Quinton and Keaton meet again
Two schoolboys spent their summers preparing to become professional sportsmen and one took the road less travelled. Their paths will cross again over the next three days in Worcester, 13,500 kilometres from their original path in Johannesburg, and though theirs is the sort of story that is not new to the globalised world, its contrasts hold charms.
Twenty-five-year-old Keaton Jennings and 24-year-old Quinton de Kock are not just any pair of players, they are contemporaries of the closest kind. They attended the same school, King Edward VII, in the same year and played in the same teams, both batting left-handed.
While de Kock was the rebel who relied on sheer talent, Jennings was drilled to work meticulously on his game from the age of five under the guidance of his father and coach, Ray. As irony would have it, it was the carefree character who fared better early on.
"I remember our head of cricket at the time gave Quinton a free weekend - so he could leave hostel on a Friday night - if he got a hundred the weekend before," Jennings told ESPNcricinfo at the unofficial Test between the Lions and South Africa A in Canterbury last week. "And there weren't too many weekends he didn't get hundreds."
Any hint of envy Jennings might have had quickly evolved into admiration. "Quinton was a sensational player ever since I was 13. He was very driven, very clinical in the way he went about trying to achieve success in cricket. He hit the ball cleaner than most other guys."
It takes all sorts to make a solid batting line-up: the fearlessness of de Kock and the fastidiousness of Jennings. They progressed to the same provincial side and the national Under-19 team together.
The time Jennings spent fine-tuning his technique and his temperament had matured him. He emerged as a leader and was made captain of the side, while de Kock remained an explosive enigma. The pair took turns sharing the spotlight.
In early 2011, Jennings led the U-19 team to a 5-0 win over Zimbabwe and topped the batting charts. Later that year in England, de Kock was the leading run scorer. It seemed Jennings and de Kock would be in a race for franchise and, eventually, international honours, but Jennings had already been directed elsewhere.
Jennings senior, who was the coach of that U-19 side, encouraged Keaton to make use of the British passport he had courtesy his English mother and seek a career in the UK, because he thought his son would struggle against the "serious talent" that was coming through the South African system at the time - talent he had had a first-hand look at; talent like de Kock.
Perhaps Jennings senior realised de Kock would be the biggest obstacle in his son's way. As top-order batsmen, they could ultimately compete for a similar spot, and though de Kock was, by his own admission, not a big believer in hard work in the early years, Jennings must have known that could change. He pushed his son to apply the meticulousness he had learnt in South Africa to a county career, even as he grappled with the frustration of trying to tame de Kock at home.
"My dad is a passionate guy and he cares. If he is sitting on your back, it's because he cares about you and he sits on my back like nobody else's," Jennings said. "He will try and push you to new heights. It's when he turns the other way, that's when you worry."
De Kock was not as receptive to the disciplinarian style of Jennings senior and only began to see the value of extra work after he was picked for the South Africa side. In 2013, de Kock had a first stint at the highest level and a top score of 31 in his first seven ODIs. He knew that was not good enough and he went to his franchise coach, Geoffrey Toyana, to ask for extra hours in the nets. When de Kock returned to the South African side, he scored four hundreds in eight matches, including three consecutive centuries against India.
In that time, Jennings had been working his way up from the Durham Academy to the second side and eventually into the county first XI all while studying an accounting degree through the University of South Africa. In 2013, he tasted his first major success when Durham won the County Championship, but he then had to wait three more years before he would put on an international shirt. When he did, de Kock was among the first to congratulate him. "Quinton sent me a lovely message after I got picked for the India series, which was awesome after not hearing from him for a while," said Jennings, who went on to make a century on Test debut.
The two have continued to keep an eye on each other's careers, though they are not necessarily close. "I wouldn't say we're friends, we don't stay in touch, but I'd say we are friendly," Jennings said. "If we walk past each other, we catch up over a beer or chat about school times. When you're in different countries, it's hard to stay in touch with guys you went to school with."
Harder still, perhaps, because of their journeys continue to differ. De Kock is a regular on the international stage and a sought after T20 player in leagues around the world. Jennings has only played two Tests and, at the time of this interview, knew he was not necessarily a shoo-in for the South Africa series. The Lions squad included two other openers who are also vying for the English Test side: Haseeb Hameed and Mark Stoneman, who outscored Jennings.
"In a way, its healthy competition," Jennings said. "When you've got a lot of players scoring good runs, vying for limited opportunity at a Test level, that's really healthy. You put us all in the same side and we've all got to score runs in order to be picked and that's the main currency we deal in. It's a cutthroat environment and you need to score runs to be able to stay there. Simple as."
De Kock lives by the same mantra."See ball, hit ball," is the philosophy he underlined at the launch of the CSA's Global T20 last week. Even in the longest format, he has retained his aggression and Jennings knows how destructive he can be. "To see Quinton perform the way he is no surprise. To see the way he has handled international cricket is awesome."
Now Jennings wants to be able to show that he can handle it his own way, especially after having taken the scenic route. "When you're 13, that's the way you look at it [that you will play together as adults], but as you go up through the school levels, it doesn't. My life brought me here and I am really thankful it has," Jennings said. "I am happy with the way things have worked out and it would be awesome if I can play against him in a Test in a couple of weeks."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent