Rob Key sympathised with Ashley Giles when he spoke at Lord’s on Thursday, acknowledging the challenge his predecessor had faced with the global pandemic. The new director of England men’s cricket is starting a great repeal of his policies and coaching structure, however, with the ailing Test team given immediate priority.
After a single all-format coach under Giles, one lumped with selection in the final throes of the old regime, come two as-yet unnamed head coaches for Test and white-ball cricket; budgets permitting, separate coaching teams too. Key said the two chiefs will probably rarely cross paths and the search for a new national selector, a role described as “antiquated” by Giles after making Ed Smith redundant last year, is also under way.
Split head coaches should probably have come sooner but then Giles was burned back in the day, the junior white-ball partner to Andy Flower’s Test supremo from late 2012 to early 2014. Giles felt he got second dibs on resources, Flower power was ultimately at its greatest and, by the end, after England were whitewashed in the Ashes and flunked a World T20 in Bangladesh, both men at least agreed it hadn’t worked.
Key, however, is prepared to try again and looking ahead to next winter – a solid block of touring from September to March that features trips to Pakistan, South Africa, Bangladesh and the small matter of a T20 World Cup in Australia – his hand has practically been forced. Communication will be a paramount and Key will play King Solomon if there is a dispute over who gets what. It is clear the Test side will come first after last year’s well-intended but inflexible rotation shemozzle.
“We know that the T20 World Cup is there on the schedule,” said Key. “But at the moment the focus is solely getting this Test team up and running. That can go all the way through to the end of the South Africa series [in September] I think. There will be series in white-ball cricket [a short tour of the Netherlands in June, plus the visits of India and South Africa in July] where you have the mainstay of the squad but not the absolute best XI. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
“You have to make it clear to the coaches when they take this job. You might be the white-ball coach, but that does not mean having the luxury of the multi-format cricketers every single game. That’s not a bad thing because there is a chance we could sustain that set-up for longer by younger players coming in. We can still hit the World Cup all guns blazing.”
England’s national teams are starting to become increasingly separated. With Moeen Ali retired from Test cricket and Dawid Malan and Jos Buttler also out of the frame, it leaves Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood as the main multi-format players. Saqib Mahmood may also be coveted by both head coaches in time but Jofra Archer is unlikely to play Tests this summer, his return from elbow surgery due to start in limited-overs cricket.
Another reason for Key splitting the role is to broaden his options. The franchise T20 world offers highly paid roles with plenty of time at home and so to compete, the work-life balance for an England job must be similarly appealing. The Test role, he believes, should be hugely attractive regardless, despite five successive winless series for the first time in the team’s 145-year history.
“We all think it would be great to take on the white-ball team,” he said. “They won the World Cup and are one of the best teams in [Twenty20 cricket]. But actually the red-ball team, if you are a coach and your ambition is to improve players and teams, there’s no better [project] to take on than England.”
Interviews for the head coach roles will begin on 9 May and one of the first questions a panel of Key, Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss will ask Test candidates is how they intend to complement Stokes. Appointing the captain first, he said, provides clarity here and any coach worth their salt should adapt to meet the all-rounder’s needs, covering off any weaknesses and ensuring he is not overburdened.
Gary Kirsten, Graham Ford and Simon Katich appear to be vying for this role, while Key said Eoin Morgan, the limited-overs captain, will have a strong say in identifying the head coach from his experiences in the white-ball world. Unless Paul Collingwood is Morgan’s man here, it looks increasingly likely that both appointments will hail from overseas. “The majority of the names coming at you will be overseas coaches,” Key said. “[But] that can’t be right. That is a fault of the system. How many English coaches of the national side have we had in 30 years? Two or three? We have to sort that out.”
Giles said the same when he hired Chris Silverwood, describing the lack of domestic options – bar his chosen man, obviously – as a “sorry state of affairs”. Once Key is done overhauling his predecessor’s England set-up, he will need to address a subject on which they agree.