Rob Key has officially started his new job as managing director of England men’s cricket, but what awaits him in his in tray?
Key is tasked with correcting a slide that has seen England win only one of their last 17 Test matches, a run which included a 4-0 Ashes drubbing over the winter that cost his predecessor Ashley Giles and head coach Chris Silverwood their jobs.
And that’s where Key’s work will start, with the search for a new head coach…
Who will lead England’s Test team?
This is the biggest task that awaits Key, and the one his era as managing director is likely to be defined by.
“The next three or four decisions Key makes will be vital for the future of our cricket,” Nasser Hussain told Sky Sports News upon Key’s appointment. “That’s one thing [former MD] Sir Andrew Strauss did well early.
“He got those big decisions right. He brought in Trevor Bayliss [as coach], he got that absolutely spot on.”
Bayliss was instrumental in leading England’s white-ball revolution as they went from World Cup no-hopers in 2015 to winners in 2019, although the Test team did stagnate somewhat under his watch.
Is the job too much for one man? Could the coaching roles be split for red-ball and white-ball cricket?
Key has previously stated that would be his preference, saying on the Sky Cricket podcast in February: “I would split the coaching. Not because it’s a lot of work but because it’s two very different teams at two different times.
“The [white-ball] team could do with a facilitator coach who can just keep delivering what they’re doing but challenge them. The Test team needs a completely different style of coach – a driver of culture and environment.”
Now Key just needs to decide precisely who he wants to place behind the wheel?
Sound out Stokes as skipper
As important as Bayliss’ appointment was in 2015, so, too, was the call to keep Eoin Morgan as captain of the white-ball side.
Whether Key would similarly have kept Joe Root on as Test captain, we’ll never know, after Root stepped down from the role last week following England’s wretched run of form over the last year.
Root’s vice-captain Ben Stokes is the obvious choice to replace him and Sky Sports News understands that Key will talk with Stokes about the position this week.
Influential all-rounder Stokes only recently returned from a lengthy break from cricket last year “to prioritise his mental wellbeing”, and the 30-year-old said as recently as January that he “never really had an ambition to be a captain”.
That statement should also be seen in the context of a loyal Root supporter sticking up for his skipper and friend who had come up under fire following England’s Ashes humiliation.
Speaking over the weekend, Hussain urged Key to sound out Stokes.
“I would make a journey up the A1 to speak to Ben Stokes to see where he is mentally, physically, and if he wants the job and feels he’s in the right place to do the job,” Hussain told Sky Sports News.
Beyond Stokes, it’s fairly slim pickings for the role, with most not even assured of their spot in the starting Test team let alone the captaincy.
If Key can convince Stokes that the job is for him, it would represent a sizeable coup early in his tenure.
County cricket’s restructure
It is widely accepted that at the heart of any England red-ball reset must be sweeping changes to the structure of domestic cricket in this country.
Root even confronted the issue head on in the aftermath of the latest Ashes embarrassment over the winter, saying at the conclusion of the fifth Test in Hobart: “Anyone coming into this Test team at the minute is doing it in spite of county cricket, not because of county cricket.”
The current system has seen four-day cricket marginalised to the far reaches of the ‘summer’ calendar, with County Championship matches being played in early April and as late as September, stretching even into October last year.
It has resulted in England players often being undercooked during the busy Test summer, while raw pace bowlers and promising spinners are too often being sidelined as the medium-pace county pro dominates on green, seamer-friendly pitches that also prevent batters from getting important runs and spending time in the middle.
Strauss said he wanted new recommendations to be signed off “in time for the 2023 domestic season”, and Key seemingly already has a clear vision in mind, as he outlined when speaking on a Sky Cricket vodcast in January.
“Play 50-over cricket at the start of the summer, and then I’d go to 10 games in the County Championship,” Key said.
“I’d take the best 12 teams in the country and I’d put them in two divisions, A and B – that’s then your top-flight cricket – and the two winners of those divisions play to decide who wins the Championship. The bottom division [of six], if you finish in the top two of that, you replace one team from each of the A and B tables.
“That way, you’re saying to 12 counties – which is the amount you need to pass a vote – you’re still in top-flight cricket. And then, hopefully, with the bottom division, in theory it’s easier for them to get into top-flight cricket because you only have to be in the top two out of six teams rather than the nine it is now.
“You’d have the T20 Blast continue to run on a Friday night right throughout the summer, and you’d have The Hundred, which is needed. But during The Hundred, you should have four teams – North, East, South and West – comprising of the best of the rest and any England players you need to play, they’d play four or five-day cricket throughout that period.”
Bring back a national selector?
England’s miserable year in Test cricket has coincided with a change in selection, with former national selector Ed Smith relieved of his duties almost exactly a year ago.
Giles instead handed responsibility to Silverwood and captains Root and Morgan to make the final call on who should be called up to the respective red-ball and white-ball teams.
The theory may have been sound, but in practice it proved unmanageable, particularly for Silverwood who was stretched too thin across a relentless international schedule – across all three formats – and ultimately paid the price, as did Giles, with his job.
Key said at the time of Silverwood’s sacking that the head coach was given an “impossible task” and that he expected “we’ll probably have some form of selection panel back”.
But who will make up that panel? And could Smith, who put his name forward for the MD role that Key now inhabits, make a shock return as national selector?
If not him, then who? Could Key, a keen follower of county cricket and possessing an eye for talent, himself have a role in selection?
“I know Rob is deeply passionate about county cricket – he was texting me two weeks ago about some young players he was watching,” Hussain said upon his appointment. “I can guarantee you he’ll be watching a feed of a county game.”
England’s Test selection needs a shake-up, could Key place himself at the centre of that?
What of Anderson and Broad?
Staying with selection, what of the futures of England’s two leading Test wicket-takers of all time?
James Anderson is 39, Stuart Broad 35, but they combine for a staggering 1,177 wickets between them and the omission of both from England’s recent tour of the West Indies was a constant cloud that hung over the series.
Far from helping England’s efforts to move on was the fact that Ollie Robinson, who would likely have spearheaded the attack in the Caribbean after a hugely impressive start to his Test career, missed all three Tests due to a back spasm, while Mark Wood sat out of two-and-a-half after picking up a right elbow injury in the opener in Antigua.
Saqib Mahmood made his debut and was a real positive, showing good pace and guile in taking six wickets in his first two Tests at an average of 22.83. Matt Fisher also acquitted himself well on debut in Barbados, but Chris Woakes’ struggles overseas continued and Craig Overton also failed to have much of an impact.
Elsewhere, Jofra Archer, Olly Stone and Sam Curran all failed to make the trip due to injury and while Curran stands a chance of being ready for the first Test of the summer, the road to recovery is a much longer one for the former two.
It all means that Anderson and Broad are surely worthy of spots in England’s best Test team come their summer opener against New Zealand on June 2. And for a side that, of late, has been all too guilty of looking too far ahead and always future-planning for The Ashes, they would be wise to instead focus on the here and now.
Anderson and Broad aren’t the future, but England need to remember how to win Test matches again, and there aren’t many better to help them do so in home conditions.