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Sri Lanka v England

Where is Keaton Jennings?

keaton jennings
Yas Rana by Yas Rana
@Yas_Wisden 3 minute read

After another pair of failures for England’s openers in Sri Lanka, Yas Rana asks if England could have benefitted from Keaton Jennings’ presence in the touring party.

4, 9, 2, 8, 0 & 5.

England’s openers have not started well in Sri Lanka. Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley have mustered just 28 runs between them with all six dismissals coming via the left-arm spin of Lasith Embuldeniya. On turning tracks against a young bowler with the skillset of Embuldeniya, it’s been a testing start to the pair’s first experiences of playing international cricket in Asia.

And while both have made positive impressions in their short Test careers thus far, there was always the possibility that this winter would prove troublesome. Sibley in particular, even in relatively benign spinning conditions, has had his struggles against spinners who turn the ball away from him.

Rory Burns, who returns to the England squad for the India series after the birth of his first child, has had his own difficulties against spin; no bowler has dismissed him more often in Test cricket than Roston Chase.

There are understandable reasons for Crawley, Sibley and Burns not looking as comfortable against spin, especially in Asia, as they do against pace. One of the side effects of the paucity of opportunities for spinners in the County Championship is that English batsmen don’t get to face a whole lot of quality spin before their elevation to Test cricket. None of the three had experience with England Lions in Asia prior to their Test debuts either.

It does beg the question why the one England opener available for selection with a track record of scoring hundreds in Asia didn’t make the plane.

As recently as last summer, Keaton Jennings appeared to be in England’s plans. Included in England’s 55-man training group at the start of the summer, Jennings featured in England’s intra-squad game that preceded the home West Indies series and given the unlikelihood of him playing at home, it seemed that his inclusion was with one eye on England’s six Tests in Asia this winter.

Given England’s admirably forward-thinking rotation policy with player’s welfare at the forefront of their minds and the necessity of bringing an expanded touring party due to the difficulty of bringing replacements in at short notice during the COVID-19 pandemic, it does feel strange that Jennings isn’t in the England squad for either the tours of Sri Lanka or India.

For all of Jennings struggles against in home conditions, Jennings is an excellent player of spin with an impressive record in Asia behind him; he is one of just seven England openers to have scored multiple Test hundreds in Asia. This isn’t to say he should have started the series, as both Sibley and Crawley have served England well in recent times and deserve a run in the side in Asia. Rather, he could have been a strong Plan B, ready to be called upon in reserve if a loss of form should occur. Now, going into the first two Tests in India, England’s top-order options seem bare.

Jennings’ omission is perhaps a display of confidence in James Bracey. The Gloucestershire batsman is comfortable batting anywhere from the top of the order down to seven and impressed during both the England Lions tour of Australia last year and that intra-squad warm-up fixture in July. But not unlike Crawley before him, Bracey, at this point in his career, doesn’t have much of a first-class record to fall back on. Aged 23 with a first-class average under 35, the wicketkeeper-batsman has never played a first-class game in Asia.

Bracey aside, England don’t have many options should they want to take players out the firing line. With Jonny Bairstow rested from the first two Tests of the India tour and Jos Buttler rested from the last three, Bracey will likely be the only reserve batsman in the touring group ahead of that second Test should Ollie Pope not regain fitness in time.

For Ed Smith’s excellent record at spotting and elevating talent during his tenure as national selector, this isn’t the first time his squad-building hasn’t been particularly pragmatic. On the 2019 tour of the Caribbean, a similar lack of replacement batsmen meant that an out-of-nick Jennings was recalled for the series finale. It’s now his absence two years on that could mean that a similarly misfiring batsman’s run in the side may be prolonged, perhaps to the detriment of their long-term confidence.

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