There's a history of illustrious father-and-son combinations in South African cricket reaching back decades. The latest turn, however, between Ray Jennings and his son Keaton, comes with a twist. Having been called up by England as cover for their last two Tests in India, Keaton will inevitably play cricket not for the country of his birth.It adds a layer of feeling to the story that Ray never played officially for South Africa, turning out 14 times for his country during the years of isolation.
Although these two facts are only distantly related, they might be more important than they at first appear.
Despite coaching the national side and being the Under-19 coach for many years, Ray has always stood at an angle to administrative aristocracy. His relationship with hierarchies and politicians has never been entirely comfortable, partly because his cricket was hardened in Transvaal's "Mean Machine" foundry and partly because he's a man of his time. Coaching by consensus is alien to him. He doesn't tweet and doesn't do Netflix. Until recently he unwound by riding his beloved Harley-Davidson. Now he walks the dogs and punishes golf balls.
When Keaton was five years old, Ray had him in the nets at Dainfern, the luxury walled golf estate in northern Johannesburg where he and his older brother, Dylan, grew up. Both brothers were naturally right-handers, but given the placement of hands on the bat handle, Ray insisted they become lefties.
He insisted, furthermore, that they had to call him "coach" rather than Dad, a habit that for Keaton persists up until this day. "I refused to buy Keaton keeping gloves when he was about that age," says Ray, talking from his holiday home in Mauritius. "I just didn't need three keepers in the family. When Dylan was about 13, he started telling me how to keep and how to react. We started to knock heads. With Keaton, I was always encouraging him to bowl a bit more."
Not only was Keaton prepared to call his father "Coach", he was prepared to knuckle down in Dainfern's almost startlingly opulent confines, becoming a model individual from a young age. At 16 he spent a month with Andrew Hall at Northants, Hall having played for coach-cum-dad at Easterns and in the national side. Keaton came back and told his parents that there was nothing more he wanted to do than to play professional cricket.
Halfway through his first year out of school at King Edward VII in Johannesburg, Keaton captained a South Africa U-19 side to England. When his team-matesreturned home, he bolted to the Durham Academy. "There were some communication issues and a bit of a blockage here in South Africa, so we made our decision early," says Ray. "It wasn't easy, but in those years you had some serious talent up ahead. We always felt that Keaton might stand a better chance in what is a very good English system."
Lawrence Mahatlane, who took over from Ray as the national U-19 coach and coached Keaton for a year at Pirates, a Jo'burg club, agrees with his predecessor's assessment.
"Keaton was one of the hardest-working young cricketers I've ever come across," Mahatlane says. "He played a major part for us in that season, where we came second behind a strong Old Edwardians side in the Premier League here in Johannesburg. Looking back on it, there was some serious talent up ahead. Jean Symes, Vaughn van Jaarsveld and Temba Bavuma were playing for the Strikers, not the Lions, and you had batsmen like Neil McKenzie and Zander de Bruyn still playing for the Lions. There were only so many places up for grabs."
While Dylan played no representative cricket after 2003-04, Keaton was prepared to grind it out. He knuckled down at the academy and played for the Durham 2nd XI. In 2012 he was chosen by Durham to play in a tour game against Australia, but the fact that he'd captained South Africa U-19 got in the way. He was summoned to Lord's. "They sorted that out and it was then that he pledged his future to England," says Ray.
One of England's opponents at home next summer are South Africa. If the unthinkable comes to pass, Keaton might play against Stephen Cook, who was ten years ahead of him at the illustrious King Edward VII school. Cook and his dad, Jimmy, are the most recent example of a father and son turning out for their country, but there are many more for South Africa, ranging from Peter and Shaun Pollock, to Kevin and Neil McKenzie, and the late Hylton (who didn't play for South Africa but did turn out for a Rest of the World XI v Australia) and HD Ackerman.
Watching Stephen's busy mannerisms, it is impossible not to see his dad, particularly as he runs between wickets and twists his pad so it protects his knee more squarely. Parallels between Keaton and Ray Jennings will be more difficult to spot, more opaque. The gutsiness will be there, however, and the neatness and the penchant for hard work. Wicketkeeping gloves, though, will be absent, that link in the generational chain having been broken.
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg