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Keaton Jennings stays level as Dane Vilas prepares to deliver Lancashire 'mandate'

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Jennings not giving up on ashes call (1:23)

Lancashire batsman Keaton Jennings says he'd love to be a part of the 2019 ashes series despite his struggles at international level. (1:23)

Media day at Emirates Old Trafford. Organisation battles chaos and there is much pointless scurrying. Laptop and camera bags litter the floor. Sponsors gaze proprietorially at the players, one or two of whom seem hypnotised by their mobiles. One wonders if the world is about to end.

Soon, though, the cricketers are summoned to sit for team photographs and they adopt expressions suggesting steely-eyed confidence. On the front row are two old boys of King Edward VII School, Johannesburg. Both are major batsmen and both are deeply committed to the Lancastrian cause. But while one has shut the door on Test cricket, opting instead for a career in the English domestic game, the other batsman, seven years his colleague's junior, is hoping weight of runs will force that door open for a third time. This should be an interesting season for Dane Vilas and Keaton Jennings.

"Playing for your country is the ultimate and if you can do it, you should do it for as long as you can." Vilas is talking. He is explaining why he called a halt to his international career in 2017 after just six Test matches.

"I did have a difficult decision but it was made easier by the fact that my main rival was Quinton de Kock. He's a great player who has gone from strength to strength and he's a bit younger than me. It was tough but I always wanted to play county cricket and to be part of a big club like this is fantastic."

Vilas' enthusiasm is not feigned. Even as Lancashire were slipping towards relegation last September his performances were earning the praise of the members. And in a rare moment of harmony the county's officials endorsed that opinion when they offered Vilas the captaincy after Liam Livingstone stepped down. The 33-year-old had already done the job last summer when Livingstone broke his thumb and he had kept wicket when Alex Davies was injured. In addition, his 792 runs made him Lancashire's leading scorer in Championship cricket. No one doubted his commitment.

There is, though, more than that. Lancashire supporters have tended either to take overseas players to their hearts - one thinks of Clive Lloyd or VVS Laxman - or they have seen them as mercenaries. Vilas is rapidly becoming a member of that former group and the fondness is reciprocated.

"My desire is just as great as it was when I was a five-year-old wanting to play international cricket. It does become a bit of a drug ... There are experiences you can only get playing Test cricket" Keaton Jennings

"I didn't think I'd form such a close association with the county," he said. "When I first came over, it was just a taster. I always wanted to play county cricket but I've loved every moment of being here. I'd heard some great stories and South Africa has always had a close relationship with Lancashire. Ashwell Prince always had great words for his time at Lancashire and we spoke a little bit about that."

Vilas' attachment to the county is such that he has effectively decided to immigrate to England. That decision was partly prompted by the fact that his wife's family lives here but it has also been influenced by his voiced desire to play for Lancashire for as long as he can. He may visit South Africa to play in the Mzansi Super League and one or two others but he is now looking to buy a property in England. He is also intent on fulfilling what he calls "the mandate" to lead Lancashire back to Division One of the County Championship. Achieving that goal will be helped if Jennings finds the sort of form that compels England's selectors to take another look and see what may have changed since the dark days of the West Indies tour.

"Dane's a child in a 37-year-old's body - I think I'll call him 39 just to wind him up." Whatever the last few months have done to Jennings' cricket they seem not to have affected his good humour or his exquisite courtesy. Every question at the round table all-in is greeted with understanding and self-awareness.

"It was a tough winter," he said. "It was really hard work. Mentally the disintegration when you see yourself in the news, especially when you aren't doing well, is tough to handle. But I've always been a level-headed guy and I've been quite good at staying isolated in the last 18 months, which is probably why I've stayed sane at times.

"I've also been lucky in that I've got a supportive family around me but I'm also a proud person and I want to do well whether I'm playing for England, for my local club side or with my seven-year-old nephew. There's a huge amount of pride there but it dents you."

The problem was not simply that Jennings failed to score more than 26 since his century at Galle in November. It was that he was being dismissed making the same error, pushing stiffly and far from his body at quicker bowlers and playing shots which could bring him nothing but woe. His selection for the St Lucia Test seemed almost cruel. Some critics pitied him; others were less kind.

"You can walk into a room and feel that everybody's thinking about you playing your cover drive when in reality they are just going on about their day," he said. "You need to be able to take cricket out of your personal life. But you also want the hardest and most competitive level of cricket you can get. You look at a cricketer like Alastair Cook or Joe Root who have played so many Test Matches. In order to sustain a career for that length of time you have to be so awesome at just staying in your lane.

"There's no point crying yourself to sleep because at the end of the day you still have a job to do. I'm paid to open the batting and score runs and that is the reality of it. If you stop doing that you need to find another job. It's hard when other guys have out-skilled you but there is no shame in that. You need to acknowledge it and be able to come up with another plan."

Finding that other plan is what Jennings has been doing over the last month or so and you can be quite sure Vilas will help him in any way possible. There are technical faults to be addressed but there is also the question of the extent to which Jennings wants to force himself through the rigours that come with international sport. His answer to that query is very clear.

"My desire is just as great as it was when I was a five-year-old wanting to play international cricket," he said. "It does become a bit of a drug hearing Deco screaming 'Jerusalem' at the top of his lungs and I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it. They are experiences you can only get playing Test cricket."

The pavilion is nearly deserted. The hotpot has been cleared away and the final interviews completed. The media pack, some of whom will not attend a match at Old Trafford this season, have gone home to transcribe and file. The players have returned to their dressing rooms on the opposite side of the stadium. The squad for the final warm-up match against Loughborough MCCU will be announced shortly (Lancashire do not play in the Championship until next week). And Dane Vilas and Keaton Jennings will face the next trial in their chosen profession.