"Regardless of what happens over the coming weeks, I am really looking forward to getting involved where I can," -- Keaton Jennings. © AFP

“Regardless of what happens over the coming weeks, I am really looking forward to getting involved where I can,” — Keaton Jennings. © AFP

As millions of Indians on the opposite coast bade their teary farewells to a political icon, Keaton Jennings was coming to terms with the enigma of arrival. A fortnight ago, he was reconciled to spending the early part of December in the United Arab Emirates with the England Lions. Then, Haseeb Hameed, who batted with so much composure and resolve for 219 runs in the series, broke his finger badly. With Ben Duckett seemingly powerless to combat R Ashwin’s wiles and Gary Ballance a shadow of the batsman who took 503 runs off India in 2014, the team management opted to look outside the original squad for a replacement.

The man they chose is now 24, and grew up half a world away from his current home in Chester-le-Street, Durham. As a teenager, the Johannesburg-born Jennings was – to quote Craig Marais, a former SA Schools and Boland wicketkeeper who is now a sports anchor for the South African Broadcasting Corporation – ‘always in [Quinton] de Kock’s shadow’. Soon after his first-class debut for Gauteng (2011), Jennings, whose mother was born in Sunderland in England’s north east, figured that his chances of international honours were probably higher in the United Kingdom.

“Growing up, I went to the same South African school as Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie – 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. I threw my lot in and the guys up north made me feel really welcome. At the moment, I’m feeling very comfortable and very English, despite my accent.”

Having led South Africa’s Under-19 side to England, Jennings then worked with John Windows at Durham before he was convinced that it was there that his future lay. “Straight after that [Under-19] series, I got on a train and rejoined the academy at Durham,” said Jennings. “I think it was out of Dover, the train, and it took me a couple of hours to get up north.

“I have always said since I was small that if I make it in cricket, that is brilliant. If I don’t, then I want to know I have given it my best shot. 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.”

Dad was no ordinary cricketer. Ray ‘Jet’ [after the sci-fi character, Jet Jungle] Jennings was the wicketkeeper for Transvaal’s Mean Machine, a side so accomplished they would have wiped the floor with several international sides in the 1980s. By the time South Africa were welcomed back from Apartheid-era isolation in November 1991, Jennings was nearing his 37th birthday.

The man who used to arrange mattresses on the floor of his living room and throw himself around as preparation would never get the national cap he craved so much. There were unofficial matches against ‘rebel’ sides that toured South Africa, but each conversation with Jennings senior is a reminder of one of his greatest regrets – that he never got to represent South Africa in a Test match at Lord’s.

“He was a great wicketkeeper, unique in that he was very much like a goalkeeper standing back to the quicks, especially at altitude at the Wanderers,” said Marais. “I’ve never seen diving catches the way he did, often taking it front of second or third slip. Critics said he stood too far back, but who cared as long as he caught it. He didn’t keep much to spin, except for Alan Kourie, and was a scrapper as a batsman.”

Much of the tough love that made him an unpopular coach of the national side was rooted in that sense of loss. When Jennings asked South African players to ‘drink tap water’ or told Royal Challengers Bangalore’s Under-19 prospects [including Virat Kohli and Manish Pandey] that ‘no one gave a **** what they’d done as Under-19s’, it was his way of getting them to cherish what he saw as the ultimate accolade, the national cap.

On education and family
My dad made me do one thing in my life, and that was to study. So I’m currently doing a B.Com in financial accounting, and for the first two years he pushed me. I take my hat off to him. I’m really thankful he pushed me in that direction. 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.

It was no different with his son, Dylan and Keaton. “I can’t remember the last time I called him dad,” said Keaton. “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. From that day forward, he was Coachy. I’m probably closer to him than I am to anybody else in the world, from a father point of view, from a role model, from a coach. I’m blessed to have a person in my life that I trust with my life, and that will help me guide my career.”

