 2016 he had cemented his place at the top of the order. His seven hundreds last season included a top score of 221* against Yorkshire and, even though Durham were relegated as part of the sanctions connected to their financial bail-out by the ECB, he will be remaining in the north-east for 2017.       

The amusingly predictable sideshow of mock indignation at Jennings’ roots, as always delivered via social media in a strong Australian accent, may have caused a debate but little distraction. Just as, according to the popular Twitter hashtag, ‘Aussies can’t play spin’, so the country of Usman Khawaja, Fawad Ahmed and Middlesbrough-born Matt Renshaw clearly doesn’t do irony either. Jennings is worthy of his place by every conceivable measure and will relish the opportunity to show what he is made of.

As England attempt to salvage a series draw over the next two Tests, a successful partnership between Jennings and his captain at the top of the order will be crucial. Both will need to perform well - after his century at Rajkot, Alastair Cook has had an indifferent series by his high standards and it is essential that he finds his form again.

But whatever the result may be, looking into the future, this tour is likely to be viewed as the point when England finally solved the burning issue which has dogged them since the retirement of Andrew Strauss. Haseeb Hameed has undoubtedly inked his name into England’s starting line-up for the foreseeable future. But an English winter which began with questions still unanswered as to the identity of Alastair Cook’s ideal opening partner may yet end with two proven candidates who can fill the role. Who would have thought that?   

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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