Opening batting against the moving red leather is by far the most difficult task in Test cricket. England’s incapability to find a reliable opening pair, especially someone who could accompany Alastair Cook at the top, has been extended for a while now. They have tried numerous options at the top but without much of a success. To be precise, England have experimented with as many as 11 players at the top since Andrew Strauss called it a day in 2012.
After embracing Test cricket on a high, where he plundered a ton on debut against India, Keaton Jennings was tipped to provide a long term solution to England’s top-order woes. But looked bereft of oomph with every outing.
Jennings has struggled to get going in the ongoing series against South Africa in seven innings so far, with his only moment of glory being 48 at The Oval. His weaknesses outside the off-stump have been well exploited by the South African bowlers, especially Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel. Philander had got the better of the southpaw three times in six innings while Morkel did it twice. The final Test at Old Trafford was a golden opportunity for Jennings to make an impact and make his case stronger for the future. But, Jennings floundered in the first innings on 17 and a lot depends on how he fares in the second.
Talking about Jennings technique, he often gets stuck at the crease. Former South African skipper Graeme Smith was quoted in a report from dailymail.co.uk saying, “Jennings can’t get his head to the ball, he’s just so upright and stiff like someone stuck a pole in his back. He needs to work on his posture. Maybe he’s conscious about holding his balance, not falling over and getting out lbw. He’s holding himself upright so much that maybe he can’t get to the ball.’
England have struggled for solid starts in six out of seven innings in the series so far. The opening stands between Cook and Jennings in seven innings read – 14, 80, 3, 4, 12, 30 and 35. It wouldn’t be just to hold Jennings responsible for this failure as Cook was also dismissed early on three occasions.
Let’s take a look at Jennings’ dismissals in the series so far. At the Old Trafford, he was dismissed on 17 by Duanne Olivier, a replacement for Philander. Jennings did well in seeing out the new ball against Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada but he eventually fell prey to Olivier’s persistence. Olivier got a good length delivery to move away from the left-hander as he moved slightly forward and got an outside edge.
In the first innings at The Oval, Jennings was undone for a duck. A length delivery from Philander moving away from him got the outside edge as Jennings was stuck in his crease. In the second innings, the southpaw did score 48, but a lot of luck rode in his favour. A good short delivery from Rabada took Jennings with a surprise resulting in a top-edge, a clear indication of lack of form.
At Nottingham, Morne Morkel induced an outside edge of a length ball in the first innings after which, Philander produced a beauty to rip through his defence and hit the timber. At Lords, Philander caught him leg before in the first innings and in the second Jennings almost gifted his wicket away while attempting to cut one moving away from him.
In seven innings so far, Jennings scores read 8, 33, 0, 3, 0, 48 and 17 respectively. He has garnered just 109 runs at 15.57, which certainly puts his spot in jeopardy for the upcoming series.
Maybe, Jennings is going through a rough patch and his best is about to come. But, his weaknesses have certainly been exposed by the South African bowlers. But the question is – Can England afford to give him another go against West Indies? He has one more innings to make his presence count at the Old Trafford, can he make an impact?
The Ashes is unquestionably one of the most intense cricketing battles on this planet and England are just three Tests away from locking horns with Australia in November. They have a lot of issues to be addressed, but their primary concern remains in the top-order.
What options does England possibly have? Haseeb Hameed, Mark Stoneman, Alex Hales? Hameed had a wonderful time in India and showed monk-like temperament but a poor run in domestic circuit didn’t help his cause. He needs to get some big scores in his basket if he is eyeing an England call.
Mark Stoneman was expected to make his England debut when Gary Balance suffered a mistimed injury after the second Test. But, Tom Westley got the nod for the number three position in the lineup. Stoneman has been prolific in the domestic circuit and yielded massive runs with his willow for Surrey at the top. Stoneman carries vast experience on his shoulders with 145 First-Class matches under his belt. Going by the form, Stoneman looks an apt candidate for the opener’s slot.
Alex Hales, on the other hand, is another tempting option for England by looking at the kind of form he has been in T20s. Although it’s a different ball game altogether and Hales didn’t find success against the red ball but still the possibility is still there and it’s appealing too.
The three-match Test series against West Indies would serve as an ideal platform for the hosts to rectify flaws and come up with long-term solutions though their problems are pretty evident. Australia in their backyard would be a tough nut to crack and England, at the least, would not want to go unprepared and few flaws still open