Today Marco previews Kent’s season. Can they avoid relegation whilst making the same excellent progress in white ball competitions?
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“There was all of summer in a stroke from Woolley,” it says on a sign on the back of the stand that bears his name and is currently closed for repair (I long for its reopening, for a summer does not really begin until one has watched Kent from the upper tier of the Woolley Stand), “and he batted as is sometimes shown in dreams”.
It is a well-recited quote from RC Robertson-Glasgow, and I saw it often last year, as Kent came to fill the summer across all formats, scything their way through the second division to finish behind only Warwickshire, whilst reaching the One Day Cup Final and a T20 Blast Quarter Final en route.
Furthermore, their season was as if a dream sometimes; witness Joe Denly’s astonishing hat-trick and century at Surrey, which we watched on our television, casting the live feed from Twitter, cheering as the pixelated shapes that represented the Kent players disappeared from shot. Remember the tension of that semi-final of the One Day Cup at Worcester. The spell of bowling as the sun went down in the championship game against Middlesex at Canterbury. Such joy they gave last year, such heroes all.
Yet it was a much changed Kent side that took to the field for their first County Championship game at Taunton than the one I caught a glimpse of in their friendly against Loughborough MCCU at Canterbury the week before, though that bitterly cold day offered a few pointers about what might be expected in the weeks to come.
Sean Dickson never looks particularly fluent, but he amassed the runs as well as ever, and will be looking to better his figures from last year (710 runs @ 28.40) this time around. Daniel Bell-Drummond’s questionable form with the bat (436 runs @ 19.81) meant he eventually moved away from the opening slot, though it remains to be seen if Zak Crawley (755 @ 31.45) is the answer, or more likely newcomer Matthew Renshaw steps in – his 513 runs for Somerset came at 51.30, and that sort of performance for Kent would take the pressure off the other batsmen, of whom there are plenty – none of Joe Denly, Sam Billings, Heino Kuhn or Renshaw took part in the University game; together they accounted for nearly 2,500 runs between them last season.
Bell-Drummond is capable of an innings that can enrapture all-comers and while he sparkled only briefly last year, each time was worth it. The first home game I remember watching him score 61. I was in the upper tier of the Woolley Stand, and we were heading towards lunch, maybe five minutes or so. When Bell-Drummond lost his wicket, I applauded him from the field and went to avail myself of the facilities. I was struck by the amount of people doing the same thing, who had clearly been too taken with his innings to realise the call of nature, but on its culmination, found they could not wait the five minutes until the interval.
The first three names on the list of absentees from the Loughborough match represent a triumvirate of captains in the Kent side; Denly led the team before Billings returned to it last season, and although the England man’s testimonial season is now in progress, Heino Kuhn has been given the responsibility before their return. Daniel Bell-Drummond, for what it is worth, led the team against Loughborough, though I’m not sure how much captaincy was involved in that game.
More problematic may well be the taking of 20 wickets. They achieved that feat in 10 of their 14 games last season, but the main threat was Matt Henry. The New Zealander claimed 75 wickets at a almost pre-war clip of 15.48 but will not return to face Division One batting.
His supporting cast will have to step up to the plate this time around as Kent have added only Matt Milnes of Nottinghamshire and Fred Klaassen, the Dutchman who played a few games for Kent’s Second XI last season, to the attack.
Milnes claimed just 11 wickets last year in Division One, albeit not as a start at Trent Bridge, while Klaassen is something of a wild card, though his varied playing history does include the wickets of Joe Denly and Daniel Bell-Drummond along the way, both in a T20 between Kent and the Netherlands at Canterbury last season.
If Klaassen is an unknown quantity, he will certainly be playing amongst some well-known stability. Harry Podmore has not set the world alight yet, but will put in the hard yards, and can carry his bat as well. The same is true of a lot of Kent’s bit part players. Grant Stewart was bowling round corners in the day/night game against Middlesex at Canterbury last season, before knocking 103 himself in one of the more unlikely century partnerships you’ll see for a 10th wicket. Ivan Thomas got 1 not out.
More reliable still is the metronomic Darren Stevens – his bowling now superseding his batting; every year his decline is predicted, and every year, his relentless line and length, his subtle variation, and his unwillingness to waver from his plan have seen his bowling become a more and more potent weapon. First Division batsmen are largely fresh meat, too, largely unlulled into their false sense of security yet.
In the County Championship, then, there is room for considerable optimism – more so perhaps because of there being only one spot for a relegated side. Kent have plenty enough in the locker room to be able to avoid the foot of the table and ensure they are in the top division when it expands next season.
There must be optimism for the T20 Blast campaign to come, too. While Marcus Stoinis was a fine addition to the squad last year, and hit one towering six over the Woolley Stand, Mohammad Nabi is a different prospect entirely. His reputation for destructive batting precedes him, and his form in the Blast has been well-documented. He can even perform well against Lancashire, which Kent have struggled with too often in the past, and again at the St Lawrence Ground last season.
White ball cricket will also bring players such as Imran Qayyum, with his strange-kicking spin, and Alex Blake (though Blake is moving into the red ball team as well) to the fore. Both performed admirably in last season’s run to Lord’s and although neither are household names, are more than able to contribute to another campaign. Blake’s home ground of Beckenham will be used for some 50 over games again and he makes the boundaries there look very, very short when he gets going.
The season may not have begun as planned, with Kent losing after manoeuvring themselves into a good position at Somerset but they will not be the last team undone on the last day at Taunton. Better things will come, I’m sure.