Rob Key was always one of the most popular players on the county circuit – now that he’s retired and moved up to the commentary box he’s only winning more fans. Jo Harman spoke to the former Kent man.
Retirement can be a daunting prospect for a cricketer. With your career finished by your mid-30s – and that’s if you’re lucky – not only is there the concern of how to pay the bills and where to find gainful employment, there’s also the wrench of leaving behind the dressing room and, for many, a loss of identity.
Andrew Flintoff, who was forced to retire from Test and first-class cricket at the age of 31 due to injury, spoke candidly on the subject on his BBC Radio 5 live podcast. “Cricket, it gave me a life, it gave me an identity,” said the former England allrounder, “and when it was taken away it took everything. It was like: ‘Who am I? What do I do with myself? What am I doing? You’d be on a plane, you’d be filling in your form, and it’d be saying: ‘Occupation’. I don’t know. I was a cricketer, but what am I now? I hated it. I couldn’t watch the game. I didn’t want to be around it. I couldn’t see other people doing it because I felt I should be playing. Mentally it took its toll on me.”
Rob Key, who joined the Sky Sports commentary team after calling time on his 18-year playing career last April, has found the transition much smoother. “I haven’t missed it at all actually,” the former Kent captain says cheerily. “In fact I wonder how I did it for so long! I’ve been very, very lucky that I’ve been able to go and work for Sky and at the minute it seems a better job than playing. It’s like cricket without the fielding! You get to watch cricket and you get that dressing room environment at Sky anyway.
“When I finished playing I’d had enough. I was done by the end. I was aware that retirement was coming so I thought I could either drag this out or just take the plunge. I thought it was probably fairer to myself and Kent that I make a clean break.”
We’re talking in the café at the Lord’s indoor school. Key is here testing bats for the AOC Gear Test. It’s the first time he’s picked up a bat since retiring – “Well, I batted once in a charity match but I got a duck so that doesn’t count” – and while he throws himself into it, you get the impression he’d happily never do so again. Alongside his commentary, he’s found a new love. “Golf has completely taken over that side of my brain. I used to love working on my batting, even at the end I would spend the winter trying to work out how to become a better player, but now I’ve swapped that for golf, which I think is why I haven’t thought about batting.”
He admits the golf’s not going so well at the minute but in the commentary box he’s rapidly making a name for himself as one of the shrewdest and most listenable voices around. As a recent retiree he offers insight into the modern game and a depth of knowledge of county cricket that is sometimes lacking from some of the more established crowd, while his laidback yet straight-talking approach makes him a natural fit.
“He’s done fabulously,” says David Lloyd, a commentator Key describes as “one of the very best”. “I would say that Rob has served his apprenticeship. He was quite savvy while he was playing, he was coming in and doing a bit and learning the business, and that’s so important. He’s one of those – Mark Butcher is the same – that’s an absolute natural. It comes very easy to him. He’s just being himself. He’s honest, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he’s very well connected.”
“What you see is what you get with Bob,” says Steve Harmison, a close friend and former England teammate. “He only enjoyed batting – he hated every other part of cricket. He hated fielding! As somebody who’s had two mental health issues over the course of my career, he became a very good friend to me. We spent a lot of time together on tours. Everything is a contest with Keysy – whether it’s eating or just walking down the street, there has to be an element of competition. I remember during that first trip to Australia [for the 2002/03 Ashes tour] we’d be in the nets having throwdowns, eager to impress, trying to practise, but he’s got to have a contest at the end of it. Like it’s the World Cup final!
“It’s great to see him doing his stuff on Sky because I think he’s fantastic. That new breed of Sky commentators, the more youthful ones that have recently come out of the game, are excellent, and I think Keysy is one of the best. He’s always had the punchy wit and the good one-liners. No one takes Keysy on when he gets going! You can get made to look a bit of a fool.”
Key first worked for Sky during their Under 19 World Cup coverage in the early Noughties. “I ended up doing a lot of pundit stuff during the winters and I loved it,” he says. “It was a chance to talk about cricket, put your views across and argue about who’s right and wrong, which I love doing anyway. I love a debate. Normally the people who do the commentary are England cricketers and some of the greatest cricketers that have ever played, and I wasn’t one of them, so I’ve been very fortunate.
“Nasser, Athers, Bumble… they’re probably the best in the business and you just can’t help but learn through watching them. It’s another career and you’ve got to put the same effort in that you did as a batsman. I’m very aware that you start quite poor and you’ve got to get better at it. That’s exactly where I’m at. But how good is it in life to be able to try and improve at something? To have something meaningful that you have to get better at? It’s as much fun as I’ve had in my life, including being a player.”
Key’s talent and run-scoring for Kent warranted more than 15 Test caps, five ODI appearances and a solitary T20I outing, when he was oddly selected to bat at No.6 in the infamous defeat to the Netherlands at the 2009 World T20. Despite only being given fleeting opportunities, he had his moments in England whites. He made a good impression on the 2002/03 Ashes tour without having a big score to show for it, scored a double century at Lord’s and a match-winning unbeaten 93 at Old Trafford in the 2004 home series against West Indies, and hit 83 in the famous victory at Johannesburg in 2005 against a formidable pace attack. He was dropped two matches later and never played Test cricket again.
During the 2002/03 Ashes, Key’s first senior tour with England, Steve Waugh said of him: “He doesn’t give a shit about much and is real relaxed. I like that in a bloke; it stops him getting overawed.” While those characteristics may have appealed to Waugh, they weren’t necessarily Duncan Fletcher’s cup of tea.
