Keaton Jennings created a slice of Test history in Mumbai, becoming the first man to score a century in his first Test innings and a golden duck in his second. This, normally, would be the sole talking point about a Test debutant, but instead the conversation veered towards a familiar theme in English cricket.
Jennings was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He made his First Class debut for Gauteng in 2011 and he even captained South Africa U19s. His father, Ray Jennings, would have represented the Proteas but for the international isolation brought about by apartheid. His brother, Keaton’s uncle, Kenneth Jenkins, also played First Class cricket in South Africa. Keaton’s own brother, Dylan, also played 24 First Class games for Easterns and Gauteng in South Africa.
Keaton, then, is unmistakeably South African. Except, rather than playing for South Africa, he is forging an international career for himself with England. He is hardly a trailblazer, either.
Jonathan Trott, England’s most recent Test debut centurion before Jennings, also captained South Africa U19. Kevin Pietersen, too, notably struggled with the cultural shift of ‘being English’, something the quieter character of Trott adapted to a little more easily. Jennings, too, will fit into the set up like a hand in a glove.
Pietersen’s nationality was often used by those who opted to vilify him. His brash style, loud haircut, diamante earrings and positive on field self-confidence was entirely at odds with the English cricketing order. I wrote about England’s quintessentially un-English Englishman, here.
Given this recent history of ‘obvious’ South Africans (i.e. those born and raised and ingratiated into the sport in South Africa), why then, is Jennings causing a stir now?
Geoffrey Boycott declared on Test Match Special that, “it’s not right that he plays for England.” He wasn’t ‘born and bred’ in England.
Others born in South Africa have escaped the same commentary. Andrew Strauss, now managing director of the ECB, was born in South Africa. Matt Prior, too.
Other players throughout England’s cricket history have travelled from afar to represent the Three Lions. It’s hardly a recent phenomenon.
Famous names from England’s past include a trio of highly talented men who were born and raised in India. Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji, who was born in Kathiawar, is widely recognised as one of the finest batsmen of his generation, if not of all time. His nephew, Shri Duleepsinhji, also born in Kathiawar, was a hugely popular figure within the England team and amongst its supporters. The Nawab of Pataudi also represented England, scoring a century in his first Ashes Test during the infamous Bodyline series. He was born in, funnily enough, Pataudi. He is also the only man to have represented both India and England in Tests.
Albert Trott made his Test debut for Australia before moving to England to play for Middlesex, then going on to represent England. He famously stands as the only man to have a six over the pavilion at Lord’s and is a distant relative of Jonathan.
Players around the world, too, are representing countries in which they were not ‘born and bred’. Imran Tahir, twirling his leg spinners for South Africa, hails from Pakistan. Recent New Zealand debutant, Colin de Grandhomme, is Zimbabwean, much like Gary Ballance, the (former?) England batsman.
Some players have received abuse from fans for not representing the country of their community. Moeen Ali was roundly heckled by Indian supporters during India’s tour of England in 2014. He was born (and yes, bred) in Birmingham.
In 2006 when Pakistan were in England, Sajid Mahmood received abuse during the Old Trafford Test from Pakistani supporters who saw it that Mahmood had turned his back on Pakistan and should be playing for them, not England. He was born (and bred) in Bolton.
Some players, I guess, just cannot win in against the muddied background of dual nationality, being second generation nationality of other countries and, in some cases, outright racism and xenophobia.
That is not to say that I view Boycott in such light at all. The fact that Jennings was South Africa’s U19 captain does make this something of a grey area. He was once, after all, a proud South African. Can he still be a proud South African and represent England? Can he truly give his all for England?
This is hardly the forum in which to debate the ins and outs of one’s identity, but these are all players who qualify to play for England and have chosen, quite willingly, to pursue the dream of international cricket with England. There are many more besides them, too.
As a supporter, I care not where a player is born; only that he is good enough to play for England and gives everything to the cause. I would also have sooner seen Jennings opening England’s batting than Ben Duckett last week…
This situation has become so regular as to make it surprising that it still causes so much as a stir when it happens. The world is a small place and people move around it for a variety of reasons. The political climate in South Africa is something I am unqualified to speak on, but I am quite sure that the route to First Class cricket primarily, and international cricket beyond that, is far clearer in England.
If Jennings wants to play for England and feels ‘English’, then good luck to him as he’s clearly good enough and England are happy to have him. He joins an illustrious list of England cricketers born and bred outside of its green and pleasant lands.
By Miles Reucroft