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Stop the opening batsman merry-go-round, England have to get off

Keaton Jennings' Test career may be over after failing against South Africa again, with Haseeb Hameed potentially set for an England recall.

Keaton Jennings - cropped
Keaton Jennings departs after being dismissed by South Africa at Old Trafford

If you'd have offered Mike Atherton two home Ashes wins and series victories away to India and South Africa during England's dog days in the 1990s, he'd have snapped your arm off.

Now imagine telling him it was possible to enjoy such notable successes with only one established opening batsman, who also happened to be charged with the responsibility of the captaincy, throughout a period of five long years. 

'Huh?'

Exactly. 

An uncomfortable truth that was often overlooked throughout his tenure, perhaps eventually Alastair Cook will get the credit he deserves for taking over from Andrew Strauss and maintaining the team's forward momentum despite the selectors failing to find an adequate replacement for the retired captain alongside his successor at the top of the order.

Cook has seen the debacle play out from close quarters, watching the candidates come and go, both from the crease and the squad, as the series and tours piled up. 

It is a remarkable state of affairs that the issue still remains undecided, the reins having been handed to Joe Root, who is now burdened by the same problem.

It was the same story at Old Trafford on Friday. Despite South Africa being deprived of his tormentor-in-chief Vernon Philander due to injury, Keaton Jennings proved unable to build on a scrappy lifeline of 48 in the second innings at The Oval last month.

The latest lamb to the new ball slaughter departed for 17, having edged Duanne Olivier to Quinton de Kock, ending an unconvincing spell with only a crisp clip through backward square for four to comfort him as he awaits what could well be the termination of a short-lived Test career. 

Root publicly backed the struggling newcomer on Thursday and he could yet earn a reprieve for the next series against West Indies.

But with the more important matter of the Ashes in Australia starting in November, the sight of Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada repeatedly beating Jennings' bat, albeit in difficult early conditions, will do the 25-year-old's cause no favours during the post-mortem.  

How did we arrive at this state of affairs? Impatience on the part of the selectors cannot be exclusively blamed. Many of the candidates have been given a reasonable opportunity to impress. 

But the decision-makers at the England and Wales Cricket Board [ECB], Strauss among them, cannot continue spinning the roulette wheel indefinitely.

They might argue that eventually, a candidate will seize the opportunity to impress, much in the manner of Root and Cook before him, both having been successfully thrust into the Test arena at a relatively young age. 

However, given county experience at any age has proven no guarantee of success for would-be Test openers, the logic of anointing one or two promising prospects as the leading candidates, while ignoring short-term form if needs be, appears increasingly persuasive. 

With that in mind, the sight of Haseeb Hameed, who impressed in India before a broken finger ended his tour, batting in the nets with England coach Mark Ramprakash and in conversation with Root on the balcony at his home ground, was instructive, despite his struggles for Lancashire this season.

After all, it should be remembered that Cook himself will not go on indefinitely.

If a regular opener cannot be settled on in the next year or two at most, England face the prospect of having not one but two vacancies at the top of the order when the former captain does retire.

The brilliance of Root and the swashbuckling feats of the middle order and tail cannot paper over the cracks of the specialist problem position indefinitely, a pertinent fact illustrated by the regular fall of wickets throughout the first day in Manchester, Jennings having failed to offer an effective buffer. 

The time may now have come for the selectors to make a choice and stick with it, not for a series or a tour but for a year or even longer, to give a promising talent the time and space to learn from Cook while they still can. 

The alternative – a rotating cast of stage-fright victims playing and missing before the axe falls – could fatally undermine Root's otherwise promising fledgling tenure. 

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