Following the announcement of Rob Key’s retirement, All Out Cricket’s Ed Kemp explores how the Kent and England batsman has stolen all our hearts for good.
Few players who have played 21 times for their country can have enjoyed such universal adoration: the steady trudge towards cult hero status started early and has only gathered momentum as the years have gone on. And where Rob Key is concerned, once momentum is gathered, it stays gathered. But why so much time for Sir Bob of Beckenham?
Having come into the Kent team in 1998 – a team featuring a host of seasoned pros in Alan Wells, Mark Ealham, Matthew Fleming, Min Patel and Dean Headley – Key would get a taste of the old school, and has always seemed to carry a little of that sensibility – enjoying a drink and a smoke and generally remaining determined to laugh (or smile wryly) almost whatever happened. Known as one of the funniest men on the county circuit, Key became friends with Shane Warne while the two were opposing captains at Hampshire and Kent, united by a shared love of rain-break poker. Warne seemed to recognise in Key a fair-dinkum sort of a bloke who didn’t take it all too seriously.
Much like the Australian leggie, the ‘tubby’ tag would never desert Key. Even during periods where he’s been perfectly fit, he hasn’t looked it – those ruddy round cheeks telling a story his body can’t remember. All of which has only served to endear him to England fans further.
Those fans don’t easily forget a youngster who shows a bit of spunk against Australia’s world-beaters, and Key displayed flashes of his substantial talent on the 2002/03 tour down under. He was just 23 and, despite usually coming in at not-many for three, looked likely to be a part of things for many years to come.
But amongst various stints in and out of the team, his 221 against the West Indies at Lord’s in 2004 would remain the highlight – he was one of a startlingly low number of Englishmen to have cashed in so fully at Test level. Despite all this, he would be overtaken by Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen – and then Paul Collingwood – and then someone else in pursuit of a spot as a Test regular. The 2004/05 tour of South Africa was his last taste of Test cricket – meaning he just missed out on 2005 Ashes immortality.
He kept not-quite-relentlessly churning out runs for Kent – an ‘unfashionable’ county of which he remained as long-serving captain and club legend. He remained at the club even when increasingly scant resources denied him a serious chance of sustained silverware – hard-earned T20 successes apart – and stuck by them when bigger money moves were available for the latter part of what would now be a county career uninterrupted by international call-ups. There were screams for his recall at the end of the 2009 Ashes series, but the selectors went for Jonathan Trott and Key’s chance was gone again – this time forever. When asked for his biggest disappointment Key says, simply: “Not playing more for England.”
Popular, of a sometimes rounded physique, unfulfilled internationally and a one-club hero – Rob Key is cricket’s answer to Matthew Le Tissier.
And like Le Tiss, the man who responded to AOC’s question: “What piece of advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?” with the answer: “Smoking and drinking won’t help” will move into an established role in the Sky Sports firmament. It’s a future he’s been developing part-time for years, on the side of his playing commitments – dashing from batting out a drawn four-dayer at Canterbury to commentating on a Pro40 at Chelmsford. His charmingly dry – though never unkind – mocking of Charles Colvile from behind the microphone has done nothing to dent his popularity.
And after being Sky’s man on the ground in India during the 2016 World T20, a role to which he brought not only broadcasting competence and natural humour but also the insight of a man who’s played almost 100 professional 20-over matches – winning trophies in the process – he might well have secured himself a job for life.
And who will begrudge him? It doesn’t matter who you are: fan, player, umpire or TV producer… everyone loves Rob Key. And that’s exactly as it should be.
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