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Rob Key: I see good times ahead for Kent

Saturday 12th September 2015

Men’s First Team

After nine seasons shouldering the burden of captaincy, Rob Key is enjoying an Indian summer with the bat.

The most prolific run-scorer at The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence, he spoke to Mark Pennell about his glittering career and few remaining ambitions in the game…

Though the names of his two children are tattooed onto his forearms as milestones in his life, cricketing landmarks remain pretty inconsequential for Rob Key. The undisputed batsman of a Kentish generation, Key has little to prove in the game and few aspirations to fulfil, or so you might think.

While he concedes that his 18-year innings in the Kent top-order is drawing to a close and his opportunities to bat out in the middle at his beloved Canterbury are becoming less frequent, Key would still like to go out with a flourish and some silverware.

Though it could have been mistaken for anger, there was an undoubted sparkle in the former England batsman’s eyes after narrowly missing out on his 25th first-class century at The Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence in June.

As he marched towards the dressing room following his fluent 87 against the Australians, the glint had been renewed. A warrior’s glint, because he had revelled in the battle.

“I guess I took a lot of heart from that knock,” conceded Key. “It reaffirmed that I can still pit myself against the best players in the world.

"Going into the match I joked that I hoped I could still see the ball when it was bowled to me at ‘international pace’ – it’s a lingering doubt as you get older as to whether your eyes or reactions might have gone.

"So, after playing half-decent against Mitchell Johnson at full pelt, it felt really reassuring. It made me think there’s a bit of time left in me yet.”

“County cricket is in an interesting place at the moment,” added Key. “And even Trevor Bayliss, the new England coach, has already realised that LV= County Championship wickets are nothing like English Test pitches.

“At the start of our careers, players like myself, Ed Smith, Dave Fulton and Matt Walker all struggled to average 30 and the likes of Trescothick and Vaughan were picked for England averaging less than 30.

"Good eras for batting appear to be cyclical and, right now, we’re back playing on sporty wickets again which makes it tough for everyone.

“I know there’s not much real pace bowling around these days, but it seems some counties compensate for that by producing result pitches.

"The two-tier Championship system hasn’t helped either, because some clubs are impatient when it comes to promotion.

"To my mind, that’s why you see so many promoted clubs coming straight back down again. They’re so desperate to go up they don’t see that their side isn’t ready to take the leap.

“I know we’ve not had a great season in terms of the championship, but I’m proud of how we’re going about things at Kent. We’ve got young batters showing sustained form and, for the first time in a long time, young bowlers coming through.”

Key added: “Colesy has led the attack superbly with 100 wickets and Matt Hunn has been outstanding; he took five against the Aussies and four against Essex on the flattest of decks at The Nevill Ground.

"Then you’ve got Ivan Thomas and Calum Haggett, both improving with every game. They’re the core of a bowling unit that might serve us for the next 10 years.

“I see good times ahead for Kent because I feel the patience we’ve shown will stand us in good stead, in that we’ll all move forward as a unit. We’re looking to create an era at Kent, not something that lasts for a year.”

Key is also delighted by the form and demeanour of his captaincy successor Sam Northeast. He said: “Sam has a good cricketing brain, a good feel for the game, and, in terms of batting across the formats, he’s having his best year.

"Sam has a good read of how cricket should be played and a feel for people. He’s not afraid to be honest and have the tough chats with players when he needs to. Not everyone is capable of that.”

While justifiably proud of his own batting record at Canterbury, Key remains typically forthright. “My records will be there for the taking one day and I would imagine that the likes of Northeast and Daniel Bell-Drummond, or other lads coming through, will go past me at some point.

“Records don’t mean too much to me. My only real disappointment in recent years is not racing past 50 hundreds for the club. I’d like, if I could, to nudge that up to 60 – I just like the number 60 for some reason!

“Sadly, I’ve already thrown away three ‘gimmee’ tons this season – against the Aussies, Surrey at Beckenham, and Essex at Tunbridge Wells.

"So I’d best sharpen up and cash in when we do play on good pitches. The amount of games I play has never really bothered me, but I’d certainly like to get to 20,000 career runs at some point.”

But, when it comes down to Key’s love affair with Canterbury, there is no doubting the desire still burns bright.

He added: “Walking out to bat here is an amazing feeling. A thrill I will always treasure. I remember my first championship hundred in 1998 against Durham, because Steve Harmison became a great mate, and I really enjoyed the one against Surrey in 2011.

"We were in the midst of our financial troubles and didn’t have much of a team, but I carried my bat and Stevo got a seven-for to help us knock them over.

“I used to remember every dismissal, even memorise how I’d got out. Now I prefer to recall batting with Dave Fulton all day against Shane Warne and scoring a hundred apiece.

"I used to love opening the batting with Tav. In an era when there were more pace bowlers around we were a great foil for each other.

“There’s nothing better than scoring runs at St Lawrence in front of what is always a decent crowd.

"Going back to the Australia game, that felt like one of the highlights of my county career batting against the tourists in front of a packed crowd. Domestic cricket doesn’t get any better than that for me.

“When I watch our home T20 games, I realise just how much support our fans give us and also how tough they make it for the opposition.

"They’re like our 12th man and it really makes me chuckle when it all goes quiet when the opposition take a wicket or hit a six.”

Chances are, then, those very same supporters will be applauding runs from the bat of Rob Key for a good while longer yet.