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Rob Key is a straightforward man with a straightforward approach to communication and cricket.
And this was on show on his first public-facing day as England’s new Managing Director yesterday, when he revealed his first big decision – appointing Ben Stokes as Test captain – and outlined his vision.
In an organisation, the ECB, and indeed a culture, English cricket, prone to gross overthinking, it was a breath of fresh air.
Key seems to have natural immunity to the highly-contagious strain of corporatese that so many at ECB Towers have contracted – and if he were to become infected, former colleagues in the commentary box would not be afraid to let him know. He spoke about players not being influenced by the thoughts of the media (on guards and the like), but staying true to himself will be crucial.
Key might well have been using the US Navy’s old KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. “You’re not trying to solve climate change or anything like that,” he said, “just make cricket decisions”. (Perhaps he can get to climate once his coaching staff are in place). Appointing Stokes was an “easy decision”. Selection? “Pick your best team. We don’t have to overthink it”.
England’s Test team have often been prescriptive in the recent past. Stylistically, under Trevor Bayliss, it was all attack. Under Chris Silverwood, it was all attrition.
So often England have rested and rotated their way to oblivion; last year, the Ashes distracted them all year. When they got to Australia, they picked a team for the First Test with the Second in mind, and for the Second Test with the Third in mind. By the time they played the Third, the Ashes were almost gone. On an Ahmedabad dustbowl, they picked four seamers and on a Gabba greentop they left out their two greatest wicket-takers for a spinner they had spent the previous six months ignoring.
If Key surrounds himself with other characters with common sense, such blunders should be a thing of the past.
Key is a broadcaster by trade, so laying out a vision and talking cricket was the easy bit. He must still find a Test Head Coach – applications are drifting in from the county game and beyond – with some urgency, as well as a white-ball boss to work with Eoin Morgan, and a National Selector. He admits that is a vexing decision, because there are no qualifications for it. England are looking for their George Bailey, who churned out another excellent set of Australia squads (for a tour of Sri Lanka) overnight without fuss.
Naturally, there was a mention of Australia, who impressed Key when commentating on their win over Pakistan last month. His answer summed up his performance: realistic, unafraid to criticise England, but optimistic too. He said Australia were “a long, long way away ahead”. He went on: “But do I think we’ve got the talent to be able to compete with them? Absolutely. Is it going to take a bit of time to get there? Probably.”
Key was sympathetic to those who went before him, particularly Ashley Giles (“poor old Gilo”), because he felt the pandemic and biosecure bubbles tied one hand behind their backs. He believes that that era is over.
In his first two weeks in the job, Key has spent a lot of time on the phone talking to players, players’ friends, family, county coaches and agents, and a lot of time in his car, zipping up and down the country to meet with them. One of those is Joe Root, who will prove such an important player as the wise head and run scorer, and another is Stokes, his successor.
This was the obvious decision, and the right one, but it was not reached lightly. Key knows Stokes will need plenty of support and management, so do not expect to see him overburdened in limited overs cricket. It would be little surprise to see him return to No6, which he wanted to do this winter so he was reacting to situations not shaping them, but it is a little early to say that with certainty yet.
Next week, we will hear his vision. Like Key, he will not look to overcomplicate things. Bit by bit, the rebuild is taking shape.