Keaton Jennings hasn’t had it easy.
Since coming into the England team in December 2016, the Lancashire opener has been the subject of seemingly pervasive criticism, enduring a microscopic level of analysis towards his technique and subsequent lack of runs.
Ahead of a big summer both personally and for his country – England play just a solitary warm-up Test match for The Ashes against Ireland at Lord’s in July – Jennings faces some fierce competition for his place at the top of the order from the likes of Nottinghamshire’s Ben Duckett, Surrey’s Jason Roy and Middlesex’s Nick Gubbins.
MM caught up with Jennings to hear his story over the last few years, from starting so well in December 2016 on the test scene to seeing it unravel…
A natural player of spin, the South African-born left hander waltzed his way to an unerring century on debut in Mumbai, repelling the dangerous likes of Ravichandran Ashwin in four and half hours of masterful sub-continental batting.
But then the issues started to emerge. Despite averaging over 40 in his first four innings in an England shirt, it was the visit of the touring South Africans in the summer of 2017 when his flaws against pace began to get exploited.
“It is tough. I’d be lying to you if I said there aren’t nights when you’re lying in bed balling your eyes out – because it is hard. You can feel like the world’s on top of you,” he tells MM.
“I don’t read about myself anymore. I did two years ago, and I found myself in some pretty bad ways, trying to come up with game plans about how to face guys for hours and hours on end.
“It was quite tough mentally. I went through a couple of really tough months.”
All of a sudden, and just seven months on from his striking introduction to Test match cricket, Jennings’ international career was starting to falter.
The skilful duo of Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel were ruthless, relentlessly putting the ball in areas where he struggled and leaving him ending the four-match series with an acute paucity of runs and an average of just 15.
Jennings was dropped for the next series against West Indies and – most damagingly – The Ashes. However, following the similar struggles of Surrey’s Mark Stoneman as Alastair Cook’s opening partner, Jennings was thrust back into the Test match limelight once again last summer.
“You find ways to get around criticism – you move things out on social media.
“Why people think that they want to wake up in the morning and abuse people on social media I have no idea, but that’s entirely people’s choice.
Love the feeling of a 4 day win and made more special being at the home of cricket!! Some great performances from the lads! pic.twitter.com/MYpXmqQFwK
— Keaton Jennings (@JetJennings) April 14, 2019
“At times I probably think it takes ignorance as well to push things to the back of your mind and not acknowledge them.
“It does take quite a bit of mental resilience. It takes a strong family backing, a strong, happy, loving environment to help you through.
“You can’t handle everything all by yourself, so to have a family behind you is fantastic.”
JERUSALEM… AT OLD TRAFFORD
Jennings values the support of those close to him so highly, regularly alluding to their role in helping him get through the tough times when runs are short.
Being from a cricketing background – his father Ray played over 300 domestic matches for Transvaal and Northern Transvaal – invariably facilitates that process.
“Mentally, the disintegration of when you’re seeing yourself in the news – especially when you aren’t doing well – is tough to handle,” he says.
“It dents you – it definitely does – but I’m extremely lucky that I’ve got an unbelievably supportive family and support structure around me. They shelter me from a lot of things.”
Despite the turbulence that has characterised Jennings’ England career so far – including over the winter in both Sri Lanka and the West Indies – he remains defiant about the future ahead of an important summer for both him and English cricket.
“It was a tough winter – from a personal point of view it was really hard work. Obviously I’ve had work to do,” he says.
“My desire to play for England is just as strong now as it was when I was a five-year-old wanting to play international cricket.
“It does become a bit of a drug and an adrenaline rush – hearing Jerusalem before the first ball is bowled is just absolutely fantastic.
“I’d love to walk out here representing my country in a Test match at Old Trafford.”
He remains grounded, firmly aware that – despite playing second tier cricket this season – his Ashes chances are dependent on his form in a Lancashire shirt between now and August.
“The reality of the situation is that I am playing in Division Two this year – I can’t control that and I can’t control selection.
“The only thing I can control is scoring runs for Lancashire – trying to put us in positions that win us games of cricket.”
And Jennings has had a solid if not spectacular start to the summer, scoring half centuries against Loughborough MCCU, Middlesex and Worcester but failing to make an impact in the dramatic Roses match at Headingley on Sunday where his team pipped Yorkshire by just a solitary run.
His thoughts turn to his career more generally, reflecting on the nature of what has been a hugely eventful couple of years competing with the sport’s elite.
“I want to play cricket at the highest level. With poor performance comes criticism.
“This is the life I’ve chosen and this is the life I love. It’s highly competitive and it’s highly intense, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”