England's unlikely star Keaton Jennings still pinching himself over 'a winter that dreams are made of'

Exclusive: For years the slot alongside Alastair Cook at the top of the order looked like a poisoned chalice but Jennings and Haseeb Hameed have formed a healthy queue

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Keaton Jennings joined a select list when he lifted his bat to the heavens to salute a maiden Test century on debut in Mumbai. In doing so he became the first England cricket to score a hundred on his first day as a Test cricketer since Billy Griffith managed it in 1948.

Griffith – a wicketkeeper for Sussex, who only scored three centuries in entire First Class career – played only two further Tests for his country. After scoring a 50 in the following Test in Chennai, it’s safe to assume that Jennings will enjoy greater longevity in an England shirt.

For a player who was expecting to spend the winter with the England Lions while preparing for a season in Division Two with newly relegated Durham, his performances have propelled him unexpectedly up the pecking order to partner Alastair Cook at the top of the order.

Not too long ago, that slot looked like a poisoned chalice - now a healthy queue is developing with Haseeb Hameed and Jennings at the front of the pack.

Speaking to Independent Sport from the UAE, where he’s captaining the North in their three match series against the South, Jennings revealed that he’s still pinching himself at his lightning elevation.

“It has been a brilliant winter – I couldn’t have wished for anything else,” he says. “I would have just taken the Lions selection at the start of the winter if someone had offered me that. I would have bitten their hand off actually.

“To walk away with a Test century and then to tour Sri Lanka for five weeks with the Lions has just been absolutely amazing. It has been a winter that dreams are made of.”

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Jennings made an instant impression on his England debut (Getty)

Jennings’ hundred in Mumbai illustrated that he has, not only the technique for Test cricket but also the mental capacity to deal with its vagaries.

Those who have worked with him at Durham since the former South Africa under-19 captain arrived on these shores in 2012 weren’t surprised by what they saw. Even the England hierarchy, though, must have been slightly taken aback by the speed at which Jennings adapted in a series already long gone by the time he took his place alongside Cook.

“It all seemed a bit surreal at the time,” he says. “All of sudden you’re standing there with Alastair Cook, the most successful opener in history, at the other end and you look around and see 25,000 people screaming in the stands. You can hardly hear yourself think and now you’ve got to try and calm yourself down and watch a cricket ball.

“It was a really special occasion and I’ll take away a lot of little moments and memories that I’ll never forget. I remember standing in the field and watching Kohli getting closer and closer to a hundred. The nearer he got the more and more people were coming into the ground. You couldn’t hear team-mates four or five metres away through the din. Hopefully I’ll be able to share those memories with my kids and my grandkids one day and hopefully they’ll be as excited as I was when it was happening.

“India’s just a magical place to play cricket – the love they have for the game is amazing. It’s incredible. Sometimes as cricketers we can take that for granted but a tour to India is a great way of reminding yourself how lucky you are.”

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Jennings (R) is captaining the North in the series (Getty)

In the days of the sometimes spoilt sportsman, Jennings is a very much an antidote, a cricketer who speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the game and is clearly looking forward to everything that 2017 will throw at him.

First up is the onerous task of helping Durham overturn a 48-point deficit following their ECB-imposed relegation to Division Two and scoring the volume of runs that will make it impossible for England to ignore him when the Test summer finally gets under way against South Africa in July.

“There’s a lot of cricket to be played this year,” he says. “Hopefully we can win a few Championship games early on and just take it from there. As a top order batsman at the Riverside, you’ve got to stand up and get runs, that’s the name of the game. I’ll be there to add some knowledge and experience for what’s quite a young squad generally. Hopefully we can be competitive.”

 After a hundred on debut you could argue that the only way from here is down. Jennings’ career, though, appears very much on the up.

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