Rob Key says the decision to drop Jason Roy was the most deliberated-over part of a "fiddly" selection for England's 15-man squad for the upcoming Twenty20 World Cup.
Having been almost an ever-present in the limited-overs teams since 2015, with 171 caps and 5500 runs across both white-ball codes, the opening batter has endured a rotten run of form in the home season, with just 78 runs (at an average of 12.66) in six T20Is this summer. The hope from all involved was that the Hundred would offer the opportunity to rediscover his touch, only for the rut to continue with just 51 runs across six innings, with three ducks to boot, for Oval Invincibles.
Key, who is temporarily acting as chair of selectors in his role as managing director, revealed Jonny Bairstow will open with Jos Buttler at the World Cup, with the onus on Ben Stokes to fill the middle-order role Bairstow had spent time honing.
Although there are seven T20Is in Pakistan ahead of the global tournament in Australia, the ICC deadline of September 16 for naming the 15 players plus three reserves meant using that tour as one last shot for Roy to come good was not a viable option.
"That was the one we spent the most time on, trying to work out the best thing to do," Key said. "Fiddly selection as much for logistics as anyone else. We worked out the World Cup 11 and squad for that, and worked back from there. We thought about the best opening pair for the World Cup. It's unfortunate timing for Jason Roy as much as anything else. He's hit a bad patch of form at the worst time.
"The latest we could announce the World Cup squad was the 16th. So it wasn't like we could use Pakistan. We'd be taking a gamble on him finding form in that time. So we felt with the abundance of openers we had, and we felt Jonny Bairstow is one of the best openers in T20 cricket in the world - he's done it in the IPL, but been very good in the middle order as well - we felt the best combination at this time was Jonny and Jos and we worked back from that point."
Roy was informed of the decision by Buttler a couple of days ago - the captain wanting to deliver the bad news himself. Chats with Key and limited-overs coach Matthew Mott followed. All reinforced the fact they believe the 32 year old is by no means finished at international level.
"'Gutted' was the phrase he used," Key said. "He wanted to make sure this wasn't the end. You always feel these are long meaningful chats when you speak to players about this stuff.
"I still think he's a fantastic player but the timing has been awful for him, to lose form at that time. To not have a huge amount of time to stop, reset, and then find it again. Certainly in that white-ball series [against South Africa], the close nature of every game means once you got on a roll in one way it's very hard to get out of.
"The game is about confidence as much as anything else. If he finds that again he too is one of the best openers around when he's at the top of his game. I don't see it by any stretch that his T20 career is over. It's just a case of him finding form, and I'm sure he will have plenty of opportunities in the abundance of T20 cricket that there is around the world to find that form again.
"I certainly don't think the age that he is that this is the end of Jason Roy. I would argue that the 50-over format is his strongest suit and we still see him as very much part of this set-up. Given his white-ball summer and then the Hundred we feel it's too much of a gamble to continue going into Pakistan and straight into Australia."
Alex Hales, who has not represented England since being dropped for the 2019 50-over World Cup over a second failed drugs test, was also discussed. Though unselected, Key reiterated his stance that Hales had done "his time for his misdemeanours" and was left out purely on form. The Nottinghamshire batter was regarded as secondary to Bairstow for the vacant opening slot. That he has not made the squad at all, given he can bat anywhere in the top three and has been a consistent scorer in the shortest formats over the last few years, has bemused many, including, Key revealed, the man himself.
Key also made a note of saying Hales, had he been selected, would have been welcomed back into the team. Under former captain Eoin Morgan, Hales seemed to be unofficially blacklisted. Stokes, during the press tour for his new documentary, was non-committal on his relationship with Hales after they were both caught up in the Bristol street fight in 2017 which eventually saw Stokes found not guilty of affray. When speaking of the incident in Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes, Stokes referred to Hales as his "friend at the time".
"From what we've spoken about, it's never been an issue really as far as we were concerned," Key said in response to a query on how the rest of the team would have taken Hales' inclusion. "We were able to just talk about form.
"And look, I spoke to Alex Hales. He rang me actually, and he argued why he wasn't there and I think quite right too. I much prefer when these people pick up the phone and say, 'come on then, why wasn't I there?' I've a huge amount of respect for that as opposed to people who go behind the scenes moaning about why they've not been picked for something.
"You look and it's just an unfortunate time where there's a hell of a lot of very good players. People say it's a good problem to have but it's not straightforward with who you pick as a batter in this format of white-ball cricket because there's so many good options. There's a lot of people who have also missed out who quite rightly could have said 'how come I'm not in?'."
Even with those selected, there remains a degree of uncertainty on a few first-choice names. Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, while fit after knee and elbow issues respectively, have not played any competitive cricket this summer and last played for England during the Test tour of West Indies back in March.
Chris Jordan (finger) and Liam Livingstone (ankle) are also nursing injuries and will sit out the Pakistan tour, while Buttler will hand over captaincy duties to Moeen Ali in Pakistan as he continues to recover from a calf injury.
Key acknowledged the gamble of selecting players with question marks over their immediate availability. He hopes the time remaining between now and England's first group game against Afghanistan on October 22, which includes seven matches in Pakistan plus three T20Is against Australia and ICC warm-ups on the eve of the tournament, will be enough for them to prove their match fitness. And he also believes England's depth, typified by the five uncapped players in the Pakistan touring party, will be able to cover for any late hitches.
"The likelihood is Wood and Woakes will start getting fit towards the back end of the Pakistan trip. We've got to somehow make sure if they are our best options they are in rhythm and in form"
"You have your information from the medical teams on where they're at and we are optimistic, I suppose. That might not be the best way to look at things with the way injuries have gone this year.
"We sat down and looked at different scenarios - 'what if he gets injured?' Hopefully we have enough back up. The Pakistan trip has made it logistically a tough one to organise your squad for the World Cup. But it gives us a chance to look at other players.
"Jonny and Ben aren't going to be there, as multi-format players it's just too much cricket for them. They've played a hell of a lot of cricket, IPL cricket, T20 cricket. It's not like they don't know the format. We've got a chance in Pakistan to look at the next generation almost, the next cabs off the rank in some regard. You never know, they may find themselves going to the World Cup.
"The likelihood is with Wood and Woakes that they will start getting fit towards the back end of that Pakistan trip. We've got to somehow make sure if they are our best options they are in rhythm and in form. It's no good having them back if they're not able to perform to the best of their ability.
"It's great to have those guys back, people we haven't had for a while in any format, and now let's hope our luck changes in terms of injuries and we have those guys able to take a full role when it comes to the World Cup."
On the subject of Pakistan, Key insisted the floods has not changed the ECB's stance on making the trip out there. On Friday, the death toll passed 1200 after irregular monsoons left around a third of the country under water. Having reneged on a trip last winter, the onus is on England to show solidarity with the PCB, with these T20s and the Test series in December making amends for 2021's late withdrawal. Key, who was in Pakistan earlier this year to commentate on the Test series against Australia, hopes the trip will be a much-needed positive at such a trying time.
"It's a moving picture at the moment," he said. "There's been a hell of a lot of communication between people out there and the ECB, the PCA [Professional Cricketers' Association]. But it's a trip we're desperate to go on and it's going to take a lot for us not to get out there. I think hopefully us going out there and playing will be a positive for what's been a pretty harrowing time for the people of that country. I'm really looking forward to getting out there."