Jennings takes military lessons into the middle
Since England were thumped 4-0 in the Test series in India, any mention of Alastair Cook has come with speculation that his captaincy of England might be about to come to an end. Next week; perhaps before the start of the English season; perhaps not for a long while yet? Perhaps not even Cook quite knows the answer.
Captaincy fever has lingered for a month or more now like a winter virus you can't quite shake off. Cook has met with Andrew Strauss, the one-time opening partner who will help him determine his fate, donned the farming wellies again and relished a return to family life. Lots of thinking; precious little revealing.
With England's next Test still more than five months away, for all the feverishness of the media, there is no need to rush. There is ample time to rest and reflect, to travel beyond the here and now - an overwhelming defeat in India - and gain a broader perspective about his career, his ambitions and his life. If he does continue, it surely should be with a minimal resolve to lead England into another Ashes series at the end of the year.
Cook's captaincy qualities are not always readily apparent from afar. He makes big runs but he mangles his words. He invites loyalty from his team but makes no tub-thumping speeches. He can barely change his field without a slight from a former England captain. He is England's iceberg captain, with nine-tenths of his strength hidden from view.
For Keaton Jennings, who has been fast-tracked into the England Lions captaincy in Sri Lanka next month, with two four-day matches and five 50-over matches to oversee, Cook's worth could not be more evident. Nobody appreciates the value of a captain more keenly than a dressing-room newbie. Even the most self-possessed will feel some insecurity about their ability and their acceptance as they join a team in which roles are already known, friendships - and tensions - already formed.
For Jennings, who made his Test bow in Mumbai in December, the memories are still fresh. He missed out to Haseeb Hameed when England's original Test squad for India was chosen, but was hastily called up when Hameed broke a finger in Mohali. A maiden Test century in his first innings and a duck in his second meant he soon explored the fluctuating emotions of Test cricket life.
Back in April in Durham, Jennings was a young county batsman trying to go up a level, determined to realign his career by bringing more contentment into an ordered and conscientious sporting lifestyle. By September he had seven Championship centuries, 1548 runs at 64.50, and even starred as Durham were beaten finalists in the NatWest Blast.
He had not even met Cook before England's tour of India. As a fellow left-hander of similar approach, a less giving captain might even have seen him as a rival, an upstart riding on the back of his first prolific county season.
It was then, as far as Jennings is concerned, that Cook came into his own. "Cookie was brilliant for me: he was very welcoming, warm, friendly, I suppose caring, in terms of being very aware when I came into the tour of the need to make me feel part of the group immediately," he says.
"And his batting input was really good. To look at a guy who has achieved so much but still gave me so much is something to take note of - how within a tour you are still making time for others and put something back into the group.
"In those two and a half weeks he made a real impact on me and the way I viewed him as a person as well. He's been incredible for me. You see people in the media and think how they will be, and he was ten times better than that. He was brilliant."
When the Lions leave for Sri Lanka next month, Jennings has the opportunity to model his leadership style, partly at least, on Cook's manner. It is politic, of course, to praise the captain in possession, but glibness is not part of Jennings' make-up. At Durham and in England circles, his integrity wins many plaudits. In Cook, whatever people might say about his tactical approach, he has a good role model.
Jennings' elevation to the Lions captaincy is another stride forward in a career beginning to catch fire, an appointment more relevant than it appears. There might have been a time when picking a Lions captain might have just been a matter of bunging the job to the guy with a couple of Test caps, but no longer. Developing leadership skills is a priority for the England Lions coach, Andy Flower. Jennings, who has not skippered a side since school days in South Africa, has been appointed because of that leadership potential.
"It's my first proper taste of leadership within any professional environment for any sort of period of time," he said. "But as Joe Root said recently, it's one of those things you get thrown into. You find out how you do it and what makes you tick within the role. Hopefully the guys respond well to it. The last thing you want is a group of players not to respond well to you and you end up feeling more stressed out from it than enjoy it."
Jennings' career encapsulates England's problems. Players of the highest calibre often break into international cricket before they have gained captaincy experience with their county. He is committed to staying with Durham despite their enforced relegation from Division One of the Championship as penalty for a financial bailout, but a decision has yet to be taken on whether he will captain them in limited-overs formats.
He could fulfil the role in 50-over cricket comfortably enough, now that the Royal London Cup has been moved to early season, but the NatWest Blast clashes with England's Test series against South Africa. As Durham's coach Jon Lewis weighs his options, Jennings' experience with the Lions takes on deeper significance.
"Nothing has been confirmed about white-ball captaincy at Durham," he said. "There will be conversations we need to have at some stage. I just haven't spent enough time in the north-east to sit down with Jon Lewis and discuss the vision for the club and the direction it wants to take in the next year or two. But it's a changing room you want to be a part of, and that's what made the call on my future so much harder. I am definitely part of that, and will try to lead the fightback next year."
It would benefit England if Durham offered Jennings the captaincy in all competitions until the South Africa Test series began, but few would regard it as benefiting the side: professional clubs do not like to be regarded as a training ground. Even with Paul Collingwood, a former England stalwart, still in charge at 40, and with no reason to be insecure about the authority and respect he commands, such munificence would be a major turn-up.
