ENGLAND TOUR OF WINDIES, 2019
Jennings received two reprieves before falling for 8. © Getty
Even if you didn’t see Keaton Jennings’ dismissal in the opening session of this match, you probably know what happened, right? Yep, that’s the one – caught in the slips, driving at a full ball. What’s that old saying about the definition of madness?
As Sir Alastair Cook said on the radio, it is “too big an area of weakness” for a Test opening batsman to have. Like a Formula One driver who’s iffy on corners. It wasn’t clear if he was stating the bleeding obvious on purpose. Opposition bowlers know it, England’s coaching team know it. Hell, even Jennings himself knows it. Yet there is precious little evidence that Jennings has improved any aspect of his game over the past 17 Tests.
Harsh? Maybe. The 26 year-old is a diligent, hard-working cricketer who has spent plenty of time working on bettering his game. The effort has been there, but the results have not. On day one, he looked horribly out of his depth and beyond the harsh lens of professional sport, the overriding feeling is one of sympathy for a good bloke being exposed at the top level.
There is some mitigation, of course. Deemed surplus to requirements in Antigua, Jennings was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into the team as England searched for a better balance. It was a bizarre and baffling decision. With no game between Tests, Jennings had no opportunity to find form or confidence. Who knows, maybe more time in the middle would have harmed him further. Nevertheless, how or why he suddenly come back into contention is anybody’s guess.
On commentary, former England captain Nasser Hussain said Jennings’ selection bordered on “cruel”. Fighting for his career, battling his own form and having had to deal with the crushing disappointment of being dropped, picking him here was not simply a hospital pass by the selectors. This was akin to sending him out with both hands tied behind his back.
It was as unfair was it was muddled and incoherent. The team may have a better balance but at what cost? What good is being nice and balanced if that is achieved by picking a player so hopelessly out of form as Jennings? Surely, it would have been better to be slightly off kilter with players more likely to score runs? Ben Foakes, the man to make way, hasn’t set the world alight in this series either, averaging 13.5, but he looks a better bet right now and, lest we forget, was man of the series in Sri Lanka a couple of months ago.
The biggest error in all this is actually Ed Smith’s in not selecting another top order batsman for this tour. It forced England’s hand once they decided they wanted to change the balance of their team. They had to pick Jennings because, simply, there was no one else to pick.
Over the past four years, as here, England have put a lot of eggs in Jennings’ basket. This is, after all, his 17th Test match. He has also played 24 matches across all formats for England Lions, captaining them for his most recent appearances. But despite those opportunities, all that time spent with the ECB’s coaches, from Mark Ramprakash to Graham Thorpe to Andy Flower, he still has a flaw against fast-bowlers who pitch it up and find some movement. You come across a few of those at this level, believe it or not. As an English opener, he is likely to face quite a lot of that type of bowling, especially at home where conditions are tailor-made for that threat. It’s a sizeable, career-limiting flaw.
Test hundreds in India and Sri Lanka are like gold dust, but Jennings now averages just 17 outside Asia which is where he will be needed most. He has played ten first-class matches for the Lions, too, averaging 32 with no hundreds. His overall first-class average is just 34 and at no level has he scored the volume of runs which would suggest he is a Test-class opener. Yet he keeps getting picked. That is not his fault, of course but England have a blind spot when it comes to him.
Even those among the Great Discarded Dozen such as Adam Lyth and Mark Stoneman, exhibited less obvious flaws in their own Test lives than Jennings has in his three so far. Neither Lyth nor Stoneman scored the number of Test runs they should have but nor have they had as many opportunities, at senior or Lions level, as Jennings.
Today’s innings was desperate stuff. Jennings was eventually caught at first-slip off Keemo Paul for eight but he should have been dismissed on three. First, he was pinned on the crease by Kemar Roach but the LBW shout was turned down and West Indies failed to review, presumably because they thought the two noises they heard was bat then pad. It was actually front pad then back and Jennings was plumb. Two balls later, he was dropped at third slip by Roston Chase from a fine delivery that squared him up. Earlier in the morning, Jennings edged just short of second slip. Had there been a rake nearby, he would have stepped on that too.
When he was put out of his misery, Jennings let out an expletive – a moment that rather summed up England’s batting on this tour. Constantly under pressure, technically and tactically deficient and without ever giving the feeling of permanence.
Unfortunately, that has been the way of things for the vast majority of Jennings’ Test career too which makes it baffling as to why England have stuck by him for so long. Barring a miracle, he probably has just one more Test innings to play.