Good Luck, Ben. You’re Going To Need It.

So England have got their new MD and captain. They’re Rob Key and Ben Stokes. Were they ideal candidates? Nope. But are they upgrades on Ashley Giles and Joe Root? Possibly.

First let’s talk about Key. As mentioned before, Key was the perfect appointment for the ECB from a political perspective. He’s pro-Sky (enormous tick), pro-Hundred (gigantic tick), he’ll be seen as quite a fresh and progressive choice (significant tick), and he’s most definitely Mr Affable (essential tick). I mean, how can anyone possibly hate Rob Key?

England’s new MD is basically the friendly bloke in the pub that everyone chats to occasionally and quite likes because he’s so utterly inoffensive. He’s Ashley Giles on steroids. The ECB adore middle-of-the-roaders who are good team men and won’t rattle cages or rock too many boats. That’s Rob in a nutshell. In fact, if you hate Rob Key then you’re probably just angry at the world in general and ought to see a councillor.

Despite this, however, a lot of people have criticised Key’s appointment because he has no previous experience in a similar role. Is this really a problem? I don’t know to be honest. I mean, what does the MD actually do? The job seems to involve talking a lot behind closed doors, occasionally talking in public, and then making the occasion decision – like whether to ban people like Alex Hales or Joe Clarke when they disgrace themselves. Therefore, I’m not sure what ‘experience’ was really relevant in this unique role.

Key’s other big job, of course, will be to lead the review into the domestic structure. But I see this as a done deal already. The ECB simply wouldn’t have appointed Rob if he was going to tear up The Hundred, abandon Sky, or say something heretical like “they’ll abolish smaller counties over my dead body”.

I hate to break it to you, but when the review into English cricket’s domestic structure is ‘completed’, it’s going to recommend reducing the number of first class games and entrenching The Hundred as THE most important event in the calendar with its prime spot in August consolidated. There will surely be some window dressing to pretend, or make a token effort, to improve the first class game but the direction of travel has been set for a long time and the new MD was never going to change that. Key’s appointment, therefore, is pretty much irrelevant.

On the positive side, however, I do believe that Key’s heart is in the right place. I severely doubt that he’ll turn out to be a mendacious sod, which would make a nice change, and I also think that he’ll care about player welfare more than most. Whether he’ll actually be able to do anything significant, however, is another matter entirely. I predict that he’ll make a lot of positive noises about welfare but find that the domestic structure, and the ECB’s desire to flog its players in all formats around the world, will prevent any meaningful action… which brings us conveniently onto Ben Stokes.

Would I have appointed Stokes as skipper. No. I worry about him too much. His physical health is often up in the air, his mental health isn’t always stellar, and his workload is already sky high. He’s also proved to be something of a loose canon off the field, although I’m sure he’s matured, learned a lot, and won’t place himself in so many potentially harmful situations in the future.

At least Stokes has the necessary cricketing credentials for the role, however. He’s respected across the world as an inspirational player and he should command respect in the dressing room. That’s why it was always going to be hard to appoint the likes of Burns or Billings. It’s hard to look up to a captain when he’s arguably not in the strongest XI.

The problem Ben will have, though, is that the England Test team is, to be frank, a bit crap. Actually, it’s incredibly crap. We have one Test standard batsman in Root, Stokes himself, and then a couple of ageing world class seam bowlers that the administrators seem keen to move on from – if only because it enables them to talk vacuously about ‘new eras’ and ‘resets’. I’m glad, therefore, that Stokes had already indicated that he’d like Anderson and Broad to return.

Broad, incidentally, would have been my choice for the role (although I wouldn’t exactly have been enthused by this appointment either). I’d have appointed Broad on a series by series basis simply because he was, in my opinion, the least worst option out there.

Rob Key, however, is obviously a little more optimistic than me about Stokes’s ability to handle the extra physical / mental burdens and stay fit, healthy, and available. Let’s hope that he’s right and I’m wrong. Either way, though, I doubt that the new skipper will be able to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. Ben Stokes is pretty good but he’s not a magician. I suggest we set our expectations lows.   

