By Patrick Gillen.
Cast your minds back to November of last year.
The legendary Alistair Cook had just retired, leaving Joe Root’s England cricket team in need of a new opening test marksman. Despite having received criticism at times for his international performances, casting doubt over his selection, the stage was set for Keaton Jennings to be that man as England faced Sri Lanka.
Jennings had his doubters doubting with a commanding performance at the crease, often experimenting with the reverse sweep and cracking impressive boundary shots off the Sri Lankan spin attack to rack up an unbreachable 146 not out.
But Jennings’ fortune quickly changed as the South Africa-born left-handed batsman couldn’t manage to build on his performance against Sri Lanka and subsequently failed to reach 30 runs in any of the following eight test matches.
This poor form saw the Lancashire opening batsman’s critics come back to the fore as Jennings was hammered at times in the press until, in January, he was inevitably dropped from the England squad for the second test against West Indies and replaced by Kent’s 32 year-old Joe Denly.
Speaking at Lancashire’s media day, Jennings reflected on a difficult winter period.
He said: “It was a tough winter. From a personal point of view it was really hard work.
“Mentally the disintegration when you see yourself in the news, especially when you aren’t doing well, is tough to handle. It definitely does dent you.
“I’ve always been a level-headed guy. I think I’ve been quite good at staying isolated in the last 18 months, which is probably why I’ve stayed sane at times.
“I’ve also had the love of my family, which has been fantastic, but it is hard. You need to realise in life what you can control and what you can’t.
“You can walk into a room and feel like everybody is thinking about you playing a cover drive when in reality people are actually going on about their day. I find you need to take cricket out of your personal life.
“But it’s professional sport and you need to bounce back. There’s no point going to bed and crying yourself to sleep because at the end of the day I’ve got a job to do.
“I’m paid to open the batting and score runs and that is the reality of it. If you stop doing that, then you need to find another job.”
Jennings now faces an uphill task to regain his spot in the England setup as Lancashire’s relegation last season means the 26 year-old will be playing his cricket in the second division of the County Championship.
With an Ashes series on the horizon, Jennings remains defiantly upbeat that he can impress the England coaches with his performances in Division Two with Lancashire and is adamant that he still retains a childlike desire to play for England.
He said: “You can be told technical things but the reality is you need to score runs. You need to score big runs to knock on the door.”
“The joy is that everything’s open. There are places up for grabs. It’s the weight of runs that are going to get guys places.
“My desire (to play for England) is just as strong as when I was five years old wanting to play international cricket.
“I remember watching Ashes test matches ages ago when I was five, six, seven years old and I would love to walk out at Old Trafford to represent my country at my home ground.
“I’m not playing in Division One this year. I can’t control that. The only thing I can control is scoring runs for Lancs and putting in those performances that win us games.
“But Division Two doesn’t mean guys are suddenly bowling underarm. There are professional teams who are highly skilled and everyone wants to win.
“I’m a proud person who wants to do well, whether I’m playing for England or playing for my local club side or playing with my seven-year-old nephew.”
Lancashire’s season starts with an away match against Middlesex on 11th April and Jennings says the Red Rose are focused on achieving promotion back up to Division One at the first time of asking.
He said: “We need to try and bounce back. That is the reality we face.
“There’s three sides being promoted this year so it’s a big opportunity for us.
“We’re going to have to play some very good cricket throughout the year to put ourselves in the top three.”
Jennings himself feels ready to put the winter behind him and says he is rejuvenated and ready for the season ahead.
He added: “I feel fresh. I’ve had a little holiday. It’s an exciting part of the year.
“It’s hard when things aren’t going your way but you go away and you put the work in.
“Being back with the boys you feel kickstarted and ready to go again and I suppose the proof will be in the pie when I can get out there and score some runs.”
Time will tell whether Keaton Jennings can be the man to fill Alistair Cook’s big shoes, but what can’t be questioned is his commitment and desire to put in the performances necessary at county level to impress the England selectors ahead of an exciting summer of cricket on the international stage.
Starting at Lords against Middlesex, expect Keaton Jennings to be using his mental resilience to score as many runs as possible for Lancashire between now and the end of the season and, who knows, it may be enough to see him opening for England against the Aussies come August.