England national selector Ed Smith admitted Keaton Jennings’ recall for the two-Test tour of Sri Lanka next month was down to the Lancashire opener’s proficiency on the subcontinent.
Jennings made the last of his 17 Test appearances against the West Indies 12 months ago, when he was dropped after a lean run of form, while he averaged a modest 30.94 in Division Two of the County Championship last year.
However, his two Test tons have come in Asia – his highest score of 146 not out was against Sri Lanka in England’s 3-0 whitewash win in November 2018 – and he averages 49 against spin bowling, compared with 16 against seam.
Smith stressed the need for continuity in selection after England’s victory over South Africa, but he thinks Jennings’ inclusion is warranted in a series where how they adapt to spin is likely to be critical to the outcome.
“Keaton Jennings has played five Tests in Asia and has scored two hundreds,” Smith said.
“Obviously there was the hundred on debut (against India) in Mumbai (in December 2016) and then the big hundred in Galle, which is where we are going to again.
“So in terms of squad depth, it seemed a sensible selection to go for someone who had plenty of experience in that part of the world.
“The overwhelming sense at the end of the series in South Africa was to continue with that exciting group of young players and we are also fortunate to have Keaton to supply depth and experience in those conditions.”
If the decision to choose Jennings could be termed a ‘horses for courses’ selection then the same could be true of Ben Foakes, who was England’s player of the series in Sri Lanka 15 months ago after amassing 277 runs at 69.25.
Foakes, like Jennings, was dropped in the Caribbean last year, but he is widely regarded as the best pure wicketkeeper-batsman in England and there will be a clamour for him to replace struggling gloveman Jos Buttler.
Buttler’s highest score in five Tests this winter is 43 and he has made just one half-century in the 19 innings since England won the World Cup last summer, averaging 22.05 in that time.
However, ahead of a series which starts at Galle on March 19, Smith said: “I think there is a lot of support for Jos’ talent. He is a very talented player and he’s very highly regarded inside the team.
“From our side there is a strong sense of continuity from the South Africa tour and he contributed in lots of different ways to that tour.
“There have been phases when he has been extremely consistent. When Jos has scored runs it has usually been in matches England have won.”
England’s record wicket-taker James Anderson is continuing his recovery from a cracked rib sustained in the second Test of the 3-1 series victory over the Proteas and is preparing to return for the domestic English summer.
Also absent from England’s 16-man touring party is Moeen Ali as he continues his indefinite break from Test cricket, with Jack Leach, Dom Bess and Matt Parkinson the frontline spin options.
Jonny Bairstow made a century on England’s last visit to Sri Lanka but he has been rested, having contributed just 10 runs in his only Test in South Africa to continue his meagre recent run in the longest format.
Smith, though, is convinced the Yorkshireman has an important role to play going forward, as he said: “Jonny as a centrally-contracted player and a highly-talented player definitely has a future.
“He is the T20 side and the ODI side – a central figure in that World Cup triumph – and no-one doubts that Jonny at his best is an asset across the formats.
“He has been with the England set-up across formats for a considerable period of time and we believe he will benefit from having a certain amount of time away from England and he can get back into his best form.”
Following the conclusion of the Galle Test, England travel to the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Colombo four days later in a series where a sizeable 60 World Test Championship points are available in each match.