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Cricket news - Jennings's Ashes bid begins with Lancashire
In the space of six Test matches this winter, Keaton Jennings scored a brilliant, unbeaten hundred in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle before Christmas. He was subsequently dropped for the second rubber against West Indies in the new year after a run of low scores in the four games which followed his ton and then was recalled one match later for the final Test of the winter in St Lucia. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotion to test even the sturdiest of souls. "It has been hard," he says. "But it's been really fun as well."
Given those highs and the lows, fun might not be the word you'd expect Jennings to use, but the 26-year-old has always had a perspective on the game that treats it just as that. In an interview with Cricbuzz before captaining the Lions to the Caribbean last year, he said he was just as interested in making sure his charges learnt about and enjoyed the culture of the countries they were visiting as much as the cricket.
That sort of perspective helps at a time such as this when his place in the Test side is under threat. Aside from the fine 146 not out in Galle, Jennings's next highest score during the winter was 46. His form last summer, in an admittedly tough season for batting, wasn't great either and he averages 25 from 17 Tests overall. His removal from the side in Antigua looked as if it would be the end of this spell - his second - in the Test side but he got an unexpected reprieve for the final game in St Lucia. He scored 8 and 23 in England's victory.
From the outside, Jennings's selection in St Lucia looked like a hospital pass. Struggling for form and having suffered the emotional blow of being dropped just a few days earlier, he had to rouse himself for what was effectively a one-off match knowing that if he failed, he might never get his place back.
Jennings, however, doesn't see it like that. The reasons for being dropped in Antigua were clearly communicated to him and he appreciated the management's honesty. And once England had decided to change the balance of the side for the next game by picking an extra batsman, he was the only other one on tour. He simply had to come back in. And, as he's keen to point out, a Test match for England is a Test match for England. "You can be extremely proud of just representing your country, whether you get a pair, a hundred, three hundred, whatever it is," he says. "You're representing your country. I was absolutely thrilled to get that last Test and it was a fantastic game to be a part of.
"It is tough, though. Being dropped is never easy but as a batter, I know as well as anybody, you have to score runs and that's the currency you deal in. If people are questioning your selection, you have to score more runs. That's the plain and simple bottom line."
Jennings's hundred against Sri Lanka was his second in Test cricket after he reached three figures on debut in India in 2016. Outside the subcontinent, however, things have been more of a struggle. He averages just 17 in ten Tests in England without a half-century and even if he has played in two very difficult home summers for batting, his returns have yet to prove he has the game against Test-class quick bowling. It has also led to some arguing that his game is only suited to subcontinental conditions.
"There's no shame in only being a subcontinental player," he says. "There's no shame in only being a white-ball specialist. I'm extremely proud of the path I have had so far. I can put my head on the pillow at night knowing that I have given my best regardless of what gets written or what gets said.
"If I am packaged as a subcontinental player, that's awesome. If I'm not, I can try and change the perception of the media, that I can get runs elsewhere. Actions will speak louder than any interview I do. I would be lying if I said I read a lot of comments. I used to and I used to get quite agitated about it. I try and park that. People have jobs to do and that's the same as when I walk out onto the field. I've got a job to do."
He says the most frustrating aspect of the winter was not cashing in on a number of starts. He made just three single-figure scores in his ten Test innings but only two scores over 30. "I'm the kind of guy that prides myself on getting big scores," Jennings says. "I'm frustrated from that point of view but in a lot of other ways it was really exciting. You experience things in an England shirt that you can't describe. Whether it's media pressure, walking back to the hotel and people commenting positively and negatively towards you. It was an awesome winter to be a part of Rooty's group. I absolutely loved it."
It's instructive that when asked about his winter, Jennings talks about Mark Wood's performance in the St Lucia Test as being the "cherry on top" of his experience with England. No mention of Galle. Instead, he talks about Wood's maiden five-for, achieved with one of the quickest spells from an English bowler in recent memory, and how much it meant to both of them.
"Mark's a fantastic man," Jennings says. "I probably talk through rose-tinted glasses about him because he's one of my best mates. He's a lovely bloke. To have gone through what he's gone through the last two or three years and continue to fight back and produce what was a match-changing spell. He hit me in the nets a day or two out [from the game] and he had an intensity and an aura about him. Standing at short-leg you could feel the heat, you could feel the atmosphere."
The challenge facing Jennings now is to score heavily for Lancashire this season to keep his name in the hat for the one-off Test against Ireland and then the Ashes later this summer. He has not been discounted by England, at least in part because there are no other proven top-order candidates, but he has accepted that even if the county runs do flow, he still may not get back in.
"I just need to score as many runs as I can. If England selection comes or doesn't come off the back of it then so be it. Nothing is guaranteed. Not my first team spot here [at Lancashire], not an Ashes Test, nothing."
Jennings topped the averages for Lancashire in all three formats last season, his first since arriving from Durham, and scored three red-ball hundreds but relegation to the second division of the Championship was a disappointment. It was even more galling given they were docked a point for a slow over-rate in a game against Yorkshire, without which they would have survived. Yet it shouldn't gloss over the batting failures in red-ball cricket which were more significant to their fate.
"We didn't pile on a weight of runs that would allow us to put sides under pressure," Jennings says. "That was an underlying factor throughout the whole year." New captain Dane Vilas has called for more focus from the club's talented but relatively inexperienced batting line-up. "Dane probably hit the nail on the head," Jennings adds. "That focus element comes into how you train, the way you go about constructing an innings, the way you go about your batting.
"It's a very young group of batters. We don't have 32 or 33-year-olds that have played for ten or twelve years. Dane is the oldest in the batting group and I'm probably the second oldest and I'm only 26. So it's a fairly young batting group but a very exciting group."
The signing of Glenn Maxwell for five Championship games and a chunk of the one-day and T20 competitions will add experience and class while his fellow Australian Joe Burns has been signed for when Maxwell is at the World Cup. More will be expected from Liam Livingstone, captain last year, and Alex Davies who had middling seasons against the red-ball last term and if Lancashire can score runs, Graham Onions and Tom Bailey should once again be a force with the ball after combining for 121 Championship wickets last year.
"The way you go about playing in the divisions is slightly different," Jennings says. "When you look at Northants the year before last, they won nine games and still didn't get promoted. In Division Two cricket, you have to win games and we need to make sure we put ourselves in those positions. There will be no wool pulled over our eyes in terms of how tough Division Two cricket is. I played there with Durham a couple of years ago and it was some of the toughest cricket I've played.
"It will be a different feeling and without the threat of relegation, who knows, maybe that allows guys to play with more freedom and grow their games. Hopefully this year we can put sides under pressure from a batting point of view and the bowlers can do the same as they did last year."
And what about the lure of a home Ashes series? "I'm hugely determined, hugely motivated to score runs for Lancashire," Jennings says. "If England selection comes off the back of that, great. If it doesn't, then also great. I know I've done everything to push myself as a person and as a player. It's a really exciting time for English cricket, not only the Test side. Hopefully I can be a part of it playing for England. If not, so be it."
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