Rob Key: 'I need to look at why the mini-stroke happened at my age'

The former England batsman turned commentator discusses his recent health issue, and writing an autobiography when you don't like talking about yourself

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Nick Knight, Rob Key and Mark Butcher in the Sky commentary pod, Somerset v Notts, Vitality Blast quarter-final, Taunton, August 26, 2018

Rob Key made a quick transition from player to Sky commentary regular  •  Getty Images

It didn't take long for Rob Key to make the jump from overnight shifts as a guest on coverage of New Zealand versus Bangladesh to ubiquitous presence on Sky Sports. His dry wit and cynical tone make him a distinctive voice, and he is preparing to adjust to commentating in front of empty stadiums this summer.
But rather than simply looking forward to cricket's resumption, Key finds himself feeling anxious. Two months into lockdown, he felt dizzy as he stood up one evening. "Suddenly, my vision went," he recalls, "for literally five or ten seconds. We went into hospital just to get checked, and it turned out I had one of these TIA [transient ischaemic attack] mini-strokes."
Key says that he is recovering, but finds himself on edge. "I feel fine, but you have a fair amount of anxiety until you find out exactly why it happened. That's going to take a little bit longer before I have heart tests, and stuff like that.
"The body is good - it gives you these early warning signs that you need to get things checked. Every now and then you have a quiet moment of worry. You're more aware of everything in your body, so every time you feel something, you don't just let it pass. You think, 'Oh, what's that?'"
Reading Oi, Key: Tales of a Journeyman Cricketer, his newly published book, there are elements of his lifestyle as a player that a clinician might consider to be red flags: Key recalls endless nights out in his days as a young pro, labels himself a binge drinker at the time, and outlines the extent of county cricket's smoking culture when he was breaking through.
But the frustration for him is that he has turned that around. "Even for the last ten years probably - as I've got older and had kids - I've been fitter than I had been. So when people talk about lifestyle, well, my lifestyle wasn't particularly bad, to be honest. That's why I need to look into why it [the TIA] happened at my age."
Key's health scare came soon after he started to promote his book. It is not a typical sportsman's autobiography, and it comes as no surprise to learn that his first response when he was asked if he wanted to write one was "not really".
"When you see celebrities that have won Big Brother or something writing autobiographies - I've always laughed at that," he says. "But then I spoke to a couple of friends and thought, well, I did play in a great era of county cricket and English cricket, and with some of the best who have ever played the game. I thought maybe I could give some insight into them.
"People say they do these things and find them therapeutic. I don't generally enjoy talking about myself, so I certainly didn't find it that. You know when your mates tell a story and it just falls flat, like a tumbleweed moment? You don't know if that's what every story in there is like. You start thinking: is that funny?"
"I was a half-decent player, but Trescothick, Strauss, Cook - these guys who came in for me became some of England's greatest ever"
He needn't have worried. Key played with some of the game's great characters, meaning he has access to killer one-liners from Andrew Symonds, Muttiah Muralitharan, and - inadvertently - Adil Rashid. His ghostwriter, John Woodhouse, worked with Graeme Fowler on his acclaimed books, and aside from the odd flourish - it is hard to envisage Key using the phrase "minor contretemps", for example - he nails his subject's acerbic, wry manner.
Key is particularly forthright in his attitude towards "the team-building stuff; the nonsense", and says that he thinks "coaches, captains - they get too much credit at times. It all depends on the players you've got."
"Take Michael Vaughan - he was an outstanding captain. But that coincided with the fact he had an unbelievable bowling attack. He still would have been the same great captain, in my eyes, had he not had that attack, but he might not have won as much, so he wouldn't be regarded as highly."
He dismisses the notion that England's 2019 World Cup success was simply down to Trevor Bayliss, or that the turnaround in the tournament itself came about at a team meeting after the group-stage defeat to Australia. "In every sport, it's always about the players, especially the higher up you go. If that turnaround was all down to coaching, well, do that with the same players that played in 2015. Where you deserve the credit is for completely changing the personnel."
But Key is generous in his praise for Eoin Morgan, whom he captained as a 22-year-old on an England Lions tour to New Zealand, where he first spotted his ability to read the game. "You can see Morgan and think that he was disinterested and quite insular. But actually, that quietness - I thought there was a shrewdness to it," he says. "Morgan was never bothered with trying to speak in meetings and ticking boxes. You might have had to coax it out of him a little bit, but when you gave him responsibility - I think we made him vice-captain - you saw straight away just how shrewd he was."
He defends his close friend Andrew Flintoff's record as England captain too. "The team had gone from the perfect balance of 2005 to Saj Mahmood batting at number eight," he writes on the 2006-07 Ashes.
"If Michael Vaughan, who was injured, had captained that side, I think it would have been a similar result. It doesn't matter who you are in that situation, you're on a hiding to nothing."
Key's relationship with Flintoff is a running theme. Flintoff describes Key as "one of the greatest batsmen of his generation: ridiculously talented, ridiculously good" in his foreword, which Key admits he is yet to read. "The problem is that I can't stand praise. He's such a good mate of mine that it's uncomfortable reading nice things - I'd rather four pages of abuse."
Both describe walking off after a successful run chase against West Indies at Old Trafford in 2004 at length. With ten needed, and Key on 90, Flintoff wanted to drop anchor; Key told him that all that mattered was them being able to leave the field together. He ended the game on 93 not out.
"We all think that top sports teams are full of best mates and everyone gets on, whereas a lot of the time, you might not like people," Key says. "But I was lucky that in an England team I had two of my best mates, Freddie and Steve Harmison. And on one occasion, we were able to win a game for England and walk off together victorious. There's not many that get to do that."
Key considers himself unfortunate - though you sense it doesn't keep him up at night - in that he played at a time when England's batting stocks were so high. "I was a half-decent player, but Trescothick, Strauss, Cook - these guys who came in for me became some of England's greatest ever.
"I was unlucky that I was at a time when there were a lot of good players around. You look in the '90s and 2000s, there were so many Australians that could have averaged 50 in Test cricket, but they had six all-time greats in that line-up. You're at the mercy of the era and the time that you're around."
But while his timing was unlucky during his playing career, it could hardly have been better with his move into commentary. At the time he started to think about life after cricket, Sky had studio guests for the vast majority of the games they showed, and they had a stranglehold on the rights market in the UK.
That gave Key a perfect opportunity to learn in a low-stakes environment, with overnight shifts in games that drew few viewers. He has become a regular on international coverage, and will not be daunted by the prospect of filling Ian Botham's shoes this summer.
Lockdown has provided him with a rare chance to hear himself back, with broadcasters filling dead time with re-runs of old games. "I always look with such a negative, critical eye - I listen now and think: Jesus, I could do with shutting up a little bit."
He isn't drawn into describing what he feels his strengths are as a commentator, but relishes the chance to be proved right in his reading of the game. "Ian Smith once told me there's nothing better than calling something that's about to happen," he says. "T20 is the best one for it - you can sense when something is going to happen either way: a wicket or a boundary.
"You can generally predict it, and even if you get one right out of 50, it seems like everyone forgets the 49 you miss. You take a chance, and when it comes off, it's a great feeling."
Oi Key: Tales of a Journeyman Cricketer
by Rob Key
White Owl
180pp, £20

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98