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Analysis

Positive cricket and Australian coaches: how Rob Key's vision for England reboot might look

Autobiography provides insight into defining traits of England's new MD

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
18-Apr-2022
Rob Key has been appointed as the new managing director of England men's cricket, pictured during England vs New Zealand, 2nd Test, Birmingham, 1st day, June 10, 2021

Rob Key has been appointed as the new managing director of England men's cricket  •  Visionhaus/Getty Images

Rob Key was appointed as the ECB's new managing director of men's cricket on Sunday. A leading broadcaster for Sky Sports since his retirement from the professional game, Key has often been forthright in his opinions about English cricket and his new role casts a different light on his previous takes.
As well as Sky podcasts and columns for the Evening Standard, Key brought out an autobiography two years ago, titled 'Oi, Key' - Tales of a Journeyman Cricketer. He told ESPNcricinfo at the time that it contained "a few tales, and a few views on the good things and the bad things" about the game, but with several big decisions due over the next two months, some excerpts now read like Key's own manifesto.

Coaching

Key has often been cynical about the value of coaches, to the extent that one chapter of his book is called 'A Coach is What You Get to the Ground In'. He hinted earlier this year that he believes England should split the role in two: a Test coach and a white-ball coach.
"Essentially, there are three types of coaches," he wrote. "Those who have a positive influence, those who have a negative influence, and those who are neutral. While many coaches would like to see themselves as a positive influence, the truth is, such people are actually few and far between."
Key sees a major difference between coaches at county and international level, suggesting that Peter Moores struggled with the step-up because he failed to take into account that "he was dealing with elite players". "An international coach is more of a manager," he writes. "They don't actually have to do much. In fact, they are better off doing nothing."

Australian coaches

Key's own career was influenced by Neil 'Noddy' Holder, the batting coach who encouraged him to keep his backlift high, and John Inverarity, who coached him at Kent. Do not be surprised if he hires an Australian as England's coach.
"Aussie coaches, with their 'can do' attitude, certainly offer a refreshing and powerful input," he wrote. "They have the ability to set off little explosions in your head. When the fog clears, you see everything with absolute clarity."

Captain-coach relationship

Key will need to ensure that his new Test captain and coach do not clash. "[There is] one absolute truth about the captaincy/coach dynamic," he wrote. "It's imperative they're on the same page."
He details the failings of England's Ashes tour in 2006-07, and the shortcomings of Duncan Fletcher's relationship with Andrew Flintoff. "[Flintoff] would still end up trying his very best to make sure that that partnership worked," he writes. "The question is whether he had any give or take coming back to him.
"I know how important co-operative thinking is," he continued. "As Kent captain, I found Graham Ford a great coach to work with… we had a joint focus on taking the team forward. Because of our shared attitude to betterment, we never really had a clash."

Test captaincy

Key was highly critical of Joe Root's captaincy during England's Ashes defeat and Ben Stokes is the early favourite to replace him. While some have raised parallels with Flintoff's ill-fated stint as captain, Key's own view of his close friend's time in charge suggests that will not put him off.
"Fred was a better England captain than he - and many others - ever thought," Key wrote. "The circumstances were tough… he simply couldn't have picked a worse time to be captain of England. The team had gone from the perfect balance of 2005 to Saj Mahmood batting at number eight. It was always going to be 5-0. They were throwing stones at bazookas."
He is full of praise for Stokes, too, who would fit Key's idea that a captain should be an inspirational figure. "Since the nightclub incident in Bristol, Ben Stokes has put so much into his game," he said. "He trains so hard - harder than anyone around him, by a distance. Great talent delivers a focus. It did so for Fred in 2005 and is doing the same now for Stokes. Without the hardship, neither would have reached those incredible high points."

White-ball captaincy

Key's relationship with Eoin Morgan dates back to 2009, when he was captaining England Lions on a tour to New Zealand. "What I found was a cricketer who never missed a trick," he wrote. "When the coaches asked who should be vice-captain, straight away I said Morgs. I saw somebody who wasn't willing just to say what people wanted him to say." They are unlikely to clash too much.

Style of play

Key favours an attacking style of play in Test cricket, which could spell bad news for Alex Lees, Rory Burns and Dom Sibley. "We accuse people of playing too many shots but as a batsman your only currency in the game is runs," he wrote. "For some reason, we seem to be happier if people are out blocking.
"I admire Trevor Bayliss because is a believer in positive cricket. His view is that it's possible to defend positively as well as attack. That means committing to the shots, having purpose. Is scoring 10 in a hundred balls all right? I don't know if it is.
"Often players get blamed for losing their wicket by using an attacking mindset, as if they never get out while playing defensively. When Jason Roy was opening in the Test team… pundits were saying there are no good old-fashioned openers anymore. The fact is, we had already tried ten openers, most of whom were exactly that."

County cricket

Perhaps Key's biggest challenge will be leading the ECB's high-performance review into the domestic game. He has previously outlined a draft schedule for the English season featuring a one-day competition in April, a 'best of the rest' first-class tournament running parallel to the Hundred, and three divisions of six teams in the Championship.
In 'Oi, Key', it seems he views the county game through the prism of England's Test team, rather than something valuable in its own right. "Four-day cricket as a business is completely bankrupt," Key wrote. "It makes no money and costs a hell of a lot to put on. Compared to other formats, it simply makes zero financial sense.
"Championship cricket really has only one card up its sleeve. The TV rights for the game are linked to Test cricket, and Test cricket can only survive so long as there is a production line of players from the Championship.
"County cricket exists only because of the money from Test cricket, the England Test team only because of the Championship conveyor belt. They are the ultimate odd couple: worlds apart, but unable to get divorced because they are so utterly reliant on each other."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98