It has been the year when Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum were brought together by Rob Key to transform England and, in the manner they did it, revolutionize Test cricket.
But little has been said about another hugely influential figure who has also played a significant part in one of English cricket’s greatest years.
Sir Andrew Strauss first started to notice and promote him at the ECB. Ed Smith thought the world of him. Now Key swears by him.
Mo Bobat has been a hugely influential figure at England as they revolutionize Test cricket
Meet Mo Bobat, the man at the heart of all the big decisions but someone who has remained in the background throughout tumultuous times that have seen high-profile leaders come and go.
Perhaps it is because he is a 39-year-old former PE teacher from Leicester who played club rather than professional cricket.
Or because he is reluctant to focus on himself and would rather get on with the work that sees him involved in just about everything connected with the team.
Not many beyond cricket’s inner sanctum would even recognize him. But the performance director of the ECB likes it that way. ‘I’m very comfortable talking about my work and the work our team do but less so talking about myself,’ Bobat tells Sportsmail in his first major interview.
‘I don’t deliberately try to stay out of the way but I like to just get my head down and try to make progress. I don’t like procrastinating and wasting time.
Brendon McCullum’s appointment as head coach has seen England win nine of their last 10 Tests
‘I like change and I like growth and progress. There’s no such thing as perfection but we are always trying to be better and I try to live by that. If we are going to do something let’s do it better than last time. I don’t like repeating mistakes. I try to keep my energy and focus on that.’
So what does Bobat do? He is effectively No 2 to managing director Key having risen through the ranks to become performance director in 2019 after first moving to the ECB in 2011.
That means helping select teams, like the one that made history with a 3-0 whitewash on their first Test series in Pakistan in 17 years, liaising with players and counties, playing a part in the recruitment of England’s coaches and organizing the Lions and Under 19s programmes.
Most recently he has overseen the development of Rehan Ahmed to the point where England were comfortable throwing him in for his Test debut in Karachi at 18 and he responded by becoming the youngest bowler in Test history to take a five-wicket haul.
Bobat is obsessive about his work. He needs to be as there is rarely a quiet moment.
‘You’re working at the sharp end of cricket. That’s a sport I love so it’s a real privilege to do the role, and every day is different,’ he says.
ECB managing director Rob Key swears by the 39-year-old backroom guru’s abilities
‘One day you might be working with the head coaches and Rob on selection and a senior tour, the next you might be doing something connected with science and medicine and the next you might be talking to counties, which is something I’ve done a lot of.
‘It comes with pros and cons because you can interfere and get involved in just about anything to do with performance but you can also get blamed for anything. The way I do the role now is different to how I did it under Ashley Giles and Straussy. You have to adapt to the strengths and experiences of all the guys. My No 1 duty now is supporting Rob.’ In doing that Bobat knows just about everything about every England player who has risen through the ranks during his time at the ECB.
He was the one who tracked and monitored the progress of Ahmed before recommending him for that first senior call-up in Pakistan. He will be central to what comes next for the leg-spinner while guiding him through the potential minefield of conflicts between international, county and franchise cricket.
‘We’ve got insight on the players from when they’re 14 or 15 all the way through to now,’ says Bobat.
‘So if Rob or Brendon ask me a question about, say, Saqib Mahmood, I’m holding quite a lot in my brain about him. Also we have loads of data, insight and history on him. You can provide a really rounded picture. I think Rob has been surprised and impressed about the amount of information we hold on players.’
Bobat monitored Rehan Ahmed’s progress and recommended him for his Test debut
It is the identification and nurturing of elite cricketers that particularly fascinates Bobat. ‘You get some talent that shouts and is easy to spot and some that whispers and is harder to notice,’ he says. ‘With someone like Sam Curran it wasn’t hard to spot. He had that ability to impact on games and wasn’t a difficult investment.
‘But talent that whispers is a bit trickier. Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope are good examples. They perhaps weren’t quite as obvious when they were younger but all of a sudden they had a big growth in their development. Every case is different. You can make predictions and have degrees of certainty but there are always some disappointments.
It’s hugely satisfying to be involved in their journey. You’re helping people realize their dreams and that’s the reason I first got into teaching and coaching. You get invested in them and want them all to do well but you do have to see the wood from the trees as well.’
Now Bobat has invested in a new selector, the role axed by Giles when he sacked Smith in the ill-fated move that gave all power to Chris Silverwood.
England secured a 3-0 whitewash over Pakistan for the first time in their history in December
Luke Wright will not hold the power of his predecessors and Bobat will continue to have a significant selective voice.
‘I do have a preference for having a selector,’ admits Bobat. ‘I worked really well with Ed and enjoyed it. I thought he was fantastic and learned a huge amount from him.
‘One of the things I like is brave decision-makers which is why I like working with Rob. Brave decision-making makes you feel alive and I’ve enjoyed that with both Ed and Rob.’
How does Bobat feel working with former England players? Might players or selectors feel less of him because of his lack of professional experience?
‘It’s not something I think about,’ he insists. ‘From the moment I started working at the ECB I’ve never spent any energy thinking, “Well I never did this so I can’t have an opinion on that”.
‘I do try to be curious about what it’s like for people who have been there and done it and understand their experience and learn from them.
Bobat claimed that he retains information on almost every player in preparation for Key’s questions
‘I won’t know what it’s like to go out and bat against Australia at the Gabba in the Ashes because I haven’t experienced that but I can empathize with it by listening.
‘I think of other things about my background, like state school education, south Asian heritage, and I understand that relatively I’m an anomaly. But I take pride in that because it shows there doesn’t have to be one route to get somewhere. It drives me on to be the best version of myself.
‘I’ve been ambitious for some time but when I was a child never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be involved in some of the things I am today. I feel very privileged which is why I think I’ve always approached my work in a positive, optimistic, can-do way.’
It is a philosophy that has taken him and England far in 2022 and shows no signs of slowing down.