'He had about four roles at Kent': How Rob Key's county grounding prepared him for England role

Former county colleagues believe England's new MD has had the perfect preparation

Cameron Ponsonby
Rob Key has stepped away from the commentary box to take over as England new men's MD  •  Getty Images

Rob Key has stepped away from the commentary box to take over as England new men's MD  •  Getty Images

You'd have to try hard to hear a bad word said about Rob Key in his home county of Kent and his legend around the area exists for good reason. A player for almost 20 years, and captain for almost a decade, he was the focal point of the county and steered the club through difficult times both on the pitch and off.
"For however many years it was, he was absolutely the cricket leader at Kent," Paul Downton, Kent's director of Cricket, says, "in a time when captains probably had more power than possibly they do now with the amount of support staff you now have.
"He would have run Kent in so many ways, so you could say he was managing director of Kent in that sense."
Downton knows better than most what lies in store for Key as he prepares to be unveiled in his new role as England men's managing director, having held a version of the job himself for a turbulent 14-month period between 2014 and 2015, until his sacking in the wake of that year's disastrous World Cup.
"I loved every moment of being in that role," Downton adds. "It came to me at a time that was right for me and there were lots of challenges all the time. Obviously it didn't last as long as I'd have liked it to and there are lots of reasons for that and it's never that simple.
"[Key] will bring his skillset which is, he's obviously a deep thinker on cricket and been around the game so he's very up to date. From a commentary point of view you're in touch with modern players and watching the sport all around the world, and I'm sure his contact book is extremely thick. So he'll be really well positioned from that point of view."
Geraint Jones, Key's former Kent and England team-mate, shares the belief that his years in charge at the club will have set him up well for the challenges ahead.
"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Jones says. "We went through a tough financial period and Keysey then took on a role of being the general director who was heavily involved in overseas recruitment, the squad, the strength of that and the direction [of the club]."
Daniel Bell-Drummond, Kent's current vice-captain, played alongside Key for five seasons in his formative years at the club, and recalls how his team-mate "took on about four roles" as the county struggled with its debts.
"It was a very tough period and the way he held it together... we didn't win trophies but the fact that we were able to weather that storm [and that] we were able to get through that was a testament to him."
It is a ringing endorsement of a man who, for most of the nation, is known as the joker from the telly, rather than someone who is able to set a culture and navigate a crisis, abilities that could hardly be more in demand from an England MD than right now.
For that reason, their initial element of surprise quickly faded after Key accepted the role, as their memories of his leadership credentials returned to the fore.
"I never thought he'd go for this job in a way," Bell-Drummond explains, "But actually, the more I think about it, and the sort of knowledge he has… he has so much going for him that the country can benefit from."
Key's biggest strength, Bell-Drummond believes, is his ability to relate to any and all - there wouldn't have been a single person at Kent, he says, who "didn't think they had a relationship with him".
"Playing under him at Kent, he was a brilliant leader [and] a very strong leader as well in the sense that the opposition would know that that's Rob Key's team," Bell-Drummond adds. "And he definitely has a side where you can't overstep the mark."
"He wanted the player to have ownership and the coach to be there to help. Not for the coach to come in and drastically change the player and make them play the way the coach wanted."
Geraint Jones on Key's attitude towards coaching
Part of that came from Key having a very clear identity on the style of player he liked and the type of cricket he wished to play, which in turn bred a culture of player ownership and prioritisation of talent.
"Keysey loves talent," Jones explains. "And he'll 100% know what sort of leader he wants. He'll want a strong leader and I can see why [Ben] Stokes has been the one everyone has said he'll go to [as England's Test captain], because Stokesy is Keysey's sort of player. He's up for it, he's in your face, but he's also incredibly, hugely talented. And that's the sort of team I can see him wanting to get, is these hugely talented players that can turn matches at the drop of the hat and win Test matches."
It is an assessment that correlates with Key's steadfast belief in Zak Crawley as a Test cricketer, a player whose ceiling is widely considered to be higher than most of his contemporaries, despite his current struggles to find consistency in the England set-up. In his own playing days too, Key was famously close (too close, in the opinion of England's then-coach Duncan Fletcher) to both Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison - two of the most talented players of their generation.
"Having Stokesy at the top, you know Key was a big mate of Freddie Flintoff who was an inspirational character and he loved Warnie for his skill but also how he approached it," Jones adds. "So that sort of influence we'll definitely see for sure."
Downton, meanwhile, is keen to emphasise that Key deserves credit for having the ambition to walk away from the Sky commentary box - a role he had previously described as "the best job going" - and get involved in "something that really can make a difference".
But equally, Key is no stranger to making personal sacrifices in order to take on positions of leadership, having spent his playing career doing just that. In a 2020 interview with The Cricketer, he described his nine years as Kent captain as taking "15 years off my life, 10 runs off my average and 5,000 runs off my total first-class runs. I couldn't give it away in the end…. I ended up captaining for everyone but myself."
He couldn't give the Kent captaincy away, and now, in light of reports that there were few applicants for one of the top jobs in cricket, he's taken on one that it seems no-one else wanted.
Such is the state of English cricket that the scope, role and power that Key will have over the game, both internationally and domestically, is really yet to be known.
As the ECB have now made clear, his first job will be to appoint two new head coaches. After that he needs to appoint a new Test captain to replace Joe Root, then sort out the ECB's central contracts, which no longer appear to be fit for purpose, and also manage the budget - all of this while playing a major role in England's game-wide high-performance review. You could hardly get much more of a blank page than if you opened your laptop and started a new game of Cricket Captain 2022.
A boy of one era, but a man of another, much of the intrigue surrounding Key's appointment lies in the fact that, as a person, he has a rare skill of being able to "tell it like it is" while making people smile in the process rather than wince. He is the people's cynic.
Whether that comes through describing fielding as the closest a human gets to being a dog, bemoaning being shown a picture of a lion from someone's safari holiday since he could have "googled one myself", or describing coaches as something "you get to the ground in", Key has never been short of an opinion or an idea. Only now he has the power to go with it.
"That's a typical Keysey sort of comment," Jones laughs of Key's quip about coaches. "That's a bit of a throwback to the eras that he's been involved with. You know I can remember first joining Kent and it was still that time when fitness wasn't hugely important, you know - 'well why do I need to be fit to hit my cover drive?' It was that type of tongue-in-cheek comment.
"But Keysey's mindset and what he was big on was player ownership. So you get your game right. You perform your skills to the best you can and that will influence the team. And how do you use the coach for that? Well, you facilitate that: the coach works with you.
"So, trying to read between the lines - and I could be horribly wrong - he wanted the player to have ownership and the coach to be there to help. Not for the coach to come in and drastically change the player and make them play the way the coach wanted.
"We went from a period of mass practice to more individual practice and more individual time with coaches, so that shift changed and was something that he recognised and put in place.
"And in that role now, he will not be shy of making changes. This summer is set in stone in terms of fixtures, but going forward, however the set-up is shaped, he has a massive part to play."
Talent, player ownership and far more experienced for the role than those of us who have only seen him on TV would have been led to believe, Key's time at Kent means he could be well prepared for his new role at the ECB.
"Of course, the county will take a huge amount of pride in that," Downton says. "We see Rob quite a bit. He's obviously been a mentor to Zak Crawley, he lives a few miles from the ground and he drops in from time to time. From the club's point of view, we're absolutely delighted."

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby