Kent, as if to mirror the county’s very geography, are looking abroad in their efforts to progress this season.
An improving financial situation at the club has seen them announce a profit and successfully gain planning permission for housing development on the Old Dover Road side of the ground. Jamie Clifford has now loosened the purse strings and secured the services of two overseas players of the highest quality in Tom Latham and Kagiso Rabada.
Under the leadership of Sam Northeast, finally appointed captain on a permanent basis, Kent will look to blend their overseas additions with a home-grown core that is developing handsomely, albeit much more so in the shorter forms of the game.
As has been the case for several years, Jimmy Adams’ side flattered to deceive in the County Championship. They gathered the worst haul of batting points in Division Two and too often relied on one or two individuals delivering an exceptional performance – typically Northeast or Matt Coles.
It was a case of so near yet so far in the one-day competitions. The Spitfires flew under the radar, storming through the group stage in the Natwest T20 Blast to finish top of the pile. To then lose to Lancashire at the St Lawrence Ground in the quarter-final on fewer wickets lost was a bitter blow. A less convincing Royal London One-Day Cup group stage was followed by an equally painful defeat to Surrey, again in the quarters, on Duckworth-Lewis.
There is a real danger of this Kent side being pigeon-holed as a one-day only team, but that may be something they have to embrace given the balance of skills in their squad and the tightening of the promotion belt into the top flight.
Ins: Kagiso Rabada, Tom Latham (both overseas); Zak Crawley, Adam Rouse
Outs: Ryan Davies (Somerset), Ben Harmison (released)
If Kent harbour hopes of silverware, Matt Coles will need to build on a tremendous 2015.
Coles returned for his second spell at Kent and, appropriately for the St Lawrence Ground, pulled up trees in the process. He took 67 Championship wickets at 23 runs apiece and took over 100 in all formats, the first bowler to do so at the county since Martin Saggers in 2002.
As well as spearheading the attack with aplomb, the powerful all-rounder contributed with the bat and bludgeoned a superb maiden List A ton in the Royal London quarters, albeit in a losing cause.
The 25-year-old, sent home for his late-night binge-drinking sessions with Ben Stokes on the 2013 Lions tour (it didn’t hurt his career, did it!), managed to sprain his ankle stepping off a kerb on a charity bike ride over the winter. Coles has taken the winter off so, if he can overcome the injury to his back foot that affects the placing of his front foot, we should see him in prime position to make a flying start to the season with both bat and ball.
Player to Watch
This should be the season Daniel Bell-Drummond goes big.
The strident strokemaker and Millfield alumnus strode onto the scene with “the potential to play 100 Tests”, according to his former skipper Rob Key. The 22-year-old has acknowledged that, if he wants to make a start on proving Key right, he will need to concentrate on scoring runs for Kent – and he’s right.
Last season’s haul of 767 Championship runs at an average of 26 is a poor return on his talent and Bell-Drummond has stated he is mindful of the importance of reaching four figures for the first time in his career. He did prove his capabilities of changing games with the bat like few around him, with his 92-ball century against the Australians a clarion call to the selectors.
Many, in Kent and beyond are keeping an eye on the player, hoping this is the year we see Bell-Drummond prove his credentials as a future Test opener.
Kagiso Rabada is widely being hailed as one of the coups of the county season – and with good reason. He decimated England at Centurion, taking 13 wickets in just his sixth Test and ending the series as the top wicket taker. Marrying sheer pace – Rabada was disappointed to only be clocking 85mph in the Under-19 World Cup a few years ago – with nous and control, he will send many Division Two batsmen back crying for mercy and an ice pack in the affected area. If he can share some expertise during his stay in July with young Kent quicks such as Matt Hunn, all the better.
Tom Latham, a left-hander of finesse and force, will prove a real asset this summer. Available for the Spitfires in all formats, he has managed to prove himself from a young age in the longest and shortest forms of the game on the international stage. Opening up, the 23-year-old top scored with a wonderfully patient innings of 63 in trying to avert defeat in the Black Caps’ first Test against Australia.
In a batting line-up that failed to deliver many imposing first-innings totals in four-day cricket, the members are counting on Latham to stack up the runs.
How they’ll fare
Over the winter, Northeast has called on Kent to turn ‘talent into trophies’ and after 2015’s near-misses, the county see themselves as not a million miles from a first piece of silverware since 2007.
It would take a remarkable turnaround for this to come in the shape of the Division Two title. Given the fact that three of Kent’s four Championship wins last season came when fielding first, it will be intriguing to see how many times Northeast chooses to field first as the visiting captain, with the choice automatically available to him from this year. Darren Stevens remains a key contributor and will look to keep his numbers up despite this being his deserved benefit year while twirler Adam Riley will be an interesting one to keep an eye on given the manner in which his career has sadly stalled of late.
Expect a season of improvement under Jimmy Adams in four-day cricket and, with the international input of Latham and Rabada, is not far-fetched to say anything is possible for these sprightly Spitfires in the shorter forms.
v Worcestershire, Sunday 10th April at New Road
Specsavers County Championship Division 2: 7/1