“I don’t know how to say this without having a go at the establishment,” says Harmison, “but I thought Keysy was unlucky. He was brilliant against the best in the world. At Perth [in 2002], Brett Lee was bowling nearly 100mph and he was playing him very comfortably, as comfortably as anyone could play him. And then Damien Martyn got him out just before lunch. Steve Waugh got him in that series, too. He got a couple of low scores against Zimbabwe and then got pushed to one side a little bit. For me he should have played a lot more Test matches but I don’t think it was always his fault.
“Duncan Fletcher made some pretty good cricketers in his time but he cast aside four or five other good ones. Chris Read, James Foster, and Swanny spring to mind, and Keysy is in that bracket. Maybe the face didn’t fit, maybe it was a personality thing, but the fact he was mates with me and Freddie [Andrew Flintoff] was possibly an issue. Maybe guilt by association, being close to certain elements in the dressing room who couldn’t be removed, went against him. At that time if your face didn’t fit then you didn’t get a game. Look at Swanny, he never played until that management regime had gone.”
“I thought he were a bloody good player, Key,” says Lloyd. “He looked like a brave player, a savvy player. He would perhaps not like fielding and I guess he wasn’t that keen on the fitness side of things. It would be a little cross against him but I would always say, ‘Can he play?’. And Key could play.”
Unsurprisingly, Key’s fairly sanguine about it all. “I don’t have any regrets, really,” he says. “I mean, I wish I would have played more for England and been a 100-Test cricketer, but maybe that just wasn’t to be. There’s not much I would change. As a captain there were some players you just didn’t rate, they just don’t do it for you, and maybe that happened with me and various coaches. I had opportunities and I just didn’t score enough runs for whatever reason. I would have loved to be a standout cricketer for England for years and years but I don’t know how I’d have done it differently. I could have maybe been a bit fitter but I always worked hard on my fitness. I never looked that fit but I never once didn’t do well in a fitness test. It was just my cross to bear.
“A lot of the friendships I’ve got through cricket have been because of the way that I was as a person. Now that I’ve retired, I wouldn’t trade them for 10 or 20 extra Tests. If I had been a bit more selfish, perhaps I wouldn’t be having as good a time as I am now. As I sit here now, I’m very, very happy to be in the position that I am. I wouldn’t want to have done anything to jeopardise that.”
Key was a dedicated servant to Kent during 18 years on the first-team staff, perhaps to his own detriment at times. After scoring 3,452 first-class runs at an average of 69 across the 2004 and 2005 campaigns, he became captain the following season and held on to it until the end of the 2012, steering the club through choppy financial waters and helping to bring through a crop of youngsters as the wage bill was slashed and senior players on big contracts were moved on.
His four-day form never quite reached the same heights after taking on the captaincy and it is notable that when he passed on the responsibility to James Tredwell for the 2013 season he scored five centuries, his best tally since 2007. When he became skipper again in 2014 his average dropped to 21.57, his lowest in 14 years, and he eventually dropped himself the following season. Key returned later in the campaign in a non-captaincy role and finished his career with scores of 113, 94 and 158.
“We went through a good period when I started the captaincy and then we went through financial struggles and that takes a hell of a lot out of a captain. It did with me, really. It wasn’t just picking the team, it was trying to work out how we could get a certain player in, how we could get value for money in everything we did, whether it was coach travel or car, how you’re going to make sure the young players have a decent programme in the winter… every single thing. That took the joy away a bit and I didn’t perform as well. I think I wasted some of my own performances by being captain so long. It became a real grind.”
That’s not to say he has lost any of his passion for county cricket, and he says he can look at it with fresh eyes since retirement. It’s led to a rethink on the benefits of a new city-based T20 tournament, slated to begin in 2020. “It’s probably something I think more about now because when you’re at a county like Kent you’re assuming that you’re not going to be one of the counties used in a city-based league. But now I can look at it more objectively because I do the games on Sky and can see every side of the argument. I’m of the conclusion that city-based T20 cricket would be a good thing. I just think if there’s a chance you can bring cricket back into the public’s consciousness, particularly county cricket, then we need to try. T20 for me has always been about dragging people to play the sport and making them fall in love with cricket. Then you can maybe try them out on 50-over or Test cricket.
“I’ve no idea whether it would work here. There’s a hell of a lot of competition and there are so many good things on TV as well. You’ve got to compete with Game of Thrones. It’s not easy! But ultimately I think why not just give it a go. When you walk out at the Oval in a T20 game you think, ‘This is what I thought professional sport was all about’. Big crowds, great atmosphere, lots of pressure, high drama. I very rarely played in front of a big crowd in a big game and then I ended up playing for England and it’s a completely different world. If you can recreate that, then everyone’s going to benefit.”
Key’s most recent assignment with Sky was England’s ODI tour of the Caribbean, the next stepping-stone on his way to breaking into their ‘Test team’. He’s understandably cagey about his chances of a promotion – “I’d love to do everything really, but that’s for others to decide” – but his colleague David Lloyd reckons it’s only a matter of time. For all their excellent coverage, a fresh voice would be a welcome addition.
The smart money is on a considerably longer Test career in the commentary box than Key was afforded as a player. The laidback style and dry wit, which perhaps counted against him in his playing days in terms of England recognition, has made his transition to the commentary box a seamless one. A Test call-up surely beckons. And this time he won’t have to do any fielding.