Key's kingdom from garden to hallowed turf

A boy clutching an autograph book boarded the tube at St John's Wood station up the road from Lord's on Friday night. Spotting his excitement, an older passenger asked: "D'ya get Brian Lara?" "Yeah," said the boy. "And Robert Key, what about him?" "Yeah, oh yeah, Rob Key, yeah, I got Key all right." The anticipation in one voice and the pleasure in the other were evident.

A boy clutching an autograph book boarded the tube at St John's Wood station up the road from Lord's on Friday night. Spotting his excitement, an older passenger asked: "D'ya get Brian Lara?" "Yeah," said the boy. "And Robert Key, what about him?" "Yeah, oh yeah, Rob Key, yeah, I got Key all right." The anticipation in one voice and the pleasure in the other were evident.

Thus, in a swoop, was Key being bracketed with the greatest batsman of the age. Forty-eight hours earlier, the idea of Key being talked of in the next breath to the West Indies record-breaker would have been possible only if you were playing some obscure game, such as reeling off Test cricketers' names in reverse alphabetical order. Key himself would laugh wryly at the juxtaposition.

Partly through experience, partly through nature, Key has long since been a phlegmatic soul. He likes a laugh, is gentle, not easily excited, keenly aware of the slings and arrows lying in wait and always ready with a mordantly amusing line, maybe or maybe not based on truth.

In the diary of a season written by his Kent colleague Ed Smith and published last month, Key is spoken of with unabashed fondness for his sharp cynicism, not least by Smith's mum. He is one of those whom it is hard to dislike because they do not have envious bones in their body.

Smith wrote of the time last year when Key, "quite out of character", remembered to bring some DVDs he had promised, and later that day bought him a paper from the corner shop. Smith, surprised by the solicitousness, said: "Christ, Rob, steady on, not one favour in seven years and then two in one day." The reply: "Don't think it means I like you." The others laughed.

Key has always looked the part, light on his feet with soft, sure hands. That is why Kent gave him his debut at 18. He had stood out too - rather than being outstanding - because of his looks: a rosy-cheeked, round, friendly face above gently sloped shoulders and a torso that was and is never going to earn him a contract with a beachwear company, no matter what endorsement offers may come along now.

He was always gifted and it may be that the cricket genes were passed down through his mother, Lynn. She bowled for Kent women's team and when Robert was little, she bowled at him in the back garden. But Key's personality, reflected in his approach at the crease, stood in his way. From the start he took to professional cricket; from the start he invented apparently lazy ways to get out. You could look at him and think that it could not matter to him very much as he gave another medium-pacer cause for celebration.

He was in the England team that won the Under-19 World Cup in 1998, but in his early days as a county pro his extra-curricular activities probably left something to be desired as well. He looked tubby and it may have been because he was not scrupulous in his attention to the detail of preparation, fitness and weight.

Alec Stewart, whose approach to cricket could be said to be chalk to Key's cheese, buttonholed him at a PCA annual awards dinner four years ago. The gist of what he said was that it was time Key pulled himself together. Key went to Australia to play club cricket, his consistency improved, he was seriously talked of in international terms, he got picked for the National Academy, then by England.

Keysey fell in with Andrew Flintoff and Stephen Harmison on an England A tour early in 1999. On the surface you would not suppose they had much in common, the genial, bordering-on-daft Lancastrian, the diffident North-easterner, the sharp, undemonstrative Southerner. But the trio were tight from the start. They like each other and they like to have each other around. Key's mildly sardonic realism perhaps complements Flintoff's sunny disposition and Harmison's measured approach. But they all exude a certain tenderness of spirit.

There may be nothing in the fact that they have all overcome difficult starts to their international careers, there may be something. Flintoff and Harmison cracked it spectacularly, and Key, after eight irritatingly promising appearances, appears to be on the verge of joining them.

Now it may be that one double hundred does not a Test career make but since England's only double centurions in the past 15 years have been Graham Gooch, Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe and Marcus Trescothick, you would give the boy from Kent a fighting chance.

But the selectors seemed mad when they picked him for this year's one-day squad after six first-class centuries in 11 innings, and he twice got out in suspect fashion, gated. Now they would claim they were letting him get accustomed to the rhythms of the dressing room again, and they might be right. They might want his autograph.

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