The ECB’s managing director of cricket, Rob Key, has been a busy man since landing the role last month ahead of a busy summer of international cricket.
The former England batsman has named Ben Stokes as Joe Root’s successor and is now aiming to name two separate coaches for the Test and white-ball teams.
However, Key still had time to sit down with Sportsmail’s NASSER HUSSAIN to discuss his new captain, the lack of English coaches in the game, and why rhetoric from both sides of the debate around The Hundred annoys him.
ECB’s new managing director Rob Key (right) sat down with Sportsmail’s Nasser Hussain (left)
Nasser Hussain: Was it something we said? Were you not getting enough air time at Sky? Why this sudden decision to up and go?
Rob Key: It would have been just after the Ashes when Ashley Giles, Chris Silverwood and Graham Thorpe had all gone. I play golf occasionally with Andrew Strauss and he said, ‘Do you fancy doing a real job?’ I told him I could be interested but I never thought I wouldn’t be working with Sky. Unless they sacked me!
But things moved quickly and I found myself walking into Lord’s going from a job I loved. The attraction was that I felt I could make a difference. That was the only thing that could have got me away from doing what I was doing. The chance to see if I could have an impact on English cricket.
Hussain: The easy option was to go on talking a good game but this is the more difficult road. You were an excellent broadcaster and could have carried on doing that…
Key says the attraction of taking the role at the ECB was that he felt he could make a difference
Key: And to be honest it’s like when you get picked for England as a player and you get butterflies because you have no idea if you’re going to be any good. You just hope you are.
I have faith in my views and that challenge is exciting. Every time I get up in the morning now there’s something to think about and I have to put my money where my mouth is.
Hussain: What did you make of the reaction to your appointment? Some people said ‘this is another case of jobs for the boys. What does he know about administration?’
Key: I don’t avoid reading things but I don’t seek reaction. A lot of players said to me when I was at Sky, ‘I don’t care what you say about me’ and then reeled off the last 20 times I’d mentioned them. It doesn’t really bother me. I’m not trying to work out astrophysics. I’m trying to make decisions on cricket and I reckon I’ve got 30 years experience of that.
I’ve worked with the best and worst coaches, I’ve been in the system, I’ve seen how the ECB works and I did a lot of administrative stuff at Kent. What you do in any leadership role is get the best people in, support them and help them have an impact.
Hussain: I liked your answer to the suggestion Ben Stokes was the only choice as Test captain. You said, ‘if there had been 10 choices I’d have gone for Ben’ and I know if I were captain that would make me feel a million dollars. But he did have mental health issues last year. How much did you have to make sure he was in the right place to do the job?
Key hopes there are more like Friday’s hundred to come from new England captain Ben Stokes
Key: You have to make sure the captain is in the right stage of his life to take it on. The one thing I have seen is that the last couple of years in bubbles have been horrendous and that was not only tough for Ben but the whole team. Ben was strong enough to take himself out of that environment for a while and I think that’s a sign of courage and mental strength.
Hussain: And wasn’t it great to see Stokes bat the way he did on his return for Durham at Worcester on Friday?
Key: That’s the thing about Ben. Every time he is given extra responsibility he responds like that. People forget when he was given the No 6 for England after being down the order he immediately hit a brilliant hundred under pressure against New Zealand. Let’s hope with that added responsibility and not being in bubbles any more there’s more like Friday’s hundred to come.
Hussain: Your next major decision is the coaches. Why have you decided to split the role and how will you make sure you don’t end up with people being pulled one way then the other, as it was when Andy Flower and Ashley Giles shared the role?
Key: There’s lots of reasons but one of the main ones is that England’s schedule is so busy. If there was one coach they would oversee a series and then jump on a plane and go straight into another format. There will have to be a complete change of thinking as to how we organise the coaching and I think other countries will follow even though they don’t play as much cricket as England.
There’s more understanding of that among the coaches too. We have a pretty good field of candidates and nearly all of them said, ‘I wouldn’t be going for this if it was just one coach for all formats’. You want the best people and you build the structure around them. Then it will be up to me to manage the relationship between the two.
Andy Flower (front) and Ashley Giles (back) shared the Test and white-ball coaching roles
Hussain: Your problem is some of the best coaches are working in the Indian Premier League. What if they say, ‘I’d like the job but I’d like to carry on working in the IPL?’
