Rob Key was being groomed to take over the funny man role at Sky from David Lloyd when the England and Wales Cricket Board came a knocking and appointed him director of their international men’s teams.
But if the new Bumble isn’t to become the latest bungle, Key must sort through the chaos afflicting English cricket with a quick and sure hand.
When Key was appointed over the Easter weekend there was no Test captain (Joe Root resigned on Good Friday), no full-time coach and no chairman of the ECB. Nor is there a chief selector, though that role was dispensed with last year and may not be reprised.
That is some power vacuum and one Key must address soon with the international season starting in just over six weeks. He will probably start by appointing a captain, though strictly a coach (or two, judging from Key’s desire to split the red and white-ball roles) should be in place first if only to approve the on-field leader he will be working with. But then logic has rarely been an ECB trait.
Key was a captain himself of Kent and England A so he knows what is required. That said, he is not blessed with a perfect candidate. Ben Stokes is the obvious choice for Test captain, assuming it is always desirable for a leader to be worth their place in the side, yet England have rarely thrived when their champion player has been saddled with leadership – as proved by the tenures of fellow all-rounders Sir Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff.
Botham did not win a single one of his 12 Tests as England captain while his batting and bowling averages reversed themselves to the point where they could have been mistaken for one another (not a good thing).
Flintoff did win two of his 11 Tests in charge but lost seven. In that time, his batting average improved, though his bowling average got worse.
With England’s Test team so fragile at present it would be a risk for the form of Stokes to suffer similar shocks, though I’m not sure Key has much of a choice. Other candidates for the role have been proposed like Jos Buttler, James Vince, Sam Billings, Stuart Broad and Eoin Morgan, but only Broad has nailed down a consistent place in the Test team albeit not recently.
I liked Billings’ fight and energy in his one appearance during the Ashes horror show and he appears to captain Kent and Oval Invincibles with a light but sure touch, but it is scant evidence upon which to base his candidature.
Morgan has his advocates and a highly impressive track record as England’s white-ball captain, but has not played first-class cricket since 2019. Also, he is the kind of franchise freelancer Key should be looking to crack down on if England are serious about a red-ball reset.
Key is said to be an admirer of Buttler’s cricket brain but that would quickly become an irrelevance if the team struggled under his captaincy and he found himself short of runs.
At any rate, Buttler is Morgan’s natural successor as England’s white-ball captain and should really be saved for that when the time comes. That would seem to leave Broad as Stokes’ biggest rival were it not for the fast bowler being left at home, along with James Anderson, for England’s recent tour to the West Indies.
Both men were badly utilised during the Ashes and let their misgivings be known. Senior players having a whinge is nothing new but it does not betoken the selfless qualities needed by leaders. Which really only leaves Stokes, providing he wants the job, which I think he does despite the poor shape of the Test team he will inherit.
He’ll relish the challenge, or at least claim he does, but England lack nous and depth especially in their batting, so he could be in for some trying times if he gets it. It will help if England’s leading bowlers can all get fit again, but even they will need a proper score on the board to be truly effective, which rarely happens unless Stokes or Root make the running.
Whoever is appointed, and this goes for the coach as well, must be given until after the 2023 Ashes series to make their mark. Before that the road is likely be paved with deep potholes but out of adversity good, hardy, stock can be forged.
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