The search for a long-term batting partner for England cricket captain Alistair Cook has been a long one that has swung back and forth regularly from excitement to stark, disappointing realisation. Talented individuals such as Nick Compton, Michael Carberry and most recently Alex Hales have failed to provide the consistent support Cook needs at the head of the batting order. Indeed during the series in India he found himself walking out to bat with his eleventh different partner since Andrew Strauss retired four years ago.
Nevertheless, one of the final two names in this lengthy list could well have ended the search. After a four year wait since the retirement of Andrew Strauss two came along in the space of a couple of weeks.
During the tough series against Virat Kohli’s side first 19 year-old Haseeb Hameed and then, after the latter broke a finger, 24 year-old Keaton Jennings made fantastic starts to their international Test careers in immensely trying conditions. A newfound optimism for the future of English batting has suddenly been found, with both having the potential for fruitful Test careers, either as opening batsmen or near the top of the order. In a thoroughly difficult winter for England the emergence of Hameed and Jennings has provided the two main positives to take into what should be a far more productive summer of cricket next year.
Despite their obvious talents and form domestically, there were initial concerns about whether throwing Hameed and then Jennings into such a gruelling first series was wise. These concerns have proven to be unfounded. In fact you would never have known that it represented their first steps into the unforgiving cauldron of international Test match cricket, such was the maturity and confidence that each displayed. By the end of the series they will only have batted 10 innings between them, and none when in the same side, and it is important to not place too much early expectation on their inexperienced shoulders. However, it is hard not to get just a little excited after what they treated us to in India.
Hameed, who is the first opening batsman produced by Lancashire since Mike Atherton, is surely one of the most exciting talents that England have produced in recent years. Before injury ruined his tour he had scored 219 runs following six trips to the crease at a more than impressive average of 43.80. Despite facing a dangerous bowling attack in their own conditions, including two of the world’s finest spinners in Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, Hameed never looked overwhelmed and displayed a technique that looks perfectly suited for the long format of the game. Disciplined and unflappable, he hit a brilliant 82 on debut, whilst the way he batted for two hours during the third Test to earn another half-century despite having a broken finger shows the steely, determined mentality that will help a man already being referred to as a ‘Baby Boycott’ to go to go far in the game.
The England career of South African born Keaton Jennings is even more in its infancy. He provided one of the stories of the year for Trevor Bayliss’s men as he became the first England player since 1948 to score a century on his first day as a Test cricketer, scoring a vital 112 to hold the first innings together in the fourth Test in Mumbai. The tall left-hander was brought in as a replacement for Hameed but the selectors will surely try to accommodate them both within England’s top four going forwards. After a shaky start he soon found his composure and showcased an array of shots from technically astute cover drives to confident paddle sweeps against the spinners when the tempo needed to be increased. The way he brought up his century with a reverse sweep indicated the fearlessness with which he has taken to Test cricket. Control, mixed with the odd spat of brutality, characterised one of the most impressive England debuts in years – it is remarkable to think that he had arrived with the squad from the England Lions just three days before.
The rise of Hameed and Jennings was a strong antidote to those who dismiss the modern relevance of County cricket and demonstrated how it remains crucial for young, aspiring cricketers to work hard and prove themselves in the domestic game. Jennings forced his way into the selector’s thoughts after he finished the season as Division One’s top-scorer after amassing 1,548 runs for Durham at an average of 64.5, including seven hundreds. He further showed his skills in the shorter T20 format, where his career-best 88 in the NatWest Blast final was the highest ever score during a finals day. His year was thus capped off by him being given the accolade of the Cricket Writer’s Club County Championship player of the year. He already has 16 fifties and 12 centuries in his first-class career.
As for Hameed, this was the year in which he established himself as one of the standout young batsmen in the country. After blossoming at the end of the 2015 season with an outstanding 91 in just his third Championship match, he went onto to set a number of records in 2016, becoming the youngest batsman to score 1,000 runs for Lancashire and the fifth youngest to score 1,000 in a season for the county. He also became the first to score a hundred in both innings of a Lancashire match.
Once Cook, a stalwart of the England batting line-up for the last ten years, decides to hang up his gloves, Hameed and Jennings could well form a potent opening partnership for many years to come with their right-hand, left-hand combination. Each clearly have the technique, shot selection and temperament to thrive at the highest level. They were thrown in at the deep end but have never looked close to drowning under the pressure and expectation. This could in part be due to the responsibility they have already held so early in their careers – Hameed developed a reputation as a prolific and reliable run-scorer at England U-19 level, whilst Jennings is a former South Africa Under-19 captain and has just been named captain of the England Lions for their tour of Sri Lanka next year.
At such an early point in their respective careers, and with past experience reminding us of the struggles others have had in establishing themselves alongside Cook or high up the batting order, it will be crucial not to expect too much too soon from these fantastic talents. They should be afforded all the time they need to truly find their feet at this level. Yet rarely does a side find two such terrific new young talents in the space of one series. They have offered a glimpse into what could be a very exciting future for English cricket.
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