Growing up, his heroes wore green caps. They just didn’t have a Protea on the crest. “I remember waking up very early morning and watching Justin Langer and Matty Hayden opening the batting [for Australia],” he said. “When slightly older, I would say Mike Hussey. I loved watching his passion and the way he talks about cricket and goes about doing his work. I read that you should never meet your role models because you will be disappointed, but it definitely wasn’t like that for me.”

There was no meteoric rise after the move to Durham. He scored three centuries in 2013, but averaged only 31.61, and the returns for the next two seasons were even more disappointing. “Starting off at the Riverside, it’s quite a tough environment for a young opening batter, or for an opening batter in general,” said Keaton. “The wickets were quite spicy, and the guys have done some good work to try to make the contests more even.

“If I had to say one thing, I’d say 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. But again, it was spending time with my niece and nephew, spending more time on things outside cricket and trying to find other pathways to find happiness. That’s made me a little bit more comfortable batting.”

That was amply illustrated in the last county season, when Jennings scored nearly 1,600 runs at over 60, while notching up seven hundreds. That earned him a place on the Lions tour, and has obviously influenced those tasked with finding a replacement for the 19-year-old Hameed.

Jennings refused to take it for granted that he would be given his first cap on Thursday (December 8), but the fact that the team management decided to expose him to the media pack was a clear signpost in that direction. “Not set in stone until the team’s announced, and we’ve heard from Cooky and Trev [Bayliss],” said Jennings. “In the last 12 hours, turning up with the guys in Dubai has been a little bit surreal.

“I suppose meeting the guys for the first time as well calms your nerves a little bit. Especially for a guy like myself, I want to get along with teammates and try to drive that process. It’s been really satisfying the last couple of hours, to get to know guys and get stuck in, play a little bit of football and break some ice, which has been good.”

On how ‘Dad’ turned into ‘Coachy’
When I was nine or 10 we went to the nets. 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. From that day forward, he was Coachy. I’m probably closer to him than I am to anybody else in the world, from a father point of view, from a role model, from a coach. I’m blessed to have a person in my life that I trust with my life, and that will help me guide my career.

One of the ice-breakers was someone he has played alongside at Durham. “He [Ben Stokes] was on my team in football this morning, and he got stuck into me as well,” said Jennings. “Stokesy’s been brilliant with breaking the ice and as a team-man, he’s been one of the better ones.”

Jennings Senior coached Royal Challengers Bangalore for half a decade, and Junior has been tapping into that knowledge base since he was called up. “We’ve chatted quite a bit the last week and a half,” he said. “‘Drink lots of water and make sure it’s closed bottles’ was one of his bigger tips. From a playing point of view, he told me to enjoy the process and the culture of India. Previously, in 2009 or 2010, I came with my dad to the IPL and was a bit of a tourist and really enjoyed it. I’m coming back to a place that I liked previously.”

As Duckett found out in Rajkot and Visakhapatnam though, baptism by spin on dry pitches can be quite traumatic. “I suppose there is no better place to try and challenge yourself in turning conditions than here, so if I can play first of all and come out with some sort of success, that would be humbling,” said Jennings. “If I don’t play, I will carry drinks and bring energy wherever I can. Regardless of what happens over the coming weeks, I am really looking forward to getting involved where I can.”

He will also not go out to bat with premeditation on his mind. “I try to be positive if it is in my scoring areas,” he said. “If not, I will try and bat time and take guys into their third or fourth spell. It gets hot here so if guys can get overs under their belts, that is harder work for them.”

For the team he joins, there is simply no margin for error. If England fail to win in Mumbai, where India haven’t beaten them since 1993, it will give the hosts the series win and a handy buffer at the top of the rankings. “I have always been told pressure is a privilege,” said Jennings. “It is one of the things my dad has tried to drum into me as a kid. I like to think I bring a bit of positive energy and smiles to the group. I am generally quite a happy guy. But again, it is 2-0 down against tough opposition. Hopefully, we can land a few haymakers and throw some punches back.”

Back in his living room in Johannesburg, Coachy will be watching. Perhaps without flinging himself across mattresses.