Rewind a year, and England’s Test side was floundering. A dismal Ashes series in Australia had been followed by a series defeat in the West Indies. England had won just one of their last fourteen Test matches, and their cricket unsurprisingly looked shorn of any confidence; tentative, cautious, and at times torturous. Ashley Giles had paid the price for poor results, sacked as England’s managing director, as had Head Coach Chris Silverwood. Sir Andrew Strauss assumed Giles’s position in the short term as the ECB sought a long-term replacement.
They found one in Rob Key, a man with admittedly little administrative experience, albeit boasting impressive leadership credentials, having captained his county Kent through the good times and bad. Key went from ruminating on events from the comfort of the commentary box to playing an active role in the decision-making of English cricket. It was a decision that raised eyebrows; Key had emerged as a left-field candidate relatively late in the process. Key had a job for life at Sky, a natural with his shrewd observations and dry humour; why would he want to take on what had become something of a poisoned chalice?
Key cuts a jovial figure, eminently likeable and completely lacking in ego, but behind the jokes is a razor-sharp mind. Key’s observations are delivered in an uncomplicated fashion. He doesn’t do manager jargon; he says things how he sees them, just like he would from behind the glass of the commentary box. Crucially, he immediately brought a sense of energy and positivity, a fresh perspective, keen to change the landscape without radically altering it. Key’s success has been built on smart, bold decisions, empowering those beneath him.
Key’s first decision was naming Ben Stokes as Test captain. Admittedly, it was a fairly obvious choice; alongside Root, Stokes was the only other player guaranteed a place in the side at the time. But it was an appointment that set Key’s stall out, stating at the time: “He epitomises the mentality and approach we want to take this team forward”. Stokes had been part of England’s leadership group for several years, maturer and wiser than his younger days, when his behaviour was occasionally wayward.
Stokes is a galvanising and inspirational figure, capable of extraordinary feats on the field, a player who can empty the bars and fill the seats. But he is also an empathetic figure, open in his mental health struggles, and with a good cricketing brain to boot. The only worries stemmed from the burden of captaincy on a body that had already taken its fair share of punishment. England’s previous big-ticket all-rounders, Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham, had struggled to juggle the demands of captaincy with their immense playing contributions.
Stokes’s appointment made even more sense when Brendon McCullum was unveiled as England’s new Test coach. An exciting player in a similar mould to Stokes, McCullum was an adventurous and imaginative selection, a real statement of intent from Key. On the surface, McCullum and Stokes appeared to be kindred spirits, and results certainly indicate it has been the perfect cricketing marriage. McCullum’s previous coaching experience was consigned to Twenty20, but beneath the laid-back exterior lurks a steely competitor and a wealth of Test cricket expertise gleaned from over a hundred appearances for New Zealand.Embed from Getty Images
McCullum wasn’t initially on England’s radar, but Key had earmarked him out as a suitable candidate, and after some gentle cajoling, he interviewed for the role. There had been questions about whether McCullum would be more suited to a white ball role, but Key opted for Matthew Mott, who brought with him an impressive record with Australia’s women’s team. Mott’s appointment went slightly under the radar, but he has provided success instantaneously, guiding England to glory at the 2022 T20 World Cup. England’s ODI side has plateaued slightly, but that’s arguably more down to the endless rotation necessitated by a bloated calendar.
The transformation in the Test side was radical; England won six out of their seven Test matches last summer, including a 3-0 victory against the reigning World Test champions, New Zealand. But the manner of the victories was more impressive, with England chasing three stiff targets against the Kiwis. In their rescheduled Test against India, England sauntered to the target of 378 just three wickets down. England’s approach was relentlessly positive, typified by Jonny Bairstow, who struck four glorious centuries.
The term Bazball was coined, and England’s approach was proving as enthralling as it was successful. Under the gaze of McCullum, England had become trailblazers, ushering in an exciting new era of Test cricket. Key was typically self-effacing, deflecting praise towards the players, but his imagination had allowed McCullum and Stokes to create a culture lacking fear.Embed from Getty Images
Success followed in the winter as England were crowned T20 World Champions, but how would Bazball fare in Pakistan? England resoundingly answered any doubters on an emphatic first day in Rawalpindi, slashing records as they became the first side to score 500 runs on the first day of a Test match. Centuries overseas had become something of a novelty in recent years; now England had scored four in one day. England’s historic whitewash was built on aggressive cricket with bat and ball, with Stokes always chasing wickets, accepting conceding runs was occasionally a necessary evil. 18-year-old Rehan Ahmed’s debut five-for in the final Test was the icing on the cake.
England’s only loss in the winter came in the nail-biting second Test in New Zealand, which they lost agonisingly by one run. But the response of Stokes and McCullum was telling, Stokes describing himself as feeling “blessed” to have taken part in such a thrilling game. There’s no doubt that England want to win every Test match that they play, but they are also keen to entertain. Cricket is a business as well as a competitive sport. England’s live by the sword die by the sword approach means they will lose the odd match, but they certainly aren’t going to die wondering.
England’s positivity and run of good results have fostered a confidence that feels distinctly un-English and, if I dare say it, has a touch of the Australian about it. That is not meant as a criticism; far from it, it’s a welcome change in a sporting world where respect for opponents sometimes overspills into gushing admiration or debilitating self-depreciation. England’s cricketers are making the same confident statements ahead of the Ashes that Glenn McGrath used to make, with Ollie Robinson backing them to give Australia “a good hiding”. There’s a strut and a swagger to this English side, and as long as it doesn’t stray into arrogance, there’s no harm in that.Embed from Getty Images
Away from the field, cricket’s future is more uncertain, and Key has been careful in making sweeping statements, his straight-talking welcome. He has not hidden away from the divisive nature of The Hundred but believes it is “something that secures the future of our game”. This a sound sentiment, although recent reports suggest it is perhaps potentially becoming a financial haemorrhage. Yes, The Hundred is a long-term investment, and initial financial losses shouldn’t be looked at too closely, but it is somewhat worrying in a precarious economic climate, especially considering the bold marketing strategy surrounding the competition.
Key was also involved in the Sir Andrew Strauss-led review of the domestic game, which proposed streamlining divisions and reducing the number of games, something the counties staunchly approached. The debate around county cricket looks set to rumble on for years, with the balance between catering to a high-performance environment and providing financial security for the counties a seemingly impossible task. But Key has taken to his role with aplomb, and with his u-turn over appointing a head of selectors, he has shown he can be adaptable in his decision-making. As first years in a new job go, you couldn’t have asked for much more from Key.