Robert Key, the ruddy-faced southern me

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This article was first published on Cricinfo in April 2016, but they seem to have deleted it so we’re republishing it.

For a fair few years, from the early Nineties onwards, there was a phenomenon in British newspapers where Australian opinions of England cricketers were given greater weight. Seasoned cricket journalists would cite instances where an Aussie ‘rated’ an English batsman or bowler as proof of that player’s quality.

The subtext was that Australians knew the secret of cricket, whereas we Brits didn’t. Going by results on the pitch, it seemed a fair assumption.

In 2002 Steve Waugh said of Rob Key: “He doesn’t give a shit about much and is real relaxed. I like that in a bloke; it stops him getting overawed.”

That Waugh had seen a certain something in Key after employing his special Australian ‘good cricketer’ sense was a fillip for the player himself, but there was even more to his assessment for me.

I was, at that time, working in a warehouse and could very much identify with Key’s apparent disinclination to give shits about certain things. A similar age, but with my cricket playing days already behind me (I’m not big on team sports), I perhaps saw him as a slightly larger, southern me vying for the England spot I’d dreamed of as a boy.

In an interview for this website, Key was once asked what advice he would give his younger self, given the chance. “Don’t eat biscuits,” he answered. And what would he be if he weren’t a pro cricketer? “Trade in the derivatives market.” The latter was an obvious lie, but specific enough to be funny where something more commonplace wouldn’t be. In a similar questionnaire for All Out Cricket, he suggested that Here Comes The Hotstepper by Ini Kamoze would be the perfect music to accompany his walk to the crease.

Dry and self-deprecating, Key has never seemed to take himself or his cricket too seriously. Waugh’s assessment hinted that these characteristics could be attributes, rather than flaws. To me, that idea seemed worthy of support, so I supported Key.

He could play too.

Key surfaced as a Test cricketer against India in 2002 via a couple of fill-in appearances following an injury to Marcus Trescothick. This would become a theme of his short Test career. Key was always a stand-in or next in line; never quite the first-choice pick. On that winter’s Ashes tour, an injury to John Crawley saw him return to the side for the second Test.

It was a bleak tour. The first Test started with Nasser Hussain’s infamous decision to invite Australia to bat, continued with the severe injury to Simon Jones and finished with the tourists being bowled out in 28.2 overs. The second Test was an innings defeat and so was the third, in Perth.

In that match, Hussain, Vaughan and Stewart were all caught behind on the first morning failing to cope with what Wisden termed “exceptional bounce and pace.” Key made 47 – “a stout, mostly passive knock.”

This was the innings that impressed Waugh. England fans too remember when someone top scores in such situations. Resolve when fans are most desperate to see it buys a player affection in a way more obviously dominant performances do not.

Depending on your perspective, his dismissal was either frustrating or hilarious. At the time, it was almost certainly the former, but looking back, perhaps the latter. Against an attack comprising McGrath, Gillespie, Lee and Warne, Key was bowled by Damien Martyn.

Further soft dismissals followed against Zimbabwe the following summer. Our man was dropped, never really found form all year and ended up making barely 500 runs in the County Championship.

Fortunately, things were rather different in 2004. Kent finished second in the first division with Key making 1,274 runs at 79.62. He reached 1,000 first-class runs on June 2 and was named one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year.

There was also that knock against the Windies.

I’ll spare you the detail, but it’s worth emphasising the impact that innings had on me. I’d been desperate for him to make a fifty, yearning for him to make a hundred and this ruddy-faced, somewhat chubby manifestation of my laidback approach to life went and made 221.

He reached the double hundred at about lunchtime on a Friday and when you’re working in a warehouse in the middle of July, that’s when a summer weekend is just looming into view. The endorphins were simmering anyway. The double hundred brought them to a boil.

Yet that wasn’t even his best innings. Two games later, chasing 231 on an Old Trafford pitch on which the West Indies had just collapsed from 88-1 to 165 all out, he made 93 not out as England won.

But he was still essentially a stand-in. Injury to Mark Butcher had given him an opening and it was only another injury to Butcher which saw him return to the Test team in South Africa that winter.

He wasn’t back for long.

To misquote Kevin Keegan, batsmen aren’t born today until they’re in their late twenties or thirties. Key’s Test career was over at the age of 26. He made 83 in his penultimate Test in an England win and never got another chance.

Just as players new to Test cricket are sometimes wrongly perceived to be young, the reverse often seemed to apply to Key in subsequent years. He’d been around for a while and a lot of people thought he was past it.

England went with the unsullied Ian Bell at the start of the 2005 summer. Bell made 65 not out and 162 not out against Bangladesh and England moved on. Key lurked, but always just out of reach.

In 2006, he took on the Kent captaincy. He thought the increased responsibility would help him get back into the England side. At the time, I couldn’t really see the logic in this. It didn’t seem to me that he really needed to do anything different. After his bumper 2004 season, 2005 had seen him score 1,556 Championship runs at 59.84. He just needed to carry on and then take his chance when it inevitably arose.

Unusually, I was proven correct. Key’s batting went downhill. At the end of the season, Graham Johnson, Kent’s chairman of cricket, said: “His commitment to the team has probably impacted on his own form.”

But the commitment was real. Key remained Kent’s captain until 2013 and then took the job on again in 2014. Through prolonged financial troubles and relegation, Key remained. It was not easy and only he knows how much it wore away at his batting.

There were occasional highs. He averaged 70.50 when Kent won the Twenty20 Cup in 2007, despite the necessary pace of captaincy in T20 cricket being “a pain in the arse.” There was also promotion in 2009 – albeit followed by relegation in 2010.

But the overall impression has often been of one man doing his level best to carry almost an entire cricket club. You can only do this if you give a shit, but at the same time it would crush a man in that position if he gave a shit about every last little thing. Rob Key has always been realistic and proportional in his shit-giving.

Primarily, he gives a shit about cricket. If you’ve seen him in what has up until now been his parallel career as a broadcaster, his enthusiasm for the sport is palpable. Laid back, witty and in love with cricket without taking it too seriously, Key seems an ideal fit for what seems likely to be his new career. This means that while he may never again deliver a moment quite so perfect as that Friday lunchtime in 2004, he will surely be given more TV opportunities than Test ones.