The Keaton Jennings recall: has the era of batting specialisation arrived?

Keaton Jennings has scored two Test hundreds, in Mumbai in 2016 and in Galle in 2018 Getty Images

Plenty of English fans would have felt entitled to sigh, tut or groan on Monday morning when they saw a story in the Guardian that Keaton Jennings is in line for a recall to the England squad for the two-Test series in Sri Lanka next March.

Perhaps they had good reason to do so. Jennings, after all, passed 50 in just three of his Test innings over the course of two spells in the England side. He looked out of his depth against top-level seamers, and his dismissal for a duck against India at the Ageas Bowl - shaping to cut and eventually playing no shot to a Jasprit Bumrah inswinger - is etched on supporters' minds. In his most recent series, in the Caribbean, he crept along at a strike rate of 23.84, betraying a scrambled mind and a desperation to cling on to his Test career by sheer willpower. This county season, he made no hundreds and averaged a fraction above 30 in Division Two.

But recalling Jennings for the spring tour would not be a high-profile screw-up; in fact, it would not be a mistake at all.

This may seem like an unpalatable argument. When I put forward the idea on Twitter last week, one response suggested that Jennings "should never be allowed on the same continent as any England team ever again". Yet there is every reason to believe that a recall would be a success, and may be among the first moves in a trend towards an era of England picking batsmen - rather than just bowlers - based on conditions.

Firstly, Jennings is a superb player of spin. Since the start of the 2016-17 winter that included his debut, he has scored 398 runs against spinners at an average of 49.75; no England player has scored more runs at a better average against slow bowling in that period. He sweeps and reverse-sweeps with purpose and balance, and is one of the most adept batsmen in the country at getting off strike.

Consider too his record in Asia: he averages 44.44 on the continent, the highest of any England batsman who has played ten or more innings there since the start of the 2016 winter. All three of his 50-plus Test scores have come there, and he has played fluently, with a strike rate of 50.69 in Asia compared to 36.32 elsewhere.

If he has struggled against seamers in Test cricket - and it is important to recognise that he really has - then consider too that Jennings has only faced 173 balls against quicks in Asia compared to 616 from spinners. He may look out of his depth against the swinging ball in traditional English conditions, but that is neither here nor there in the context of a series in Sri Lanka.

Jennings is currently in Mumbai as part of an ECB spin camp, alongside four young batsmen - James Bracey, Sam Hain, Will Jacks and Dan Lawrence. They are primarily working with Vikram Solanki, the Surrey assistant coach and himself a fine player of spin. Ed Smith, the national team selector, is also present. Immediately before his debut three years ago, Jennings was the beneficiary of a similar camp in the UAE.

The ECB, in particular the new performance director Mo Bobat, has signalled a desire to increase the number of "individualised programmes" that those around the squads can make use of.

"[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," Bobat said. "It's a great example of how a strong and joined-up pathway and county system can support Ed Smith's succession planning whilst delivering better-prepared players to Chris Silverwood."

If that risks sounding like management waffle, it hints clearly at greater specialisation based on conditions. That is to say, in the same way that England wouldn't dare to go into the first Test of the Sri Lanka tour with only one spinner, they also won't go in with only a couple of batsmen who are stronger facing spin than seam.

Smith and Bobat's general philosophy may have led to that shift, but so has the introduction of the World Test Championship. While England have always wanted to win overseas, there has in the past been a sense of acceptance that they may simply be ill equipped to do well on certain tours; batsmen have regularly been given a run of games spanning several different sets of conditions to "bed in", leaving them floundering. Take Ben Duckett, who was worked over by R Ashwin in 2016, having spent the season batting on pitches in Division Two of the County Championship, which could scarcely have been more different to those in India.

The fact that 120 points are at stake in a given series means that teams are loath to take any lightly. England will know, for example, that since October 2016, spinners have bowled more than two-thirds of the overs in Tests in Sri Lanka. Why would they leave out an opening batsman who has proven himself in those conditions, and who is also a superb short-leg fielder?

To use a parallel from football, Alex Ferguson's Manchester United side in 2007-08 contained some of the best attacking talent in the world in Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. Yet Ferguson would regularly field Park Ji-Sung as one of his forwards in games against a team with a full-back who offered an attacking threat, recognising that certain situations demanded flexibility and that Park's skillset - a restless work ethic and good positional awareness - was better suited to a particular task.

In the same vein, England seem likely to accept that even if Dom Sibley, for example, is the player they want to open the batting in the long term, Jennings might be the man best suited to the upcoming challenge they will face in Sri Lanka. Some will worry about the "message" that might send to Sibley, especially if he succeeds in South Africa, but most players now accept that cricket is a squad game; ideas about a "best XI" are largely irrelevant.

A final consideration is that England are scheduled to play five Tests in India in 2021, and unless they improve quickly, they are likely to join the long list of teams to be thrashed there. Of course India's bowling threat now extends to an unprecedentedly strong seam attack, but batsmen like Jennings and Ben Foakes, another impressive player of spin, will surely come into consideration.

Moving forward, it seems like a potential recall for Jennings is only the starting point. Further afield, it is worth asking similar questions: is Rohit Sharma really the man to open the batting next time India play in England? Might Peter Handscomb come straight into the Australia squad for a future subcontinent tour, but continue to be left out at home?

With points at stake in every series, and an increased willingness to tailor particular batsmen's preparations towards certain skills, there is no room for complacency in selection; an era of specialisation may be imminent.