“When I was nine or 10 we went to the nets. We were training. It was one of the days when I decided not to listen. He threw me the first ball, I got out. Second ball, I got out. He said you get out one more time we’re going home. He threw me another ball, I got out. He put his bag down and walked off.” Then with a sheepish smile Keaton Jennings adds, “From that day forward he was Coachy.”
The young Durham opener, on his first official day as a member of the England Test squad, isn’t talking about some erstwhile coach. He’s talking about his father, Ray, who has always had a reputation of being a classical tough-as-nails man. And it somehow doesn’t surprise you when he says, “I can’t remember the last time I called him dad.”
There’s a feel of the ‘whatttt!’ about where Keaton’s cricket career stands at the moment when you look at his background. The senior Jennings represented his native South Africa in 14 unofficial Tests during the Apartheid era and his playing days were long behind him by the time they returned to international cricket. And Keaton, the 24-year-old born in Johannesburg, himself has played and captained the South Africa U-19 team. But here he is on the cusp of making his Test debut, for England—a country he moved to only in 2011.
He then recalls his surreal journey from being a future Protea batsman to suddenly shifting allegiances to the England jersey and attributes it to a train ride — something that most Mumbai cricketers can relate to — soon after the U-19 series five years ago.
“Yes I did,” he says when asked about whether he had ambitions to play for South Africa post that series. “But after working with John Windows up at Durham and the environment at Durham it started leaning that way (playing for England). Straight after that series I got on a train and rejoined the academy at Durham. I think it was out of Dover the train and it took me a couple of hours to get up north. But yes, I would say from that point I definitely pulled the pin and threw my lot in,” he revealed.
Keaton still sounds South African. Five years is not long enough for him to pick up the yakka accent, even if he’s been based in the north eastern tip of the country. Even if he insists on saying, “At the moment I’m feeling very comfortable and very English, despite my accent.” To his credit, he did seem rather comfortable answering the barrage of questions directed at him, and they covered every aspect of his life with the English media contingent pretty keen on subtly reminding of where he comes from.
“Growing up, I went to the same South African school as Graeme Smith, Neil McKenzie, the King Edward VII. I finished school and came over to England straightaway in April 2011, and then from there tried to part my way into English cricket. The following year through qualification reasons, and the guys up north made me feel really welcome, between Stokesy (Ben Stokes), Colly (Paul Collingwood), Woody (Mark Wood) — they’ve been three of the main drivers — Mark Stoneman — in helping me settle down and pave the life in the UK,” he says.
“At the time I sat down with my Dad and I felt it would be my best opportunity to live my dream in the UK and I’m very glad as I sit here now to have made that hard decision,” Keaton adds.
And Keaton has settled down in the real sense of the word, having bought his own house — “a nice little two-bed flat in Chester-le-Street” as he puts it — and even has a local pub that he frequents.
“The more time you spend in a country, the more you feel welcome. Especially in the north-east, the people are very welcoming. And that made me feel part of the furniture essentially. I’m blessed that they’ve welcomed me and welcomed me with open arms,” he explains.
Keaton’s only still spent five seasons playing County cricket, having made his Durham debut in 2012 against Surrey in a match where he played alongside Stokes, Collingwood and Graham Onions. His first three seasons were rather unremarkable with his batting averages reading 21, 31.61, 24.75 and 32.50, scoring all of two centuries in that period. Then came the meteoric rise earlier this year when he topped the County run-scoring charts totalling 1602 runs at 64.08 with seven centuries to boot.
And it’s not surprising that he hasn’t quite caught the fancy, or even the eye, of the English media. It did come through when he got asked about the kind of batsman he was and his calibre against spin.
Thankfully they didn’t ask him whether he was right-handed or left, though you cannot be sure considering they never brought it up.
“Starting off at the Riverside, it’s quite a tough environment for a young opening batter, or for an opening batter in general. The wickets were quite spicy. I’ve probably found a little bit of happiness outside cricket, and that made me a little bit more positive in trying to pick balls to try to score off,” he says while refraining from calling himself an ‘aggressive’ opener.
Keaton is a South African about to play for England, but he reveals to have grown up being an Australian fan, waking up at ‘stupido-clock’ in the wee hours of the morning to catch Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer open the batting and raves about meeting his idol Michael Hussey in 2009. He admits on being closer to his father than anyone else but believes it’s his mother who’s been integral in maintaining a level of parity at home.
“Growing up in a cricketing family, you talk a lot of cricket and it’s very intense from a training and a professionalism point of view. But it’s a very loving environment. My mum softens my dad in some very nice ways and she’s taken the edge off him at home. The outward persona of a very hard and concrete man – in the family house he’s very loving and gentle,” he says, the last line evoking many raised eyebrows in the media box.
Keaton, who’s pursuing a Bcom in financial management, is not a complete stranger to India having come here along with the senior Jennings in 2010, when he was the coach of the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL. “Drink lots of water and make sure it’s (from) closed bottles,” is the major tip he claims to have received from his father about playing in India.
And he doesn’t seem too overawed by the dire backdrop that will frame his debut either. “Hopefully we can land a few haymakers and throw some punches back.”