That leaves Jennings to learn about leadership with a military flavour, a recourse that has always attracted Flower. Such methods have not always gained universal approval. Back in 2010, a pre-Ashes bonding trip to Bavaria, arranged by the ECB's security expert Reg Dickason, a test of physical and mental strength that had teamwork at its core, saw James Anderson crack a rib in a boxing bout, and was described by Graeme Swann as the worst four days of his life.
Gemma Morgan's contribution over the past two years is arguably more appropriate, certainly more cerebral. Her task is to explain the qualities of leadership to cricketers who have often equated it to seniority or background. A former army captain who trained at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, her stint in Kosovo left her suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She won England caps in lacrosse - she was once disciplined for being disruptive - took a sports science degree and is now a business consultant, specialising in nurturing young leaders.
Methods used at Sandhurst, in which leadership is assessed by physical and mental challenges, practical tests and social interaction are now a common feature of life at the national performance centre in Loughborough, as she has become an integral part of England's Under-19 and Lions set-up.
From the moment that Cook's captaincy came under question, Root was understandably assumed to be England's captain-in-waiting, but he is in no rush to take the job - certainly in less of a rush than some of his advocates - and Swann is one former team-mate who worries that Root's sparky, scampishly-rebellious nature might be undermined by the demands of captaincy.
It would be intriguing to know Morgan's assessment of that. Root remains Cook's most natural successor, but if Cook remains in the England job throughout the Ashes, Root's responsibilities in all three formats appear demanding enough and Jennings, still only two Tests into his career, goes from strength to strength as a batsman, the succession might no longer be so clear-cut.
In the England tour party in Sri Lanka, it would be average to discover three or four players with strong leadership potential. Jennings, it can safely be assumed, heads the list.
Morgan explained her approach in the Times, saying: "At Sandhurst I came to understand that it was not about me but about duty and service to others. Before they teach you any technical stuff, they underpin everything with values that are uncompromising. Integrity, for example. If you breach integrity you're gone and you won't be invited back. Once you've got these anchors in place, they add on the technical bits. In sport and business it is the other way around. In the army, they will not take a risk on character."
Jennings' enthusiasm for this potential for growth was evident. "A lot of it has been based around the military, thinking of how they trust each other within a team, how they train each other, the lengths they go to - to trust, take responsibilities for their own actions and stay away from being a sheep.
"It's really interesting to see the military view of it, where the stakes essentially are life. If you drop a catch, it's not life and death. You may risk a game.
"They have a precision in their field, which is interesting. A lot of it is based around instruction - how precise you are within your own decision-making. We did a test down at Sandhurst with a bit of a scenario when the wind was blowing hard, and the sails were broken, and Gemma was trying to get guys to be more precise, more decisive in making decisions, trying to make the correct decisions more often and a little bit more quickly as well.
"You take in the information you've got, try to assess, make the decision and then you review afterwards. We've been learning about structure within a decision-making process.
"When you are under pressure, and the world is watching, Sky TV, a million people all over the world, and you have to make a decision that will impact the rest of the game: they are trying to prep you on things outside of cricket for that scenario."
Jennings' upbringing ensures that such tests are no shock to him. His father and mentor, Ray Jennings, a former South Africa wicketkeeper and international coach, has instilled the discipline that made him such a ferocious character, except that it is revealed more softly in his son. "He's brilliant the way he analyses me, the words he has to kick me up the butt to motivate me," Jennings said.
He was a former head boy, too, at King Edward VII school in Johannesburg, a close friend of Quinton de Kock, who remained loyal to South Africa while Jennings headed to England. They swapped messages on social media when Jennings won his first cap, in Mumbai.
Once Jennings completes the Lions tour, and the North v South one-day series in Dubai that is meant to bring more context to the English counties' 50-over cricket, he will spend a short period with his family in South Africa. There are nine Championship matches before the first Test against South Africa at Lord's on July 6, and he is making no assumptions that he will be selected, but if he is, then he can anticipate a family celebration.
He would prefer to open, but is sensible enough not to wish away a career as illustrious as Cook's before its time. Hameed is a less rounded player so if all three played in the same side, the logic suggests that Jennings would have to bat at first drop.
Ray - "Coach" as his son often calls him - deliberately stayed away from his Test debut in Mumbai because, as a former coach for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, he was concerned he would deflect some of the attention and make his debut all the more intense.
"It was a selfless decision he made to not come to my debut in Mumbai, having invested so much as a father, a coach; to sit back and allow your kid to go into your world. He spent four years in India. I only realised the impact he had there when on the first night we had a function and for two hours I got grilled on him," Jennings says.
"That's when I realised the love they have for him and why he didn't come. If I hadn't done well, it would have heightened the intensity on me. He took that pressure off me.
"If I do play at Lord's, I think I'm going to waste a ticket on him. I would love him to be there. If he doesn't get on the plane, that's his call. It's any boy's dream to have their loved ones there and hopefully achieve. A Test at Lord's is a special day."
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps