Rob Key has backed England’s new red-ball regime to “unlock” the latent talent in their underperforming Test players after naming a first squad of the Brendon McCullum era complete with a combination of fresh faces and the familiar.
With much attention focused either on the recalled James Anderson and Stuart Broad or on the uncapped Matthew Potts and Harry Brook, perhaps the most intriguing innovation as England go into next month’s three-match series against New Zealand will see Ollie Pope come in at three, having never in a first-class career that now runs to 103 innings batted higher than No 4.
Pope averages 72.73 from 54 knocks for Surrey, mostly batting at four, but has averaged only 28.66 across 40 Test innings for England in which he has appeared only three times in his favoured position. However, England’s selection panel of McCullum, the new captain, Ben Stokes, and Key, the managing director of England men’s cricket, have concluded he has the makings of an ideal international No 3.
“We feel that Ollie Pope is the man,” Key said. “With a lot of these guys now, the bet is that with the talent they have, this environment, these coaches, can get the best out of our most talented cricketers – and Ollie Pope is one of those. If we can unlock him, which I think they can, there’s a seriously good Test cricketer there.”
England have won only one of their past 17 Test matches, but Key insists many misfiring players will flourish under the team’s new management. “There’s some seriously talented cricketers in this country,” he said. “We just need to unlock them and get them playing to the best of their ability. I’m betting on the fact that someone like Brendon McCullum, or Ben Stokes, and a clear vision for how we want to play is the way to do that.”
With Joe Root reverting to batting at four after a brief flirtation with No 3, Jonny Bairstow pencilled in at five and Stokes at six, as a middle-order batter Brook may struggle to convert his blistering start to this season’s County Championship into a place in the starting XI. But amid an injury crisis among English bowlers Potts, a teammate of Stokes at Durham, is more likely to get a chance.
“There’s a lot of people who can run in and get the ball down there at various different paces, but when you start seeing someone like that emerge, the way it looks like if you’re facing him you’re in a proper contest, these are the people I get really excited about,” Key said.
“Some good will come out of the injury problems that we’ve got at the moment, and it may be him. It’s definitely a concern and we need to look into why this is happening, but I like the look of this Matt Potts. They have all the data and all of that stuff over the last few years but that’s a reflection of history whereas this year, I’m pretty excited by what he offers. We see him as a point of difference.”
Key also promised an end to the policy of regularly resting Anderson and Broad, the team’s two senior bowlers, who have respectively played nine and six of England’s 14 Tests in the past 12 months and were completely left out of the squad that toured the West Indies in March. “I think we’ll try to get the most out of them that we possibly can,” he said. “If they’re part of the best bowling attack I’d rather have them in the side, trying to win games of cricket for England, than prolonging their careers when they can’t impact as much as possible. I think we’ll try to make the most of them while we’ve still got them.”
The issue of how to deal with ageing players is also one that will be faced by Matthew Mott, the Australian who was confirmed at England’s white-ball coach on Wednesday. At last year’s Twenty20 World Cup 13 of the 17 players used by England were above the age of 30 while their captain, Eoin Morgan, will be 40 when Mott’s four-year contract expires in 2026. Key is not hiding from the need to eventually transition beyond Morgan’s inspirational leadership.
“The process was about [finding] someone who wasn’t going to come in and disrupt that environment. They have a very strong leader in Eoin Morgan, but whenever there is a transition in leadership they are the right person to take it into the next era,” Key said. “That was the criteria we looked for and Matthew came out at the top of the list for that.”
Key argued that the fact the white-ball team will be secondary to the Test side at times – including next month when they play three one-day internationals in the Netherlands while the red-ball squad are focused on overcoming New Zealand – will force them to experiment with fresh personnel. “It’s not really about the 11 players, it’s about the philosophy and the way they play,” Key said. “It’s so clear in that side, and that’s what we want to get in Test cricket. It’s clear how they go about playing their cricket, and that has filtered right the way through the system into the T20 Blast and county cricket, so there’s a whole production line of batsmen in particular coming through. I think the coach has got to be smart to work out who to invest in for the future, and I think we’ve got the right person in Matthew Mott.”