“Should he continue to open for England even at home? By the looks of things, he will as the England middle-order is jam-packed at the moment. But, he will certainly have to improve himself in those conditions, where there will be some movement early on with the new ball”
From scoring a hundred on his Test debut in Mumbai, Keaton Jennings’ journey has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride. He announced himself with a century and a fifty in his very first series, but ever since that, it has been a bit of a struggle. He has gotten off to starts on numerous occasions, but at this level, just a start will not do. At Galle, he put his doubters to bed with an epic ton, which could possibly win England the Test.
He partnered Alastair Cook in the recent 5-match home series against India, but his scores were under-par. Cook too was looking out of shape in the series, until he scored a fifty and a century in his final two innings to sign off on a high. With Cook no longer playing international cricket, it could very well be Jennings, who becomes a mainstay in the opening slot and the team management may look to find him an apt partner. England have shown immense faith in him and it is time Jennings lives up to it.
When we talk about Asian conditions, Jennings needed to look no further than Cook to draw inspiration. Cook scored 2,710 runs at 53.13 in Asia, which is the most runs for a non-Asian player. Many from England, Australia and other non-Asian countries have tried to conquer India, but have gone back with very less to show. Jennings, however, has given his Test career a new life at Galle, where he played with patience, resilience and sensibly to keep the Sri Lankan bowlers at bay. Sri Lanka played three frontline spinners in this Test and were expected to ease past the English batsmen. But when England needed it, someone or the other stepped up. In the first innings, it was Ben Foakes, who scored a century on debut and in the second, it was Jennings, who stepped up to the plate.
It is certainly too early to draw comparisons, but Jennings in his short Test career has already shown his love for the subcontinent. All three of his 50-plus scores have come in these conditions. He averages a meagre 17.72 from 18 innings at home, but in just six innings in Asia, he has scored 40 runs more than he had scored back home and averages a healthy 71.80. A bright start away from home, to say the least.
A lot has been said and written about how a batsman needs to be technically good to survive in all conditions. While that is important, it is also crucial for a batsman to acclimatise and adjust to the conditions. A batsman needs to analyse the conditions, pitch and also respect the bowlers to be successful. Jennings during the course of the entire Test did not seem he ever looked out of sorts. He got a couple of lucky breaks in the first innings when Angelo Mathews put down a couple of easy chances, but, Jennings could not make a big score. He, however, got a sniff of the conditions, the pitch and would have surely fancied his chances in the second innings. With the ball seaming around and not too much turn on offer, Jennings was extremely comfortable.
The sweep shot is used quite often especially in the sub-continent as a go-to shot for many batsmen. “When in doubt, sweep,” was something that was followed by many. We saw Usman Khawaja sweep and reverse-sweep at will against Pakistan at UAE recently. Jennings too employed the sweep to good effect. Even in his debut innings against India – A 112 at Mumbai in 2016 – Jennings used the sweep and reverse sweep to good effect, scoring 25 per cent runs through those shots. At Galle, during his unbeaten 146, he scored 23 per cent of his runs through those shots. A few were not particularly well controlled, but Jennings persisted with it and it paid off.
Former Australia opener Matthew Hayden used the sweep shot to good effect in the 2001 tour of India. His double century in Chennai against the likes of Harbhajan Singh and other spinners was one of the highlights of the tour, but what was more exciting to see was his fearless shot-making, especially his sweep shots, which put him in the limelight. That tour turned Hayden’s career around and since was one of the most feared openers in the world.
While Jennings has definitely proved that the Mumbai hundred was no fluke, it is time for him to be more consistent. He averages under 30, which is too less for a talented player like him. Against a bunch of quick Indian bowlers, Jennings struggled at home. It was especially Mohammed Shami, who troubled him in the recent series, with a bit of movement, often trapping him in front or cleaning him up. Before that, it was Vernon Philander, who troubled him.
Should he continue to open for England even at home? By the looks of things, he will as the England middle-order is jam-packed at the moment. But, he will certainly have to improve himself in those conditions, where there will be some movement early on with the new ball. Negating them successfully should be a priority for Jennings and once set, he should convert it. At Galle, Sri Lanka might have missed a trick by not playing another seamer. Suranga Lakmal made the new ball talk and could have been more damaging if he had another fast bowler bowling from the other end.
Had Cook not required, we may not have seen Jennings on this tour. Instead, we would have seen Cook with yet another new opening partner, while Jennings could have been subjected to County cricket back home or on the bench. But that’s not how things turned out to be and Jennings needs to make the best use of this new leash handed out to him.