Whether they like it or not, a new era beckons for Kent in 2018.
For ten years Sam Northeast was a staple part of the Canterbury ranks but, having been replaced as captain and with his desperation for England honours increasing, the batsman decided pastures new were the next step on his cricket journey.
Given permission to speak to other clubs, as many as eight were interested and Hampshire were eventually the ones to get his signature down on paper. Three years after a first potential move, Northeast eventually went south west.
But for Kent that’s a switch they have to leave firmly in the past. Northeast’s runs were once again the lynchpin of their four-day season last year, averaging 50, but with the promotion push not forthcoming, maybe something new could be worthwhile after all.
Sam Billings is the man charged with that role across all three formats, once his commitments to the IPL are concluded. He is set to miss the first month of the season.
On his return, the focus will ultimately fall on the red-ball game, Kent looking to return to county cricket’s elite for the first time since 2010, an aim which looked well on the cards in the midst of last season.
Surviving 46 balls with the last-wicket against Durham maintained their unbeaten record right into June but one defeat to Worcestershire and six draws later, the chance of promotion disappeared out of sight.
One of the biggest victims of the top tier moving to eight teams, a push for the top will once again be a tough one for Kent even with Northeast’s departure aside, with Middlesex, Warwickshire, Sussex and Durham just some of the teams to contend with.
Their best chances of glory may therefore come in the shorter format, though an improvement on last year’s sixth-place finish in the Blast and bottom spot in the Royal London One-Day Cup is a must.
At face value they seem to have the squad to challenge. Aside from Billings, openers Joe Denly and Daniel Bell-Drummond have enjoyed productive winters, in the PSL and with the Lions respectively, with this pair leading the way in terms of runs scored in all three formats.
But it’s likely to be the bowling where questions arise, with Matt Coles heading across the bridge for Essex while a trio of others were released.
Darren Stevens is into the evergreen of the evergreen of his career while James Tredwell would also struggle to consider himself a spring chicken at 36. Their experience, however, will prove invaluable. The acquisition of 23-year-old seamer Harry Podmore, who joins after leaving Middlesex, could prove inspired.
Ins: Ollie Robinson (Youth), Heino Kuhn (Kolpak), Matt Henry (Derbyshire), Harry Podmore (Middlesex)
Outs: Adam Ball, Hugh Bernard, Charlie Hartley (all released), Matt Coles (Essex), Sam Northeast (Hampshire)
Touted as a player set for England honours through long parts of his career already, Daniel Bell-Drummond’s runs have constantly proved crucial for Kent in all three formats.
Nobody at the county scored more than the opener in the One-Day Cup, but this could be the season where he stamps his authority on the four-day game.
His 561 runs in 13 matches was vastly under par last season, averaging just 25, not the form required for a Kent promotion push or shot at the England berth at a time where top-order selections are far from locked in.
Player to Watch
At 33, Will Gidman is not someone who needs an introduction to the county cricket faithful but should another strong season come his way, Canterbury won’t be able to stop talking about him.
It’s not so long ago that Gidman was considered one of the best all-rounders in the country, his form for Gloucestershire with both bat and ball suggesting an England call could come his way.
But a move to Nottinghamshire saw him go backwards, battling it out in the second XI before Kent put in an offer for his services, first on loan and then permanently with Division Two seemingly his forte.
Should he hit the dizzy heights of five years ago then Gidman can be a serious thorn for any side in the division, while the captain’s armband could come his way during Billings’ IPL absence.
Matt Henry (New Zealand), Adam Milne (New Zealand), Marcus Stoinis (Australia)
How they’ll fare
A Northeast-sized hole would be a detriment to any team, making Kent’s first step this season one to fill his shoes.
Should they overcome that then a challenge in the four-day game is not beyond the realms of possibility, so long as they can put a whole season together having tailed off last time out.
Looking through the squad list suggests plenty of talent and a spine for all three formats but they’ll need the rest of the XI to step up regularly if honours are to come their way.
SSCC v Gloucestershire, Friday April 13th at Canterbury
SS County Championship Division 2: 7/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 16/1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 16/1