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Rob Key: Experience is massively overvalued


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Shows how stifling pressure is... and our NT has 100x as much.


Rob Key interviewed by Atherton

Rob Key: England Test players were suffocated by pressure – I had to change mentality






Much of Key’s job is about getting the big decisions right, and the three big decisions that confronted him immediately were choosing a new captain and two new coaches once he decided to split the coaching role. He wanted someone who would not mess up an already good one-day team but for the Test team he needed a transformation, and he went for two men, as captain and coach, with little experience in their new fields at all, Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum.
“Experience is massively overvalued. Experience can be the thing that stops you getting a job, as much as it can be the thing that gets you the job. You shouldn’t look at whether someone has done a job for 20 years, you want to know whether they were any good in that 20 years. Experience can really cost you. The same with selection: if players, or coaches, have talent and are good enough you put them in.”
“I wanted to change the mentality most of all. When sports people fail, most think it’s because they are not trying hard enough or they don’t want it badly enough, or they are not tough enough, all those things. I felt they [the Test team] were trying too hard, and wanted it too badly and were almost suffocated by it. I felt they needed to have a bit of pressure taken off them and to think positively; not to play a certain way necessarily, but just to have the right mentality.”
“For the coach I wanted someone who thought like me but had credibility. I wanted someone who was going to grab hold of that team, not just with his philosophy but so that [Stuart] Broad, [James] Anderson, Stokes, or whoever, respected him for what he had done. I didn’t just want a facilitator in that role. I wanted someone to change the culture and I felt Brendon [as captain] had done exactly that with New Zealand.
“As for Stokes, I had heard a few whispers coming out of the dressing-room about how brilliantly he had done the job in that Covid ODI series against Pakistan. I loved the way they played that series. In England we often think showing fight is getting stuck in, over my dead body stuff. But I think risking failure by playing aggressively, and then keep on doing it, takes as much courage as anything.
“I knew Ben, but not particularly well. When you meet great players, there are two types: there are those who understand why the rest of us can’t do what they can do, and there are those who don’t. I used to play golf with [Shane] Warney and when he was hitting it all over the place, I used to say to him: ‘just remember this feeling because that’s how the rest of us felt playing cricket.’ Ben understands; he’s got great empathy, because he’s gone through it all. It’s the scars that make him. He understands what it is like to be in a low place. What I didn’t realise is what a good cricket brain he has.
“I’ve been lucky in how well those two have gelled. Equally, I deliberately wanted those two positions aligned. I kept hearing people say that I needed a contrast to Stokes, some yin to his yang. But I didn’t see the logic in that at all: all I saw in that instance would have been argument. I wanted two people who were completely aligned and thought exactly the same way in their basic philosophy.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen. It wasn’t really about winning or losing, but getting players to maximise their potential. We’ve now got a clear way of playing, which makes selection easier, too. It’s not about scoring at six an over all the time, but players need to have the ability to both soak up pressure and put bowlers under pressure as well. The tactical element is where they are brilliant those two; they’ve got such a good feel for the game.
“Most captains and coaches are all over you when you are doing well and then nowhere when you are struggling; these two are the opposite. They know what to say to someone who is struggling. I remember listening to Mike Brearley once talking about [Ian] Botham and him saying Beefy was easy to read because he was either up or down, but the quiet guy in the corner was the difficult one. Brendon and Ben are aware of the quiet bloke in the corner. That’s what I think the ‘Bazball’ thing is really”
Looking back now, with series wins against New Zealand, South Africa and Pakistan, it is easy to forget just how nervy the opening win of the new regime was, at Lord’s against New Zealand. Does Key remember feeling as nervous during those few days as when he played, and where did he watch that tense run-chase from?
“I remember thinking about that stat of one win in 17 and thinking well it would be nice to stop that. I’ve never been one to be too emotional about the game, because I think I’ve got a decent handle on it — I know it’s important but not that important — but I knew the significance of that game. I don’t really like being in the dressing-room, I don’t like hobnobbing in the boxes and I don’t want to wear a suit, so I just watched it in my office in the end.”
