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Rob Key: 'I thought, what's the worst that could happen? We'll keep losing, but it'll be one hell of a story'

England's managing director of cricket talks about his management philosophy, combating franchise cricket's allure, and why Bazball has succeeded

By Rob Key's own admission, he is not much of a planner. In a different era it would be jarring to hear from an ECB employee in possession of the keys to the men's national set-up. Perhaps it is a refreshing sign of the times that it isn't.
"My missus sort of says to me, 'Right, what are you doing in a couple of weeks, I want to have someone around,'" he says. "But I'm a bit like, 'Just invite people around tomorrow. We'll be fine.' What's the worst that can happen? I think I've done that with this job, really. 'We'll give it a go.'"
Since assuming the role as managing director of England men's cricket in April 2022, that attitude appears to be working. Capped 21 times for his country, a long-serving captain of Kent before moving into the commentary box, the 43-year-old has overseen an overhaul in the fortunes of the Test side, who have won 10 out 12 after just one in 17, and a T20 World Cup.
Key admits this was a job he never considered and certainly did not covet. That he was approached when he was, during the Test series defeat to West Indies after a demoralising 4-0 loss in Australia, made it a more attractive proposition. "What's the worst that could happen?" he repeats, this time on his thought process upon accepting the gig. "We'll keep losing. But it will be one hell of a story. And I suppose that's the extent of my planning going into this job."
He wasted no time sifting through the in-tray. Ben Stokes was made Test captain, Brendon McCullum red-ball coach, and Matthew Mott for the white ball teams. The appointment of Luke Wright as men's national selector in November rounded off the list of vacancies to be filled.
The start of his second year has been a lot more akin to an office job. "Now it's different," he says, as a weekly commuter to Lord's. "You're in the world of work. The other day was the first time I've ever booked a holiday in my life. Where I had to sort of ask for it. Like, can I go away for three days and play golf?"
For a man who describes himself as "relatively childish", with "an active mind where I can't sit still and have to go off and just do stuff" administration might not be a natural fit. But he is aware his most important work to come will be in the boardrooms and corridors of power.
Since he began, franchise cricket has expanded further, with the inaugural seasons of the SA20 and ILT20, along with Major League Cricket set to take place in July in the US, right in the middle of the English summer. In the last month, it emerged IPL franchises have already begun conversations on recruiting English talent year-round. Inevitably, the new world encroaches on the old.
Key has long maintained both can coexist. When English players turned down places on the white-ball tour of Bangladesh to play in the Pakistan Super League in March, Key was prominently involved in conversations with those individuals, who appreciated the flexibility and particularly the open dialogue.
That, however, can only cover for so much. In turn, the ECB are in the process of revising their remuneration to players, particularly match fees, which are dwarfed by the contracts offered in franchise competitions. While central contracts are also being looked at, it is game-to-game pay that Key feels needs to be addressed first, especially given the demand on talent, as per the winter, when over 70 English cricketers were recruited overseas.
"For example, you know, the match fees? They're not enough money. You might get, I think it was £3500 for a T20I. In these leagues around the world, they get £25,000. So all of a sudden they're playing ten games in that competition, not three like we did in South Africa when it was a 50-over bilateral series. You're never going to compete financially with these competitions. So you've got to try and find a way to actually make sure that you do retain control of those players."
He sees a remedy at home in the Hundred. That is all the more complicated off the back of reported informal discussions to amend or even scrap it altogether, though the latter seems a long shot given broadcasters Sky and the BBC will dig their heels in. Essentially, Key believes mimicking the IPL is the best way for English cricket to retain control of its players.
"It's not simple, but I think that the way that we do that is basically by concentrating on our own game. So we can think, 'Okay, we've got the American League, and you've got this, you've got the Pakistan Super League.' Actually, don't worry about that - the key is to make our own competition the best thing we can possibly make it; the most lucrative as well. So all of a sudden, if you've got a central contract, which is good value, as well as a good amount of money, plus you get another amount of money in our franchise competition - that's the answer to it.
"That's how India do it. India are able to stop their players from going and playing all around the world because they have such a big competition in their own backyard with the IPL. I don't think there's any reason why we couldn't do that. It's not simple, but that's what we've got to focus on.
"I read the other day about Saudi Arabia [reportedly launching a lucrative T20 league]. All of a sudden, the picture changes again, so you're going to have to be pretty fluid. But like all of these things, you just have to look after your own backyard. And if you get that right, what a great time to be a cricketer.
"Imagine it: you get to play in your country. Plus, you earn a huge amount of money from playing in it. Plus, you then have your four-day system and all of that going around - that's where we've got to try and get to. Because if you look at it any other way, we'll end up losing out. All these other countries that are looking at their own competitions, they'll win."
Perhaps the best real-time example of trying to strike the right balance between player's needs and desires dovetailing with franchise competitions and doing right by England is the situation with Jofra Archer. The 28-year-old quick has been on a tailored "roadmap" back to action after an 18-month layoff.
It began in the SA20 with MI Cape Town, into ODIs in South Africa - taking 6 for 40 in the third ODI - before moving on to the tour of Bangladesh and into the IPL with Mumbai Indians. All looked to be going according to plan, only for Archer to suffer a minor setback after experiencing discomfort in the right elbow that had suffered a stress fracture in 2021. It was enough to require him to travel to Belgium two weeks ago for a minor surgical procedure.