James Morgan

15 comments

    • Thanks James. Just to let you all know I did the swim end of March, 2 miles, but as you’ll be aware, this is very much an on going desperate issue so any contributes are most welcome.I
      Doug M.

  • I don’t really know why the idea of appointing the captain on a series-by-series basis is now ignored. It was ok in the past. I dislike the whole coronation thing that goes on nowadays.

    Mind you, “in the past”, Stokes’ history (the fisticuffs shenanigans) would have had him branded forever as a thug totally unsuited to the England captaincy. Think barmaids in a hotel room and see where that bar has moved.

  • A great post as usual James. You tackle serious issues with wisdom, but through it all, you have a turn of phrase that brings on a huge smile.

    You have Rob Key in a nutshell. As you say, he’s a likeable enough fella, so I will not be off for counselling even though I cannot support him in most of his views and plans. The hundred? Yuk.

    I share your worry about Ben Stokes. I would also have gone for Broad as a stop gap. Much as I respect Broad’s cricketing nous, it’s not an ideal situation, but I would have spared Stokes until we have a more settled team. He does a fine job as vice captain, great in the field and standing in as captain, when necessary.

    The bottom line is, that all we can do is to send Stokes our best wishes and the best of luck, as he tries to handle our -um – less than good team.

  • Cricinfo did a good job digging out Key’s book – there wasn’t much in it that gives cause for optimism from the CC viewpoint. Just because he played for a non-test ground county and didn’t win many test caps as a player doesn’t mean he’s a friend to the CC – he wouldn’t have worked for Sky or got the ECB job if he was.

    One concern is that he’ll view everything through the prism of his England experience. The appointment of Stokes seems connected to Key’s chumminess with Flintoff (who Key thinks was an unlucky captain – maybe he was but he still wouldn’t have been a good captain). I’m not against all-rounders as captains as an idea in itself – Imran was one of the greatest I’ve seen and there have been other good ones (Benaud, Illingworth, Greig to name three). In theory, having some understanding of both the batsman and bowler viewpoints should be an advantage (Root never seemed to understand bowlers). However the burden a fully fit and grounded all-rounder captain would have to carry under the ECB regime would be too much – and I’m not convinced Stokes is either of them.

    It’s crucial the coach they select covers the areas where Stokes is lacking. Flintoff and Fletcher didn’t work at all as a combination. However I fear the coach will be whoever the ECB can get and afford. I also wonder if they’ll smuggle Buttler back into the team on the back of his IPL performances and Foakes rather underwhelming in WI – and if he becomes v-c might he not be in the main job quite quickly when Stokes is unfit?

    For me, the most important thing is this review of the game going on under Strauss. Some of their likely proposals have, er, found their way into the public domain (i.e. been leaked to see how much opposition they provoke). A further cut in the number of f/c games looks highly probable. Imo this is the really big item the ECB want followed by fewer teams.

  • Not sure about this one. A bit like Root, who else is there. Would have gone for Broad initially, even if this is short term. Failing that Burns, an experienced county captain who is still probably our best bet as opener. Billings would have meant wicket keeper captain, never a great fan of that. Hopefully Buttler won’t be selected as vice captain so Foakes is excluded again.

  • Agree with you on both appointments- the lack of obvious alternatives on both counts being a big factor. I would also have gone for Broad, but hell will freeze over before the ECB appoint a specialist bowler as Test captain. Just got to hope they manage Stokes’ workload properly – and resting him from white ball cricket would help. It’s certainly helped prolong Anderson and Broad’s Test careers.

    • If I’m honest, I don’t particularly like the idea of Stokes as captain.

      You should never appoint a bowler as test captain. Look at Pat Cummins for Australia. Oh. A lot of people argue that Shane Warne was the best captain Australia never had (his success leading the Rajasthan Royals to the IPL title does nothing to detract from this view).

      I suspect one of the issues with appointing Stuart Broad is putting him in charge of reviews!

      And it’s probably fair to say that neither Flintoff or Botham were a great success as captain, which isn’t a great precedent.

