Kent v New Zealanders, Canterbury, 1st day April 28, 2008

Key gives Kiwis a dose of deja vu

Cricketers are superstitious creatures, and so when good omens come along they tend to be grabbed with both hands

Robert Key: putting the Kiwis to the sword again© Getty Images
Cricketers are superstitious creatures, and so when good omens come along they tend to be grabbed with both hands. In the summer of 2004, Robert Key earned himself an England recall thanks to 1000 first-class runs by the first week of June, a tally that was aided in no small measure by twin centuries against the touring New Zealanders at Canterbury.

Key has not featured in a home Test since that summer, but with competition for batting places starting to hot up once again, he couldn't have asked for more amenable opposition to push his claims that little bit further. By clubbing the hapless Kiwis for 178 not out, he completed a hat-trick of hundreds against them, to lift himself firmly into the Test reckoning. "This sort of kick-started my summer four years ago, so it's a good omen," said Key. "Sometimes you have teams as a batter and fortunately at the moment the New Zealanders seem to cop it."

England's incumbent top six did not enjoy a good winter, and their collective failings were not entirely disguised by a glut of hundreds in the final Test against New Zealand at Napier. But regardless of his success, Key was not about to get carried away by a command performance against a clearly rusty opposition.

"They are funny games, these touring games," said Key. "For the tourists they can actually be a bit of a chore, especially when you see your side not getting any wickets. All you want is a bit of time in the field to get some overs and rhythm, and you want all your batsmen to get runs. When it gets to a stage like this, they've probably lost a bit of interest."

"It was a flat pitch and a decent toss, but I don't think they bowled at the stumps very much," said Key. "At one stage, I managed to bat on off stump the whole time to guys bringing it back in, and on this pitch you need to bowl straighter and make the new ball pay. They missed a trick by not attacking straight enough."

By the close, Kent were utterly in command on 324 for 1, but the end of their innings is nigh. Under new playing conditions introduced for this summer, each first innings is limited to 100 overs, a ruling Key wasn't overly enamoured with. "I've been on an Ashes tour when Jimmy Maher batted for two days," he recalled. "I very much see it as our job to make it as hard as we possibly can. I'm not in the business of just giving them match practice.We want to make our name against a touring side, but we also want to give them a hard time."

That ruthless edge is something that Key has been cultivating in his four years out of the Test side, especially since being handed the Kent captaincy in 2006. But it was clear from his eagerness to take every chance offered that his focus is not about to waver with an England recall so tangible .

"Being Kent captain gives me something extra, but the day you don't think you're good enough to get back in the England side is a sad day," he said. "You just become a county journeyman, and it can sometimes be a grind, getting to the middle of the summer. Now when you feel you've got a chance of getting back in there, on days when you're tired and you've done 20 out of 22 days, it gives you that nudge to keep going."

So far this summer he's picked off some "free runs" against Bradford/Leeds UCCE, a very fine 79 against a Charlie Shreck-inspired Nottinghamshire, and now this. In fact, the only thing that has really slowed him down has been a debilitating virus that forced him out of last week's match against Sussex. "I couldn't open my car door, or pack my bag," he said. "Today was about the first time I've been able to grip the bat properly." The lack of preparation didn't seem to hamper him unduly.

As for his hopes of getting back in with England, Key was cautiously optimistic. "There are a few guys scoring runs at the moment," he said. "Ravi Bopara is getting a hundred most times he walks to the wicket, and Owais Shah is a fine player. But a lot depends on what they need. If they need an opener, then I'll go ahead, if it's a No. 3, then maybe Owais, if they need someone to bowl a little bit, maybe Ravi ... if they need an old bloke they've got Ramps."

The final statement was a bit of typical Key irreverence, but the honesty was wholehearted. He knows England is close, and he knows not to get his hopes up too high just yet. But days like this cannot but help his cause.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo