n January 18, in the aftermath of another Ashes debacle, Rob Key laid out in a column in this newspaper what English cricket needed to put right if the Test team was to flourish once more.
When he wrote that column, surely Key — and certainly his colleagues at the Standard — did not expect it would be him charged with getting England back on track now.
Three months, though, is a very long time in sport, and today he is at Lord’s, shaking hands and getting his email account set up on his first day as England’s managing director of men’s cricket.
Key’s appointment came from left field, because he does not have a background in cricket administration. And it has received mixed reviews, partly because of that lack of direct experience, and partly because opinions offered in his role as a pundit since his playing retirement (the six-year anniversary of that was yesterday) are so readily available. Fans think they know what to expect.
Some of those views will guide him, but Key will know that it is harder to do than to say. Keeping an open mind will be vital in his early days in the role, with six weeks until the first Test of the English summer.
Key is a people person, which is the most important character trait required in the job, but a pragmatist, too. Such are the pros and cons to Key’s appointment.
It is true that he does not have direct experience or qualifications in management — although recent history says that is not an indicator of success in this exact role — but it would be wrong to discount the breadth of his responsibility at Kent. When he was captain, there was a coach but no director of cricket, leaving the day-to-day running of all matters cricket (who gets a contract, who to sign) to him. Key was Kent. In this much bigger pond, he will need support on the minutiae of the role, but he has never lacked ideas.
In his corner, Key has a lifetime in cricket, mainly in the domestic system. He thinks deeply about the game and his everyman demeanour has contributed to his popularity.
The county cricket played in 2022 is pretty similar to the game he departed, but rather different to a dozen years ago, when he was in his pomp and the supply line to the England team was strong. There is a sense that he is the right age — forties — for this role, with recent enough playing experience, but plenty of time observing, too.
He has never hidden his views on county pitches — whether being fined £1,250 for calling the ECB’s pitch inspection system “a Muppet Show” in 2008, or in his role as a pundit. Even more strident views are on the game’s affordability, whether in the playing pathway or “box-ticking” coaching courses that have proved elitist. He will have an opportunity to influence that, too.
A long spell in the commentary box means he brings a decent contacts book, which should help when recruiting for the many jobs he has to fill: Test captain, head coach (probably one for each format), batting coach and likely a selector, too.
Given the shallower pool and the simpler process, a captain seems likely to come first. The views offered by Key on coaching have been clear. Last year, he wrote that they needed to bring “calming authority”, not “ranting and raving”; that they “should be seen only occasionally and heard even less”. In that January column, he called for a “savvy, tough tactician”, citing Ricky Ponting and Mahela Jayawardene.
While Key emerged from a thin field, there should be plenty of options as head coach, although most seem likely to come from abroad. Beyond the two above, Simon Katich, Gary Kirsten, Paul Collingwood, Tom Moody and perhaps even Justin Langer (whose character does not tally with Key’s views on what makes a good coach) will be in the mix. The breadth of the role can be moulded to the successful candidate with a white-ball set-up that generally has the foundations for success tacked on.
Key is taking on the job at a low ebb for the Test team, which makes it something of a blank canvas. That has its advantages, and he has the tools to succeed, but it will still be rather trickier than writing a column.