Key: It’s not an issue if they’re the best person. You have to move with the times and I can’t see why Jos Buttler, for instance, could play the whole IPL but our coaches couldn’t be there for it all. Who knows where the IPL will be in five years’ time but at the moment there’s no international cricket when the IPL’s on. I’d rather have the best person for 10 months a year than someone not as good for 12.
Hussain: It looks like most of the best coaching candidates this time are from overseas. There are exceptions. Mark Robinson for one. Mark Alleyne. But why are we not producing more English coaches to compete for these jobs?
Key: It’s gone on for a long time. It hasn’t gone particularly well for a couple of English coaches who have had the main job so their reputation is not as good as it should be. The caveat to that is we don’t give them enough opportunities.
We have to look at how we educate our coaches. You want to invest in the right people. There are a lot of other things you can do in the game. You and I went to the other side of the fence in the media and that’s very attractive but we have to make sure we keep an eye on the best people coming through the system because in a few years they might be ready to become England coach.
Hussain: Ashley Giles was very much a players’ director of cricket. I think you once said, ‘the only thing he said no to was football’.
Key: Let’s get this right. I said that to you off air and then you nicked it for one of your Mail columns!
Hussain: I nicked all your best lines. There weren’t many. You’re trying to distract me now. Are you willing to say no to players? If a player wants to take up a million-pound IPL deal but you think it’s better for English red-ball cricket for him not to go are you strong enough to make an unpopular decision?
Mark Robinson is an exception but there are not enough English coaches being produced
Key: I don’t have an issue with that. These things are not binary. It’s not simply that you can tell a player not to go to the IPL because what happens when he then turns round and says, ‘OK, I don’t want a central contract, I’ll go down a different route’. Any decision won’t be a hard one to make if it’s the right thing to do. If a player wants to do something that won’t benefit English cricket the answer will be no.
Hussain: The viewing figures for our Sky vodcasts have gone through the roof because every journalist has gone back over them to see what you said about various people. Do you have to be consistent now with what you’ve said over the years or do you see things differently?
Key: I don’t think you ever get married to one position. You have to be able to adapt. The whole world seems to think if you have a view on something you can’t flinch from it. That’s the biggest load of nonsense ever. Things evolve. Players get better.
They might prove you wrong and then you have to put your hands up. We get so worried about being wrong but the worst thing is if you stick with something to save face even when you know it’s wrong. I’ll just try to pivot quickly and pretend I never said something!
Hussain: There must be two Rob Keys out there. There was one on the Cricket Show who said he agreed with Strauss’s decision to leave Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad at home when England went to the Caribbean but the other one has been to see Jimmy and Broady and told them he loves them and wants them back in the team!
Key: I understood that decision. I had no issue with what Straussy was trying to do. But my opinion now is that they should come back. I think Ben was prepared for an argument when we spoke. He said, ‘Right, Jimmy and Broady are coming back’. And I said, ‘Yes, that’s fine’. Then we moved on.
I don’t look at everything as black or white. If there’s logic in something then it’s fine. For me there was no logic in England leaving Alastair Cook out of the 2015 World Cup and then taking Gary Ballance. No part of me understood why they would do that but part of me could understand why they wanted to leave Broad and Anderson at home this time and find out about other bowlers away from home.
Key and Stokes agreed it was the right time for Anderson (left) and Broad (right) to return
Hussain: You are prioritising Test cricket and understandably so but how important is it not to take your eye off the white-ball sides?
Key: It’s important not to take our white-ball success for granted because it might suddenly just hit us that we’re not as good as we were. We’ve got to keep evolving. Whoever comes in as coach of the white-ball teams cannot just be a facilitator saying, ‘There you are Eoin. It’s all yours’. They have to have one eye on always making the side better.
Hussain: Another important decision you have to make is on selection. How difficult is it finding a national selector and will you be involved? Your job depends on how England are playing so should you help pick the players?
Key: You want the best person and at the moment I don’t know who that is. The national selector is a good job but it’s a tough one and in a perfect world you won’t have your managing director doing it. Selection might involve the captain and coach, depending on how they see it, and Ben Stokes has a lot of value to add to that.
We do have enough good people around to debate a team. You always should have an odd number and then you have a vote. For now I can chair that debate. I’ll take time to find out who that selector should be to make sure it’s the right choice.
