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Analysis

Rob Key brings sense of calm at turbulent time for English cricket

Much like Key's first public utterances, the Test team reboot has been very matter-of-fact so far

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
29-Apr-2022
Rob Key addresses the media as the ECB's new Managing Director of Cricket, Lord's, April 28, 2022

Rob Key addresses the media as the ECB's new Managing Director of Cricket  •  Getty Images

A strange sense of calm enveloped Lord's on Thursday morning, which isn't a sensation that English cricket has encountered too often in a febrile few months. On the stroke of 11am, just as Middlesex were taking the field against Leicestershire in the LV= Insurance County Championship, Ben Stokes was announced as England's 81st Test captain. Not long after that, Rob Key - the team's new kingmaker - made his first public appearance as the new MD, and just for a moment, it felt as though cricket was back to being the priority for an embattled and embarrassed ECB.
The sensation might not last for long, of course. Not much about England's recent Test battle plans has survived first contact with the enemy, and the World Test Champions, New Zealand, are unlikely to offer much quarter come June. Besides, there'll be more boardroom machinations to chew down on before long, starting with the ECB's endless quest for a new chairman and continuing through to Andrew Strauss's proposed high-performance review, not to mention the spectre of the racism scandal, with the latest of the sport's three-monthly parliamentary hearings looming next month.
For the time being though, there's a distinct lack of clutter to the narrative, as an organisation charged with managing the health of English cricket finds itself focusing on distinctly cricket-y issues - and with Key declaring himself "optimistic" that a new red-ball coach can be found before the New Zealand series begins, there might yet be more team-specific good news to come before the zeitgeisty angst gets a chance to kick back in.
Much like Key's first public utterances, the process of rebooting the Test team has been very matter-of-fact so far. It is a matter of fact that Stokes is the best player in the team besides Joe Root, and therefore the most obvious choice for the full-time captaincy - notwithstanding any doubts about his workload and wellbeing.
Similarly, it is a matter of fact that James Anderson and Stuart Broad are still good enough to be considered for recalls, and therefore Key was more than happy to acquiesce to Stokes' demands that his old team-mates should be brought back in from the cold. And when Key insisted he wasn't especially bothered about the power vacuum above him, or about the lack of a stand-out candidate for the restored role of national selector below him, it was easy enough to believe him.
"You're not trying to solve climate change or anything like that," he said. "Just make the best possible decisions on cricket, manage people to the best of your ability and make sure everyone's on the right track. There's not much else."
It surely cannot remain that simple indefinitely, for all that it was hugely refreshing to be able to sit in the ECB boardroom, of all places, and hear an executive lay out his vision in spin-free plain English, with no measurables or deliverables on show, other than a commitment to do the best by the sport he loves.
It is to Key's huge credit, too, that he has put himself forward for this role in the first place, because one of the most frequent complaints about the ECB of recent vintage is the distinct lack of cricket savvy in its upper echelons.
All of the blue-sky thinking that went into the creation of the Hundred, for instance, was infused with an obsession about what cricket was not, rather than the great game that it remains, and it was especially noticeable that, when Strauss entered the building in his interim capacity in January, the body-politic suddenly hung on his every utterance - as if a realisation had dawned that packing the executive with experts in banking and mobile-phone sales wasn't much use when the cricket side of the operation was crying out for some TLC.
And so, having spent his post-playing years as part of the concentrated brains trust that is the Sky Sports commentary roster, Key is well placed to put his money where his mouth used to be - and to do so safe in the knowledge that the likes of Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton, with whom he used to joust so frequently on air, will be leaning into his every word and calling him out if he dares to veer into bulls**t, but more broadly supporting his endeavours to get English cricket back on its feet.
In fact, given the boardroom paralysis above Key, and the sense below him that, in Stokes, he has installed a leader for whom the team will run through brick walls (and vice versa), there's a chance in the short term to put in place a new cricket-first culture - one that can inform the decisions that the ECB board comes to make further down the line, as and when it is restored to operational capacity.
"That's the beauty of what I think I have," Key said. "I have a good network of people that I can ask for their opinion. I'm not now going to go and work for the ECB, and only restrict myself to people in that organisation. I've got the world of cricket, people that are asked to say: 'What do you think about this? What do you think about that?' It might be for me to deliver the message, but there'll be a bit of rigour in it. It won't just be me waking up one day and thinking 'let's do this'."
To that end, one wonders what soundings Key took from his former peers before delivering the news of Stokes' promotion to the captaincy. Writing in his Daily Mail column, Hussain welcomed the appointment as "uplifting", while Atherton in The Times said that to have overlooked Stokes would have been "like not going all-in with a full house" (an analogy that, had he been able to take soundings from his old poker-playing colleague Shane Warne, would surely have made Warney wince).
Atherton did, however, add a note of caution to his appraisal, warning that Stokes needs to be allowed to give the job his all for a short, sharp period, then "step away while he has more to give as a player".
It's an early reminder that Key will have tougher decisions to make down the line, and rockier periods in his role than he has hitherto been privy to. He rightly acknowledged that the tenure of his predecessor ("poor old Gilo") had been dominated by the pandemic, adding that he has the "luxury" (touch wood) of a reopened society in which his common-sense desire to "pick our best team" won't have to compete with strictures of bubble lifestyles and the need, as a responsible line-manager, to factor in rest and rotation for his over-worked players.
But there will be times, too, when plain speaking won't be quite as simple as he made it out to be on a breezy first day in the job. He inadvertently foreshadowed the sort of controversy that could crop up when he allowed Joe Clarke's potential for an England call-up to drift into the conversation - "you can't penalise people forever in life," was his non-committal follow-up - while his criticism of the withdrawal from last year's Pakistan tour was as strongly worded as it might have been on a Sky Sports podcast.
"I think we got it wrong in a big way," Key said, and having recently travelled to Pakistan for the Australia series, he could hardly have been better placed to pass such judgement. At some stage in the future, however, when the ECB makes similarly controversial decisions that demand a united front from the senior management, Key's refreshingly simple approach may end up being tongue-tied by the more complex realities of his role.
Until then, however, the floor is his. And before that corporate machine grinds back into gear, Key has a golden opportunity to instil a new winning culture in the most outward-facing aspect of the ECB's dysfunctional operation, and maybe even give the already lampooned notion of a "red-ball reset" a chance to exist beyond the realms of a soundbite.
"I might not know lots about structures but I don't care," Key said. "I'm in this job because I want what is best for English cricket. It might be naïve to say this, but that is the basis of every decision you make." It's hard to argue about the wisdom of such a starting point.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket