Rob Key: wrapped up in cricket’s cosy world but still England’s figure of hope | England v South Africa 2022

At lunchtime on a slow-burn third day of this second Test, the kind of day when for long periods cricket simply happens quietly, waiting to happen more urgently, a sudden splash of colour appeared on the Old Trafford outfield.

Rob Key looked radiant in front of the Sky TV cameras, wedged like a ripe Kent spartan apple between Kumar and Wardey, looking slim and fit in ice-white trainers and executive knitwear, here to talk about the things that need to be talked about – the review of the review, the scheduling of schedule, mate, all that – three months into his role as English cricket’s managing director.

And why not look pleased with life? This was a good day to be out there presenting on the state of the nation. Old Trafford was boisterously full. England were on the way to winning this match and extending a live Test series into the second week of September. The Hundred is definitely on the TV a lot. Zak Crawley got 38 the other day. The high-performance review has proved, largely due to its almost total lack of any really clear edges, impossible to get too worked up about either way.

And Key remains a fascinating figure at the helm of this period of change: a man whose popularity is based on his likable spade-calling, asked now to front up for an organisation that communicates almost entirely in double-speak and spin; a state school north Kent bloke in a sport where the main challenge is to break down barriers to entry, who was nonetheless appointed by a cartel of mates and pals.

For all that he remains a credible, hopeful figure. In a sport that has no credible vision or idea of what its future might look like, here at least is someone who seems to carry no obvious personal agenda, to want what broadly passes for the best of all worlds.

And Key did say some interesting things, albeit in the manner of a man who might just nip off in a second and type some of this up on his phone so he doesn’t forget it. He defined, without really defining anything, his detailed blueprint for the future: “It’s just about having a better system than what we’ve got now” (Oh yeah?). He defended the basic principle of retaining opening batters who never really score any runs. “We’re going to give them a proper go,” Key said, in an answer to a question about Crawley, who he knows better than most.

Rob Key: ‘a ripe Kent spartan apple’. Photograph: Stu Forster/ECB/Getty Images

It is just one of those oddities that the MD of English cricket regularly plays golf with the dad of the player picked repeatedly, against declining returns, out of a nation of 55 million people, to open the batting in Tests. While no one would seriously suggest there is anything suspect about this, there might just be some kind of cause and effect here.

If the ECB is really serious about spreading the game perhaps Key should be sent off urgently around the country on a mission to play golf with the fathers of disadvantaged, socially excluded children everywhere. The MD out there playing golf with hundreds of urban fathers every week, using his power to create the next generation of England openers.

Some might object that this outreach scheme lacks any hard science. But of all the spread-the-game gimmicky around cricket at least this “pathway” – Rob Key playing golf with your dad – has actually achieved demonstrable results. When England have a top six made up of inner city golf-dad graduates, Key’s Kidlings, then we can talk.

This is of course not a serious suggestion. Key would have to play golf continuously just to process the numbers, or dumb down into mini-golf and speed-putting. But the Crawley golf-dad thing does have a serious point. It’s not favouritism. It’s not even coincidence. It exists because English cricket is a small, sealed world played and run by a shrinking pool of people from the same demographic. Solve that and you solve every problem from playing standards to revenue streams to panicky new formats.

Easier said than done of course. For now Key is fighting the day-to-day stuff. He said he wants to see first-class cricket in August alongside the Hundred, which is obvious good sense. He was pretty straight about the Hundred, and refreshingly unbrainwashed: “I know it’s a divisive thing but the Hundred is going to be something that secures the future of our game.”

Is it though? Maybe this is true. Nobody really knows. It’s a punt, based on marketing puffs and driven by a sense of having already missed the boat. But it still might work. Cricket is good. TV is good. This is a cricket-based thing on TV.

In the meantime it seemed fitting in these fast-forward times England should wrap up the win with some fine new ball bowling from Jimmy Anderson and Ollie Robinson, the most free range, grass fed of cricketers, products of club and county cricket, dishing up the enduring virtues of nibble and bite and swing.

An innings victory made for quietly persuasive Saturday entertainment, roared to its finish by the temporary stand, a vast ziggurat of lager, piss and lost weekends. It was also a fifth win out of six as captain for Ben Stokes, who clearly loved playing this game. Old Trafford loved watching it too. The good news for Test cricket, if any can be found in this fraught version of the present, is that it seems safe to say the MD will have loved it too.

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