Hussain: Ravi Shastri said recently you would have to develop a thick skin. Do you think you’ll need to when pundits like me point the gun in your direction? Or will you be the same old Rob who will go with the flow when the flak is flying?
Key: Let’s take you as an example. If I want your opinion I’ll ask for it. I’m not going to tune in to the Sky vodcasts to see what you think. The absolute key is that I don’t flinch from the path I want to go on. It doesn’t mean I can’t adapt because if someone says something in the media I should work out if there’s merit in it.
Key said whoever comes in as coach of the white-ball teams cannot just be a facilitator
But ultimately I can’t let what people might think of me influence my decision making. I will get nailed for this but at Sky I would sometimes search my name on Twitter and find loads of people saying, ‘he’s this, he’s that…’.
Hussain: You would search your name on Twitter!
Key: Don’t you start. I learnt it from you! And every now and then on Twitter I would see something that could help me. You just have to be thick-skinned about it, as Ravi said.
Hussain: Are you encouraged by the start to this season? Pitches have been pretty good, overseas players look great, the standard in the Championship has been high and spinners are bowling…
Key: What we’ve seen so far shows how vital pitches are. People can talk about structures, how many Championship or Blast games you have, white-ball focus and all these things but none of it matters if you play on poor wickets.
I’ve been very pleased to see batsmen getting big scores and we’re at a point where there’s almost a bit of a log jam of players competing for middle order places. That’s what you want to see.
Hussain: I’m not sure this is your remit but people will want to know what you think about the domestic game. A lot of people love having 18 counties and the system made us the players we were. But some, Kevin Pietersen for example, say there are too many counties, too many players and they should be reduced to prioritise quality over quantity. Where do you stand?
Key: County cricket has done and can keep producing quality cricketers if the environment is right. Some of our greatest cricketers have come out of county cricket. Pretty much our most successful time as an England team in modern memory came when you gave up the captaincy and Michael Vaughan took over.
The standard in the Championship has been high and spinners are bowling on good pitches
So it’s like from the end of Hussain to the end of Strauss. In 2005 they beat that great Australian side who smashed you every time and people like Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and most of the others came from county cricket.
I’m optimistic about the county game. Does it need tweaking? Probably because whether people like it or not we have to secure this game for the next generation. It would be lovely if people would fall in love with cricket the way we did but my kids do not do things the way we did. There are so many more options for them.
Hussain: So are you still a fan of the Hundred now you’re on the other side of the fence? We saw how good it was last year but now you have to fit that in with creating a better red-ball side?
Key: I’m still a fan of it. I saw the crowds last year. My wife texted me the other day saying, ‘I’m getting some Hundred tickets’. And I thought, ‘I can probably get them for free now!’ But the point is she went with my kids, who are 15 and 13, last year and loved it.
It’s so important we make sure in a competitive market — and I’m sounding like a corporate numpty now — we give kids a way they can fall in love with this game and then move on to other forms. I’m not negative about it. I think we can have everything in this country.
The rhetoric from both sides annoys me. People who either support the Hundred or don’t want it are entrenched in their view and they will not budge. That gets you nowhere. I think we can have the Hundred that will engage the next generation but also have a good Test side.
We have some really good cricketers who haven’t been playing to their potential. It might be Covid and the conditions but we’ve not been playing anything near our best. The players are so much better than they’ve shown. It might take a bit of time but hopefully we can prove that. And county cricket can still be a breeding ground for international cricketers.
Key insists he is still a fan of The Hundred and does not see it as a obstacle to a good Test side
Hussain: How long before we see the impact of the Rob Key revolution?
Key: I don’t think it’s the Rob Key revolution! My imprint, if that’s the right word, will be the coaches. My job is to employ the best coaches to work with Ben Stokes and Eoin Morgan and then it’s their teams to run with. I’ll be there to make sure they deliver on everything they say they are going to do.
Hussain: Has there been a minute so far when you’ve stopped and thought, ‘Why have I done this? I had a cushy number at Sky and I’d become an excellent broadcaster’.
Key: When I was on that train on the first day I was looking around at 6.30am thinking, ‘this is different’. But then you get into it and try to work things out and that’s the exciting part. So no regrets yet!
Hussain: Good luck Rob, I wish you well…
Key: Good sign off!