When Keaton Jennings began his 2016 season against Durham University in April, few would have foreseen him acknowledging the applause of the crowd at the Wankhede Stadium after he reverse swept for four to bring up his maiden Test hundred in his debut match. Going into the 2016 County season Jennings had played 55 first-class matches, making 2670 runs with an average of 28.4. Jennings was an exciting prospect, but no one was expecting him to make an England Lions tour, let alone a Test touring party.
Jennings arrived in England in 2011 as a 19-year-old, playing for Durham’s Second XI and youth development team. He made his first class debut that December back in his native South Africa. His initial career development happened there, he was captain of the South African Under-19s side where he opened the batting with Quniton de Kock. His father, Ray Jennings, was the South African coach at one time, and but for South Africa’s sporting isolation as a result of the Apartheid regime, he too would have played international cricket.
Jennings could well have found a successful career in South Africa, but he decided to undertake the four-year qualification process to be an England player starting in 2012. Durham certainly saw something in him, and their faith that he would come good was finally rewarded in 2016 as he plundered 1602 first-class runs at an average of 64.08, including seven centuries. Few who had watched Jennings career closely saw that coming.
Stuart Rayner is a North East based sports reporter who has covered Durham closely over the years. He tweeted about his surprise as Jennings reached his hundred. “I couldn’t have predicted his 2016 at all. Like those Durham members, this time last year I was worried about who’d open,” Rayner wrote.
David Hopps, the ESPNCricinfo general editor who watches as much County cricket as anyone, described Jennings as “unwatchable” before this season. Since then he has been transformed. No one seems entirely sure what has changed, just that Jennings has found a way to make his undoubted potential and talent turn into consistent results. He has just started scoring lots of runs. No batsman can do more for that.
It was only this summer that Jennings was allowed to play for England. He had a UK passport as a result of his mother being British, but he still needed to serve that lengthy qualification period. He could not have timed his best ever season in County cricket any better. Even then, it seemed that a Lions tour was the best that he could have hoped for. Before he had played a game for England’s A team, he was called up to the Test squad. Haseeb Hameed’s hand injury meant that England were short an opener and Jennings was the next best.
Jennings had not picked up a cricket bat in a competitive match since September, and there was always a danger that this miraculous run of form would disappear just as it had arrived. But that was not the case. He captained the Lions in a match against the UAE in Dubai, and he made a match-winning, undefeated hundred. If there was ever any doubt that he would come straight into the Test side for the Mumbai Test, they were gone after that innings.
So he arrived at the Wankhede, a stadium just as storied in history as any in the world. Alastair Cook won the toss and Jennings was in the action straight away. He had a nervy start. He did not look assured at all, an understandable response to being thrust into the highest level of the game. A short ball from Umesh Yadav was fended at, a Jennings was nearly gone for a duck. Karun Nair should have done better in the gully, and it was a massive piece of good fortune for Jennings as the chance went down. When things are going your way…
From there Jennings looked an increasingly confident presence. He was the man with the larger portion of the runs in a stand worth 99 with Cook, who was batting with the 14th opener partner of his career, and the 11th since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012.
Jennings’ home ground in Chester-Le-Street is the most northern of the English cricketing stadiums, and it is known for being conducive to seam and swing. Here Jennings was confronted with a dry pitch that turned and bounced, even on the first day of this match. This was his first ever first-class match in Asia, and once he had made the adjustment Jennings was imperious.
An upright batsman with a pretty standard technique, Jennings was happy to take the attack to the Indian spinners. He swept and reverse swept when the line allowed him to do so, and always along the ground to minimise the risk associated with the shot. He scored at a good rate, if not a blistering one, bringing up his century with that reverse sweep off the 186th ball that he had faced. His 112 is the 19th debut hundred by an England player, and the sixth since 1993. The five other players who have achieved a hundred in their first match in that period have all gone on to play at least 50 Tests. The pressure is now on Jennings to follow up his great beginning of his career with a good middle and end.
There is something slightly bittersweet about Jennings making these runs. England had been searching for an opening partner for Cook for four years. They found one in Hameed, now they have to another in Jennings. It is early days for both of these young men, but they look the part, whatever that can be said to mean. Now come July, England will have to chose between them.
The simplest solution is to play both, with one as an opener and another as number three. That allows England to move Joe Root down to number four, a position in which he is more comfortable. But having searched for another opener for so long, England now have an overabundance. That is a nicer problem to have than the opposite achievement.
As for Jennings, one innings does not take make a Test career, but it is impossible to have a better start.