Rob Key: Wrapped up in the cozy world of cricket but still England’s hopeful figure | England vs South Africa 2022
AAt lunchtime on a smoldering third day of this second Test, the kind of day where for long stretches cricket just plods on quietly, waiting to happen in a more urgent way, a sudden touch of color appeared on the outfield at Old Trafford.
Rob Key looked radiant in front of the Sky TV cameras, wedged like a ripe Kent Spartan apple between Kumar and Wardey, looking slim and fit in ice-white trainers and executive knitwear, here to talk things to talk about – the exam review, the calendar planning, mate, all that – three months into his role as English cricket’s chief executive.
And why not look happy to be alive? It was a good day to present the state of the nation there. Old Trafford was packed. England were close to winning this game and extending a series of live Tests until the second week of September. The Hundred is definitely on TV a lot. Zak Crawley turned 38 the other day. The high-performance review proved, largely due to its almost complete lack of really clear edges, impossible to get too worked up about in either direction.
And Key remains a fascinating figure at the helm of this time of change: a man whose popularity is based on his sympathetic appeal in spades, now asked to defend an organization that communicates almost entirely in doublespeak and rotation; a public school guy from North Kent in a sport where breaking down barriers to entry is the main challenge, who was nonetheless nominated by a cartel of friends and pals.
However, he remains a credible and hopeful figure. In a sport that has no credible vision or idea of what its future might look like, here is at least someone who seems to carry no obvious personal agenda, wanting what largely passes for the brave new world.
And Key said some interesting things, albeit in the manner of a man who could just stop in a second and type some of that into his phone so he wouldn’t forget. He defined, without really defining anything, his detailed plan for the future: “It’s just about having a better system than what we have now” (Oh yeah?). He defended the basic principle of holding back the opening hitters who never really score runs. “We’re going to give them a chance,” Key said, in response to a question about Crawley, who he knows better than most.
It’s just one of those oddities that the MD of England cricket regularly plays golf with the chosen player’s father on several occasions, against dwindling returns, on a nation of 55million, to open the baton in testing. While no one is seriously suggesting there’s anything suspicious about it, there could be some kind of cause and effect here.
If the ECB really wants to spread the game, maybe Key should be rushed across the country on a mission to play golf with the fathers of underprivileged and socially excluded children everywhere. The MD golfs with hundreds of urban dads every week, using his power to create the next generation of England fly-half.
Some might object that this outreach program lacks hard science. But of all the gimmicks around cricket, at least this “way” – Rob Key playing golf with your dad – has actually had demonstrable results. When England have a top six made up of graduates from downtown golf dad Key’s Kidlings, then we can talk.
This is of course not a serious suggestion. Key would have to golf continuously just to process the numbers, or get into mini-golf and speed-putting. But the Crawley golf-dad story has a serious point. It’s not favouritism. It’s not even a coincidence. It exists because English cricket is a small, closed world played and run by an ever-shrinking pool of people from the same demographic group. Fix that and you fix everything from playback standards to revenue streams to panicked new formats.
Easier said than done of course. For now, Key is fighting the everyday. He said he wanted to see some top-class cricket in August alongside the Hundred, which is obvious common sense. He was pretty blunt about the Hundred, and in a refreshingly unbrainwashed way: “I know it’s a divisive thing, but the Hundred is going to be something that will secure the future of our game.”
Is it good? It may be true. Nobody really knows. It’s a punt, based on marketing whiffs and driven by the feeling of having already missed the mark. But it could still work. Cricket is good. TV is good. It’s a thing based on cricket on television.
In the meantime, it seemed fitting in these fast-forward times that England should wrap up victory with good new ball bowling from Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson, the loosest, grass-fed range of cricketers, club and county cricket products, distributing the enduring virtues of nibbling, biting and swinging.
An inning victory made for quietly persuasive Saturday entertainment, roared to its end from the temporary grandstand, a vast ziggurat of lager, piss and wasted weekends. It was also a fifth of six wins as captain for Ben Stokes, who clearly enjoyed playing this game. Old Trafford loved watching it too. The good news for Test Cricket, if there is any in this heavy version of the present, is that it seems safe to say the DM will have loved it too.