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Keaton Jennings bides his time

Thanks for the memories: Jennings leaves Colombo after England's tour was called off earlier this month. He made a match-winning 46 and 146 not out in Galle on the previous tour, in 2018 Ishara S Kodihara / © AFP/Getty Images

It was not long ago that 2019-20 seemed like it was becoming Keaton Jennings' dream winter.

After putting a disappointing County Championship season behind him (average 30.94, no hundreds) with three weeks in Mumbai on an England spin camp, Jennings captained England Lions to their first ever win against Australia A under the MCG floodlights, before jetting off to join the Test squad in Sri Lanka, the scene of his finest innings in international cricket and a place he holds close to his heart.

Even if selection in the first Test, which was scheduled to end on the 23rd, was by no means guaranteed, he had hoped to pass his knowledge of subcontinental conditions and his method against spin to England's young opening pair, Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley, and to contribute under the helmet when required as a substitute fielder. And besides, there are worse places to spend the spring months.

But instead, with the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping across the world and the UK entering lockdown, Jennings found himself at his desk - not to write a diary or get started on his autobiography but to bash out a 3500-word critical analysis of a pharmaceutical company as part of a business management degree he is studying for at the Open University.

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"I've been bunkered down, trying to sort out my studies," he laughs. "It's been really cool, I've enjoyed it."

"I'm quite an… 'intense' is the wrong word, but I'm quite a driven bloke. I take things quite seriously. I find that when I don't have other things on my mind, I dwell on nets, performances and all that sort of stuff quite heavily.

"Yes, I put in my best work when I net or whatever else, but when I get away from it I have another focus, and have something else on my mind. It's been really refreshing."

With the benefit of hindsight, Jennings has come to realise that during his first spell as a Test cricketer, he made the mistake of reading everything. After a tough day with the bat, he would find himself scrolling through Twitter, watching his technique get dissected on television, and reading articles calling for him to be axed.

"People - and society in general - can be quite vile," he says. "I don't know why people get behind a keyboard and feel like they can say whatever they want to whoever they want. It amazes me."

He remembers sitting down to read the newspaper with a coffee the morning after his first recall, ahead of England's series against Pakistan in 2018. "I'd woken up five minutes before, and there I was reading my technique getting pulled apart. Sometimes you've got to be ignorant."

"People can be quite vile. I don't know why they get behind a keyboard and feel like they can say whatever they want to whoever they want. It amazes me"

His response has been to delete Twitter from his phone, to remind himself whose opinion matters to him, and to throw himself into his degree, which he hopes to complete in June. After that, he will apply for an MBA.

Having something to keep him busy when most players are taking the evening off has helped him gain a healthy sense of perspective. "You get pulled into a completely different energy space, which is quite nice. You stop worrying about what's happening with cricket, what's happening with everything else because your energy is actually focused somewhere.

"I found playing overseas was quite nice as well - you go have your net, but then you go and do a couple of hours' work and it gets your mind away from the game really nicely."

While Jennings accepts the "tough call" to postpone the Sri Lanka tour was ultimately the right one, it is clear that there is a sense of frustration that he did not get the chance to prove himself after another recall, not least given the affection he feels for the country itself.

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"It's a tough place to tour - a lot of the guys were going out there for the first time and experiencing that heat and humidity, going through two or three shirts or towels in a session. The intensity around the whole place is quite nice.

"It's a place I love touring, the food, the people all the rest of it. The Sri Lankan people are fanatical about cricket, so to have two Test matches against England essentially taken away from them is tough. It was massively disappointing but the right decision was made to keep guys safe."

He hopes that there will be an opportunity to return - a short window in the Future Tours Programme before England's five Tests in India next winter looks like a possibility - though he may have limited opportunities to press his case for selection, given the expected curtailment of the County Championship season.

That said, his ability against spin is now well known. Jennings credits a training camp in 2016 as a huge help, when he worked extensively with Graham Thorpe and Andy Flower on doctored strips in the UAE, but he is not enamoured of the idea that he is seen as a spin specialist.

"Am I happy with it? No, probably not, but at the end of the day people are going to talk and there's nothing I can do about it. I don't read any of those comments anyway.

"I'm just trying to be the best player I can be for as long as I can. Whether that means I'm playing county 2nd team or Test cricket, then that's what I want to do - compete at the highest level I can for as long as I can. There are areas of my game that I'm still trying to develop, including my playing of spin, and then see how far I go.

"Aged 17 or 18 coming across to England, just having finished school and almost being thrown out into the wilderness, if somebody had said to me, 'You'll play 17 Tests for England and that would be your career over' - would I have taken that? I'd have said, 'Yeah, definitely.'

"Obviously I want to play more - you want to play 150, you want to be the most capped player ever, but at the end of the day my journey is going to be different to somebody else's. I'll continue to work as hard as I can and try to push myself."

For the time being, it is a waiting game. Training facilities are relatively limited in Jennings' two-bedroom apartment, but equipment from the Old Trafford gym has been "divvied out" among the Lancashire squad and he is confident that "you don't become a bad player in three or four weeks". And besides, those essays won't write themselves.