If Robert Key had been able to trudge off the field after Sourav Ganguly declared India's innings closed at 628 for 8 he would have done so. But he is England's opening bat and he must walk purposefully towards the dressing room to put on his pads and compose himself.
Alec Stewart tried to comfort Key with a few avuncular words; Andy Flintoff walked across to put a comforting hand on Key's shoulder, Alex Tudor turned and slapped Key's hand. They were reassuring the lad because he needed it badly. He had dropped two catches in the 37 minutes in which India batted on yesterday morning.
The evening before Key, standing at first slip, dropped a catch that looked so easy that we had to swallow our disbelief. It was either a serious lapse of concentration or, put more generously, the thick edge off travelled so slowly off Ganguly's bat that Key misjudged the pace and reacted too soon. Whatever, Ganguly was on 79 when India were 493 for 8, and Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar began a display of pyrotechnics in the louring gloom, adding 91 runs in the next 11 overs.
In the sunshine yesterday morning Key dropped Parthiv Patel, who gave a straightfoward chance to second slip, and Harbhajan Singh, when he was fielding in the gully. It was hit hard to his left but he would normally have backed hinself to catch it.
The fact was that John Crawley and Matthew Hoggard also dropped catches during a hilarious first session in which India managed to lose four wickets for 44. But that would not have eased Key's grave embarrassment. "No one means to drop catches," Stewart had said on Friday night, but you certainly notice who does.
This was all a dreadful preparation for a second innings in Test cricket. Key is in the England team because Marcus Trescothick is injured. Key will make way for the splendour of Somerset at The Oval in 11 days' time if Trescothick's thumb has mended. But the Kent batsman is playing for a place on the Ashes tour of Australia. He has to demonstrate that he has the temperament of a Test cricketer. Trescothick and Michael Vaughan have shown how it is done, but many fine county players have failed to make the transition.
It was hard to know whether it was the measured response of a mature man or the desperation of someone who tries to bludgeon himself back into form, but Key hit the third and fourth balls of the first over from Zaheer Khan to the boundary. In the third over there was evidence that his luck might have turned when Zaheer had a convincing shout for lbw rejected by umpire David Orchard, who cultivates a beard. An inside edge flashed past the leg stump and went to fine leg. But Key's luck ran out when the spinners came on.
He played mainly by leaving the ball, and he is a good judge of line and length. He relied mostly on his back foot, but he never looked as convincing as Vaughan and suffered from the comparison. While Vaughan scores steadily off Anil Kumble, Key looked at a loss to know how to score at all.
He was vulnerable too to the noise from India's close fielders who shouted and jumped every time Key left a ball as if to suggest that he was a lucky beggar. It may well have prayed on his mind during lunch because when he came out he looked rather less confident. He had gone in on 24, and he reached 30 with a streaky edge through the slips off Khan. A few balls later Khan moved the ball across and away. Key moved forward and seemed almost casually to edge the ball to second slip. He had hit six fours, and lasted 76 balls and 87 minutes.
The pair had put on 67 for the first wicket, which is a perfectly decent start. They had also put on 50 at Trent Bridge, but the evidence for Key's recovery had proved flimsy.
Of course, he might make fools of us all by scoring a hundred in England's second innings but the judgement of the jury yesterday was that the temperament may prove to be lacking. So far the story is not a happy one.
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