“Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” As adversity came England’s way, in the form of Rory Burns’ injury, and it is now up to the management to turn that venom into a life-saver.
The England and Wales Cricket Board were stunned and angry at the circumstance that led to Burns rupturing his ligaments in the left ankle a day before the Cape Town Test. As an immediate consequence, the board banned football as a warm-up activity. An ankle surgery, that followed, has sidelined the opener for four months. That means he will take no part in England's two-Test tour of Sri Lanka in March. The enormity of the entire injury episode had already been established with Ed Smith’s incandescent reaction. And why wouldn’t the board be angry and apprehensive at the same time? After all, it’s the opener who takes his seat in the side and solves an otherwise complex puzzle.
For years, England struggled in their quest of finding an able opening partner for the legendary Alastair Cook. And with his departure, there were two holes to fill in their batting department. Following a forgettable first half of Burns’ nascent Test career, England crowned the southpaw as a worthy successor to Sir Alastair Cook by the end of the Ashes 2019.
Now, as time demanded once again, like history being repeated, it was time for the doctrinal board to turn to unorthodox ways.
Looking to carve a cut and eventually just padding up to a Jasprit Bumrah inswinger - Keaton Jennings’ brain freeze will forever disgust the passionate English fans. But luckily for them, the debuts of young duo Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley almost dismissed the comeback of Jennings - who last made his Test appearance early in 2019. The board may or not have turned to their old sub-continent specialist, but fate eventually saved a place in the squad for Jennings just ahead of the Sri Lanka tour.
An exceptional start to his Test career on Indian soil- with a harbingering hundred on debut- followed by some promise, only saw a precipitous halt. Hope found itself crawling back to Jennings’ destiny when England toured Sri Lanka last year. Jennings rose from the ashes of his poor form and materialised a match-winning unbeaten 146 in the first Test, and the team went on to win to inflict a 3-0 whitewash on the hosts. But the series that followed - the Caribbean challenge - had exposed the batsman’s limitations yet again. However, the South Africa-born opener had set a trend- a rare subcontinent specialist was born in the English cauldron.
Perhaps, I say a batsman of Jennings’ calibre on the subcontinent territories would not have been ignored whilst touring the island. But traditional cricket has never been about specialist batting - a very tricky and confined precinct. Consider a Virat Kohli only scoring runs in India, a Rahane forever struggling at home or a Steve Smith not adjusting himself to Jofra Archer’s string of bouncers like he did.
Then comes in acceptance, and cricket has been on the path towards being an all-embracing sport. Perhaps, the return of Jennings marks a new watershed for England and its contemporaries in the time of the ICC World Test Championship- wherein not just winning away games but winning all games carry their own significance. But the selection conundrum that could’ve occurred, especially after the splendid series-equalizing ton by Dom Sibley against South Africa, is what we’re talking about here.
The 24-year-old, who made a forgettable Test debut in New Zealand, has now announced his rise with the Cape Town victory- a win that mattered heavily to the team and Joe Root. If the high-profile injury had never occurred, then-by all probability- England’s preferred choice for opening would’ve been the Burns-Sibley duo. But that would’ve made it difficult for either of Jennings and more so for the right-handed Zak Crawley, who is yet to herald any promise, to make it to the playing XI.
"[They] are a great opportunity for some of our best young cricketers to focus on specific areas of their games in unfamiliar and challenging conditions around the world. It's a great example of how a strong and joined-up pathway and county system can support Ed Smith's [national selector] succession planning whilst delivering better-prepared players to Chris Silverwood," ESPNCricinfo quoted ECB’s new performance director Mo Bobat.
While Jennings is currently in Mumbai as part of an ECB spin camp, primarily working with Vikram Solanki, Crawley is working his ways in South Africa. With the four-match series ending late in January, the 21-year-old will have enough time ahead of the Lankan tour. And by the ways espoused by the ECB top-brass, an increase in the number of "individualised programmes" for the youngsters, Crawley could find himself in one of these designed training stints before he gets on the plane to the island nation.
Burns coming back only after four months of healing from his ankle injury, will buy England time to enjoy the services of Jennings in Sri Lanka, while also grooming Sibley to the best of his abilities. If Burns was the favourite paladin of the team, the journey that England will embark immediately will be their shining armour. And the find will be a new knight to don the proud jersey.
“And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.”
Cricket FootBall Kabaddi