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Liam Cromar

How's that, Jennings?

No, not that one. It is time to tip our hats to a much-loved schoolboy series of books

Liam Cromar
Jennings and Darbishire, as portrayed by young actors in the BBC series <i>Jennings at School</i>&nbsp;&nbsp;&bull;&nbsp;&nbsp;Getty Images

Jennings and Darbishire, as portrayed by young actors in the BBC series Jennings at School  •  Getty Images

Jennings was at Lord's, where he had just scored a century against the Australians in the most exciting Test match that had been seen for years.
Jennings was at the Wankhede, where he had just scored a century against the Indians in his first Test match, a feat that had not been seen for years.
One is a fictional schoolboy's dream, the other a one-time schoolboy's dream come true.
The exploits of JCT Jennings (ten years, two months on book debut), rather than KK Jennings (24 years, five months on Test debut), have delighted thousands. It's hard to imagine that his late creator, Anthony Buckeridge, would have been anything other than delighted by those of his character's real-life namesake.
In the prep-school world of Jennings, on the Sussex South Downs, cricket was rarely far away. Jennings is a keen allrounder in the Linbury Court Second XI, whereas his short-sighted friend CEJ Darbishire is as "clumsy on a cricket pitch as an elk on an escalator", but maintains a Wisden-like knowledge of first-class averages. On one occasion, Jennings reaches the milestone of 50 runs, only to be less than impressed when he discovers Darbishire has rendered his entire effort null and void by neglecting to fulfil his duties as scorer. By contrast, in Jennings' Little Hut, Darbishire fares better: despite missing a catch on a Jennings hat-trick delivery, hurling the ball behind him for four overthrows, coming out to bat in a blazer and with one pad, and being run out first ball, he contrives to nonetheless save the match for his house team (albeit with some suspect interpretation of the run-out law).
Cricket also featured off the field: in According to Jennings, the pair make an unauthorised excursion to see Sussex play MCC at the Dunhambury county outground. After hitch-hiking with the famed England amateur (this is 1953, after all) RJ Findlater, and winding up as his guests in the members' enclosure, they contrive to thwart a thief in the Sussex changing rooms - though more by luck than good judgement.
Buckeridge's gentle series of 25 novels was intelligent and affectionate without being pretentious or sentimental. Less caustic than Geoffrey Willans' journals of the skoolboy Molesworth, it was never unkind, often employing both simple and subtle humour, in wordplay and in plot. It harked back to an era when cricket was firmly in the consciousness of both adults and children.
Sixty years later, it is in the private schools, Jennings' natural habitat, that the game is most likely to be found; yet it is unlikely that Buckeridge - who was, somewhat surprisingly, no boarding-school apologist - would consider this a healthy state of affairs. The reasons for the withdrawal are as well-worn as your typical Jennings volume; one, indeed, is found in Buckeridge's less popular Rex Milligan series, set in a North London state school, where the title character and his fellow fourth-formers thwart a dastardly plot to build on their playing fields.
That was 1953: the situation has grown considerably worse since then, with clubs and schools even in rural areas having to contend with hard-pressed councils angling to sell off public land. As both CEJ and CMJ would have exclaimed: "Fish hooks" (very probably fossilised).
The sad state of affairs now prevailing, however, is particularly demonstrated by the contrasting situation in Just Like Jennings, when the advent of the cricket season plunges all 79 boarders into obsession with the game, with skills "practised in imagination during most of their waking moments. […] Late cuts and leg glides were demonstrated at the breakfast table using a fork […] Binns scored a remarkable century in ten minutes while batting against Australia behind the boot-lockers. Blotwell achieved the astonishing feat of taking six West Indian wickets in one over (four clean bowled and the other two brilliantly caught by the bowler) while waiting for his bath to fill up."
A century in Mumbai on one's first day of Test cricket seems almost tame by comparison.
Even a few grown-ups might guiltily admit to indulging in some of these furtive fantasies of cricketing glory. Unfortunately it seems the younger generation less so. As the ECB recently pointed out, research has shown that more children can recognise a WWE wrestler than Alastair Cook - an awful bish that would send Old Wilkie into a super bate. There's no chance that Jennings and Darbishire would have failed to identify Cook, AN, had he offered the duo a lift to the County Ground (Durham or Dunhambury).
The game needs boys and girls, state-schooled, privately schooled, and home-educated, to be dreaming of cricket in the same way. Chance to Shine has for years been introducing state schools to the benefits of cricket, and the ECB is launching All Stars Cricket, which is intended to be a programme that both teaches five- to eight-year-olds cricket skills and "[connects] them to England cricket heroes". Whether their efforts will be sufficient has yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: the aims are too important to be allowed to fail.
Name aside, Keaton Jennings' ESPNcricinfo profile currently carries a weak link with the first Jennings book, Jennings Goes to School, quoted in the opening lines. The former includes an accidental misspelling of "eligible"* (for England), while the latter includes a gag about a county player being "illegible" for Lancashire. It's nothing more than a trivial, accidental connection; however, if KK Jennings can prompt today's JCT Jenningses to connect with the game, such inspiration will be worth more than all the runs of his career.
*Sharp catch, Liam. We've fixed it like a divot on the pitch - Ed

Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK @LiamCromar