  • I can understand people’s reluctance to give Ben Stokes the England captaincy citing work load and past behaviour but Broad would have been a disaster.
    Imagine England are bowling on the first morning of a Test and by 11.30 am, they would have used up all their reviews. Also, I don’t think Broad is guaranteed a starting place these days. They seem to rotate him with Jimmy.

  • Bloody hell James,

    I follow other sports and speaking as a Liverpool FC fan and a former Saracen player the comments about setting expectations low and then probably failing to achieve them sums up the Noughties. There are some bright cricket brains here and Ben only has three problems to deal with. (No not bowling batting and fielding) Those 3 problems are who bats 1, 2 and 3. Looking back bno further than 2000 (because we cant compare Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Hutton) but just imagine the current test side had Cook (45+) Stauss (40+) and Trott (44+) then if they just got their averages we would be 129-3 when the 3rd wicket went down. you finish off the innings with Root,Stokes, Bairstow a spinner (say Moeen) 4 quicks Archer, Wood, Broad, Anderson it is not all doom and gloom. Sod doing press ups and clapping your hands till they hurt. Spend the time finding 3 blokes that can get you to 130-3 on average and watch us fly back up the rankings. As usual any reader might say ok who b ats 1,2 and now. My personal choices right now would be Burns Crawley and Pope but then I am not being paid the big bucks and I won’t lose my job if we get hammered again but every name mentioned in this message was or is a full time professional cricketer. Just my personal view. Win or lose support England.

  • The best example of a losing team turning around that I can think of was Australia under Allan Border.

    It’s easy to forget how desperately bad Australia were from 1984 (after Chappell-Lillee-Marsh retired) to 1987. How did they turn it around?
    1) They discovered a new generation of player e.g. Dean Jones, Steve Waugh, Merv Hughes. Players like Boon and McDermott who’d been tried earlier suddenly matured. Some players who’d been banned because the SA rebel tour came back (especially Alderman for the 1989 Ashes). Solid grass roots and a bit of good fortune underpin everything.
    2) Border carried the team with his personal performance and he set an example that you fought to the bitter end, no matter how hopeless the cause. Someone who batted seven hours with a broken finger or made the match double against peak Marshall and Garner that Border did in ’84/85 at Port-of-Spain was asking anything he wouldn’t do himself. He was also helped that, however bad things got, there was no remotely credible alternative. Finally, despite appearing inflexible Border did respond to valid criticism – the chumminess of the 1985 Ashes was dropped.
    3) Border’s weakness was that he wasn’t imaginative with on-field tactics. Australia therefore covered that with Bob Simpson’s appointment as coach. It was Simpson who came up with the first “funky” field – the silly mid-on that befuddled Gooch in the 1989 Ashes.

  • I must admit I thought there was a real possibility that we would go into the first Test against New Zealand captained by our number three batsman, Vince !

  • commenting as a long term and passionate Australian supporter, I think there is a good chance that the Stokes appointment will work well. One problem the England team had in Australia was a lack of individual confidence and clear direction; Pope, Buttler, the openers did not look as if they backed themselves consistently to attack, and there was a lot of confused selections with the pace attack. England did not have the personal to be a superb team (no 2005), but in terms of actual talent they were not hopeless. I think Stokes will have a clear direction, and it will be aggression (esp, with the new coach) and he is such an inspirational player that there is a decent chance that the other batters will feel they have a right to be on the park. The workload issue is serious, but Broad is probably not physically capable of playing every game, and the captain has to be clearly worth his place, esp. in a context in which he needs to lead from the front.

  • Hello James,

    I really don’t about England Team
    But I like Ben Stokes. His Batting and bowling skills were really awesome in Test,ODI and even IPL also.
    But at same time burden was fully fit and grounded all-rounder captain would have to carry under ECB regime would be too much – and I’m not convinced Stokes is either of them.
    It was the best team Ever in Test Cricket Matches.
    I suggest Ben Stokes Will take Vice Captain for England.
    From a Player point of view he was a really phenomenal player.
    At the same time when he handled the team it was too tough to manage and damn sure it will become a waste.
    Let’s see for upcoming matches.

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