Archer has since returned to India, but the fear back home is that he will be unable to play a part in the Ashes later this summer, which was where his roadmap concluded. Given he is on a full central contract, the ECB could pull the cord and ask him to return to England at any point.
That, Key says, is not going to happen. Both for the player and as a case study, it is a situation they have to nail. "We sort of judge on what's the best thing we think applied in terms of getting their preparation right. But also what they want to do with their lives and the decisions that they've got. You're talking at times about huge sums of money. And also the IPL, for example. That's competitive cricket. It's only good for players, in a way, and we have the control on when Jofra comes back to play.
"So it's not a case that he's now over there and we have no say in it. We're speaking with them all the time. Mumbai Indians are actually a brilliant franchise to work with as well. Because they turn around and say, 'Well, you know, right, Jofra has got this issue at the moment, and we don't think it's going to be a long-term thing.' Which we know [the elbow issue] is not going to be a long-term thing.
"But we're the ones that decide when he can play again. And he's got a whole programme going into our Ashes summer as well. So even out there, he'll be doing his work, be "getting his loads up", as the medical people say now. I'm pretty happy with that. So we do have a bit of a compromise.
"I think the real thing that we're trying to work out is, actually there's always unintended consequences to everything we do. So if you stop people doing all of this stuff, well, what you're doing is, you're making it closer to the time when no one's signed a contract. You know, you end up with freelance cricketers, even in the county [circuit], and you have no control over anyone, which is not a position you want to be in."
A willingness to approach these matters head-on is vital, not least because the can is running out of road to be kicked down. The need to future-proof the men's sport in this country makes this a legacy-defining period for the ECB.
Likewise for Key, though the nature of his role links him more to on-field matters. That is particularly evident by those on the street, who stop him now and again to wish him well.
"Occasionally, someone will go, 'Well done' and 'Thanks,'" he says. "But then you become aware that when we start losing, that's not going to last. So you enjoy it for the moment. It is nice. Everyone thinks you start doing well and that's it. Life isn't like that, is it? Cricket will be the same."
Nothing cements a legacy more than an Ashes series. A little over a month away, England's best opportunity to beat Australia for the first time since 2015 will fast-track those involved to high status, Key included.
Of course, he has been pestered for tickets. "It's driving me mad. But isn't that great?" Typically, he is already bored of waiting for it to come around. Having played in four Ashes Tests himself in the 2002-03 series, he gets the rivalry. He has always had an admiration for Australian cricketers. Particularly Shane Warne.
Key met Warne for the first time in 2000, during a County Championship match between Kent and Hampshire at Portsmouth. He pestered the legspinner about cricket, and their friendship and interests expanded over the years, particularly when they were colleagues in the commentary box.
Warne died in March 2022, and a part of the sadness of his passing was that it was a shame he did not get to watch this current iteration of the England Test side. It is very much in the image of the "Tee off (not recklessly)" mantra.
"You'd meet him for a game of golf and the first thing he'd do is ask you to play tomorrow," remembers Key. "He's always looking for ways to make the most out of every opportunity. He's a guy that, because of who he was, lived a hundred lives in the one that he had, and that's so infectious. And that's what people want to follow.
"People, they have probably got managers at work or something like that and all they do is talk about what you can't do. That's so uninspiring and that's the thing you sort of learn. And that's what Brendan has, and Stokes, and Jos [Buttler] and Motty - all these people they're not people that just tell you the trouble all the time. That, to me, is what leadership is about.
"That's what I think Bazball is: it's that ability to get people to maximise their potential. So it doesn't matter about how you do, it's just maximise everything you've got. And that's what I think those guys do. They get the best out of people."
It should be stressed, Key's use of the "b word" was unprompted. "We can't get rid of it!" he protests when I ask if he would like to have the word bleeped out, given how much McCullum dislikes it. He reiterates the coach's view that it is as much "Stokesball". "He's unlucky," says Key of Stokes, "it doesn't roll off the tongue as much as Bazball."
On Key's own part in the Test resurgence, he is pretty phlegmatic. His horizons have been broadened, his exposure to corporate life has been insightful without being particularly groundbreaking. It is when he talks about the actual cricket under his tenure that you see a sparkle.
A man who lists "cynical" as one of his personality traits bristles with enthusiasm looking at the manner in which the Test side have revitalised a fan base that was starting to disengage. All while bringing in new eyes with the style and calibre of their play.
"I love the fact that what they did last year captured the imagination of the public. That's what this game is about. It's about entertaining. I spent a lot of my career thinking it was a job, and batted like I was an accountant. Whereas, most of the time people come to watch you. There might not have been that many people at Kent, but you exist to entertain people as much as you can. Without that, if no one watches it, the game dies."
You wonder from that reflection, particularly how he felt he lost sight of what cricket was supposed to be during his 17-year career, if this managing directorship is his own way of reconnecting a little deeper with the sport. At least for a little while.
"You're never going to do these jobs forever, are you? But it's just something I'll look back on and think, 'Geez what an interesting time that was.' My hunch is, it's a role you do for a bit, then you move on and pass it on to a new voice, to someone else who can add, change things, or do whatever else is needed."
How would he feel if he left his post tomorrow?
"It'd be all right, wouldn't it?" he answers. "If you'd have asked me at the start, I'd have taken what we've done so far."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo