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.