After Keaton Jennings’ century helped England to a 461-run lead, Patrick Noone reflects on a batsman who had hit a wall at home but came into his own in Galle.
If Day 1 of the first Test in Galle saw the birth of an England batsman’s Test career in the form of Ben Foakes, Day 3 has seen the resurrection of another as Keaton Jennings re-announced himself at this level with his first century since his debut 112 at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium back in 2016. It was a cathartic, redemptive innings from the left-hander who had looked all at sea against India’s lethal pace attack during the English summer but, in conditions much more to his liking, Jennings put aside his recent travails ensure that England began the post-Alastair Cook era with a century from one of their openers.
Had it not been for Cook’s retirement, it is a reasonable assumption to make that Jennings would have been left out of the XI for this match, if not the squad altogether. Rory Burns was the man banging down the selectors’ door through sheer volume of county runs; his place was well-earned and he might well yet become a success for England despite his quiet start to life in the Test team. But Cook would surely have been retained as well, condemning Jennings to another slog through the County Championship, or perhaps a tour or two with England Lions, in order to regain his place.
However fortuitous the circumstances of Jennings’ inclusion, the decision was the right one for the recognition that playing spin in Sri Lanka is a world away from facing one of the best seam attacks in world cricket. That accumulating runs through sweeps and reverse sweeps on slow, low pitches might as well be a different sport to trying to keep out a Duke ball that happens to be swinging more than any previous summer. The selectors’ faith has already been vindicated as Jennings used the skills he showed in his maiden century to nullify the threat of Sri Lanka’s spinners and perform the anchor role for England as they set the hosts an insurmountable total.
Jennings’ method was similar to that during his debut innings. On that occasion, he scored 25% of his runs from sweeps and reverse sweeps; today it was a fraction below that at 23%. For the first 243 balls of his innings, he practically eschewed the ‘V’ between mid-off and mid-on as a scoring option. Only 25 shots went in that region, the bulk of them defensive and Jennings only picked up six singles in that area.
The 244th ball he faced, Jennings planted his front foot and clubbed a sweetly struck drive past Dhananjaya de Silva to the mid-off boundary. So sweetly struck, in fact, that the bowler sustained an injury after it burst through his hands and would only bowl one more ball in the innings before leaving the field for further treatment. The shot was notable as much for it’s rarity as the swagger Jennings showed when playing it. This was a batsman in the groove, on top of his game and a far cry from his most recent incarnation as a rigid figure continually prodding outside his off-stump, seemingly unable to move his feet.
From that point on, Jennings’ innings held a different complexion. England were accelerating towards a declaration and Jennings added 39 runs from his last 37 balls faced. His attacking shot percentage increased from 29% before that boundary to 52% after it. Yes, the situation allowed him to be more expressive and more expansive but the stand-out element of the latter part of Jennings’ knock was that it felt at last like he was enjoying batting in a Test match. With the emphasis on mere survival an afterthought, he was able to display a freedom that was so conspicuously lacking throughout the summer.
Of course, Jennings will still have his detractors who will point out that scoring runs in these conditions does nothing to dispel fears that he is not up to the task of opening the batting in England. There is merit in that argument, but Jennings will be under no illusions about his performance in the summer and his place will again be under scrutiny should he remain in the team until next summer’s Ashes.
The crucial factor for him is that this innings has confirmed that the Mumbai innings was no fluke or one-off; he is a genuinely talented batsman in these conditions and has the skillset to succeed regularly in the subcontinent. This hundred will surely have provided him with that most precious commodity for all sportspeople: confidence. If he can use that as a springboard for the rest of the series, there is no reason to doubt that he will score many more runs in the upcoming Tests.
Patrick Noone is an analyst at CricViz.