“Every ground I go to, I have a bit of a problem where to watch because I want to be detached from the team — I think that’s important to be able to give a different point of view — but I also want to watch it on television, because you see a bit more, and I don’t really want to be on camera. The World Cup final I went all the way to Australia and ended up watching on the telly in my hotel room.”
The mention of Australia is a good time to throw matters forward to the Ashes. Key’s own Ashes career involved four Tests and not much success. Had things worked out differently, he might have easily played in that 2005 series, but his indifferent form on the 2002-03 tour probably counted against him. Was he scarred? Did that Ashes experience stand out and has it influenced his thinking?
“I was 22 or 23 on that trip, very young, but I loved that trip. I remember Adam Gilchrist coming up to introduce himself — I thought I know who you are, mate — and I knew Steve Waugh from Kent and I loved the way that they played. Their influence over my generation was quite profound actually.
“You guys had a tough time of it in the 90s against some bloody good players, but then there was an influx of great Australian players in two-division county cricket when my generation was coming through. You had Darren Lehmann at Yorkshire with Michael Vaughan; Andrew Symonds with me at Kent; Mike Hussey with Graeme Swann at Northants.
“We started to develop a little bit of their philosophy. Vaughan had it; Strauss [who played with Justin Langer at Middlesex] had it. That series in 2005, they lost the first Test at Lord’s and then got 400 in a day in the next game. That came from the influences that we had. When people talk about Steve Smith coming to Sussex, we’ve all taken things from each other.
“I got to know Warney very well through poker and he was a huge influence on my thinking. He was always: ‘how are you trying to get the batter out?’ We were of an impressionable age then and you had a choice: the county cricket mentality, slightly negative, or the other way. I imagine we will keep coming this summer. If you face Pat Cummins you can’t just block the life out of it.”
With the big decisions on personnel settled for now, Key’s next challenge is around central contracts, the schedule and the availability of England players in the face of the growing financial muscle of the franchises. Given that Mark Wood and Jofra Archer, say, are at the Indian Premier League, and therefore not preparing as they might for the Ashes, has Key (and therefore the ECB) given up and accepted that they cannot compete with IPL?
For Key, pragmatism rules. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We’re paying Jofra probably half as much as Mumbai Indians. What I’m trying to do is find a world where there is a compromise where we keep control. It’s a delicate balance. If you stop people doing this stuff they will just not sign contracts.
“It’s very simple economics. An average county salary might be 70-80k; someone down the road is paying them that for three weeks, or double that. If you stop people, you end up forcing them to make choices that aren’t the best for us at all. That’s the trade-off with the IPL and all these other competitions.
“We are trying to work backwards from the Ashes. Is there a world where we can get them right for the Ashes? We think there is: that they can do a fair bit of work in the IPL, can play competitive cricket there, and can be ready. That seems to be the best of both worlds. If you force the issue we will end up losing people. It’s a fascinating part of this job.
“As yet, nobody has turned down a central contract. Players still value it massively; they value Test cricket massively. Early next year during the India Test series [in India in January/February] there will be franchise cricket going on and I can’t see anyone choosing franchise cricket over that Test series. I might be wrong, but I don’t see it.
“We will put match fees up, because right now you can probably earn more for an after dinner speech so that’s not right, but it’s not going to solve the issue by stopping people wanting to play franchise cricket. Personally, I think the answer for us is to concentrate on our own game which is what India do well. Whatever our premier short form competition is, we need to make sure it is the best it can be, so we can pay our players enough. It won’t be as glamorous as the IPL but if we make ours the best it can be, everything else can fit in with it.”
It was a very refreshing morning on the south coast, and not just because it is great to see a former colleague doing so well. There is a straightforwardness to Key, which is not always a common characteristic in cricket administration: he is bright but not stuffy; speaks in plain language, is totally un-corporate and knows his subject.
And the golf? It was a clash of styles, and of eras. “Bazball” golf from Key: good gear and personalised golf balls, long drives and all over the shop. Tenacious, dirt on the clubs, ‘get the job done’ golf from me. The rain came eventually and more wind, suiting northern sensibilities. Dormie three I went, but mindful that it’s a big summer for English cricket and hesitant to put a dent in the confidence of a man at the top of his game, I throttled back. It finished all-square.
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