It was a tough summer for opening batsmen: it took 34 innings before an opener registered a fifty during India’s Test tour of England. To contextualise this statistic, there has never been a five match Test series in which an opening batsman has not scored a fifty, and it was Cook’s 71 in the first innings of the final Test that ensured this record remained. Keaton Jennings experienced a dismal run of form in that series, only managing 163 runs at an average of 18. Some of his dismissals showed a worrying lack of game awareness: he failed to pick two in-swingers from Jaspirit Bumrah and Mohammad Shami, and seemingly forgot the presence of a leg-slip at the Oval.
There were deafening calls to drop Jennings for the final Test and to hand Surrey’s Rory Burns a debut at his home county ground in a low-pressure dead rubber. Ed Smith’s stubborn faith in Jennings denied Burns such an opportunity, which has now left England with a very vulnerable and inexperienced Test opening partnership.
There seemed to be a disconnect between what England’s captain Joe Root wanted, and the policies of the England selectors. When I asked Joe Root what County cricketers had to do to get noticed by the selectors, his mantra was simple: “continue working hard and score runs, big runs consistently”. Rory Burns was the only opening batsman in the County Championship who fulfilled this criteria. Indeed, he had been for several seasons, but this still didn’t give him the opportunity to replace Keaton Jennings.
Speaking to Aaron Finch after a Surrey T20 Blast match, the Aussie was heavily critical of this decision saying that Burns “obviously” deserved a spot in the England side.
By the end of the summer, after two more low scores at the Oval, it seemed as if England’s stubborn faith in Jennings was bordering on absurdity.
However, despite this extraordinary run of poor form, Jennings still found himself on the plane to Sri Lanka as England began their post-Cook era.
It may have been a slow and agonising process, but England’s persistent faith in Jennings finally reaped its rewards as Jennings made an elegant 46 and a match-winning 146* in their first Test against Sri Lanka. This came in some tough turning conditions, with batsmen like Rory Burns and Joe Root struggling. It set up England’s crushing 211 run victory.
It is crucial that Jennings does something that he has not been able to do before: score runs consistently for his country and guide England’s opening partnership in this vulnerable transition phase. As the supposed heir to Alastair Cook, Jennings will have a lot of pressure on him and the next few months will test his mental strength and resilience. Jennings, though, has had the best possible start to the post-Cook era.
Nevertheless, England are still in a precarious situation in terms of their opening composition and they ought not to rest on their laurels. While one opener has finally recorded the big scores he needed, the other is just starting out in Test cricket and is under a lot of pressure. These two opening batsmen are likely to have an extended run in the Test side.
This isn’t necessarily due to their merit, but is instead a reflection of the severe shortage of opening options to choose from. England’s County Championship is struggling to produce specialist batsmen, although they provide a bounteous supply of allrounders and bowlers.
If England’s Test team is to succeed in the long term, it is key that this changes, and that the ECB explore ways to promote the lost art of Test batsman-ship at a grass roots level.