If newly promoted Kent’s main objective for 2019 was to avoid immediate relegation back to Division Two of the Specsavers County Championship, they achieved this with ease. They finished fourth, only four points behind third placed Hampshire.
Kent won five and lost five of their 14 Championship matches, an early season win against fellow top flight newbies Warwickshire settling any relegation nerves. They beat Nottinghamshire twice, as well as Surrey, before pulling off a stunning late season win over Yorkshire by a record margin of 433 runs.
Kent’s lowest point was being bowled out for 59 when losing to Somerset in June.
Daniel Bell-Drummond, Zak Crawley and Ollie Robinson scored around 2500 runs between them, supported by Joe Denly when available, and by both Sam Billings and Darren Stevens at the end of the season. Stevens also starred with the ball. He, Matt Milnes and Harry Podmore all topped fifty wickets.
Kent’s white ball season, however, was much less successful. They won only two of their Royal London Group games to finish a poor seventh. Zak Crawley carried the batting, averaging over 50. None of the bowlers emerged with great credit. Even though Milnes took 16 wickets, he was relatively expensive in terms of his runs both per wicket and per over.
In the Vitality Blast, Kent Spitfires won six of their first seven fixtures and looked odds-on favourites to qualify for the quarterfinals. After that, the wheels fell off their campaign bus.
Of their final seven games, Kent lost five and had two abandoned, missing out on qualification by a point. The decline coincided with the return of previously injured captain Sam Billings, who took over the leadership from Bell-Drummond. Although generally a much-respected captain, Billings did make at least one disastrous decision, ironically involving Bell-Drummond who was charged with bowling a key over against Gloucestershire that went for 23 runs.
The Gloucestershire match was lost by just five runs, Surrey won by one run and eventual winners Essex sneaked to the quarterfinals ahead of Kent with a ten run victory. Frustrated Spitfires’ fans were more inclined to be spitting feathers than fire.
Heino Kuhn averaged over 40 in the Blast at a healthy strike rate. Left arm spinner Imran Qayyum and fast bowler Hardus Viljoen were effective in their contrasting styles.
SSCC: Fourth in Division One
T20 Blast: Fifth in South Group
RLODC: Seventh in South Group
SSCC: Daniel Bell-Drummond – 892 runs, average 35.68
T20 Blast: Daniel Bell-Drummond – 317 runs, average 26.41, strike rate 119.62
RLODC: Zak Crawley – 394 runs, average 56.28
SSCC: Matt Milnes – 55 wickets, average 25.14
T20 Blast: Hardus Viljoen – 18 wickets, average 19.72, economy rate 7.83
RLODC: Matt Milnes – 16 wickets, average 30.87
Player of the season:
The Player of the Season award should probably go to someone who delivered throughout the season in all formats – maybe Zak Crawley who was rewarded with an England call-up at season’s end.
But it is impossible to ignore the late season achievements of 43-year-old Darren Stevens. He played little part in the Royal London competition and his four unsuccessful Vitality Blast outings were whilst on loan to Derbyshire. Then in the latter part of the Championship campaign, he surged to a new lease of life.
Against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in September, Stevens not only scored 88 but had match bowling figures of 10-92.
Stevens then went up to Leeds and saw the Kent upper order stagger to 39-5 on the first morning against Yorkshire. You could say that Kent made a decent recovery because Stevens and captain Sam Billings added 346 together. When Stevens hit a remarkable 237 off just 225 balls, he became the oldest player to hit a double century since Walter Keaton in 1949.
Time for the old man to have a well-earned rest? No, Stevens proceeded to bowl Kent to victory with figures of 5-20 in the Yorkshire second innings.
Only four other players have ever taken ten wickets in a match and scored a double century at or above Stevens’ age – and these include all-time legends W.G. Grace, Wilfred Rhodes and Kent’s own Frank Woolley.
Not surprisingly, the Kent bosses decided to reverse their previous decision not to offer Stevens a contract next year. As Kurt Vonnegut said, a step backward after making a wrong turn is a step in the right direction.
With the retirement of Marcus Trescothick, Darren Stevens now becomes England’s oldest current first-class cricketer.
The choice of breakthrough player is relatively easy.
Zak Crawley finished the 2018 season strongly with a big hundred in the final game, but it was only this year that he achieved the consistent performances that attracted the attention of the England selectors. Across all formats he topped 1500 runs, batting at the top of the order.
Aged just 22 and a Kent Cricket Academy graduate, he should have a glowing career ahead of him.
Could have done better:
One player who may be disappointed overall with his season’s work is Sean Dickson. He scored a couple of Championship hundreds early in the season, but thereafter struggled to contribute. Take away those two tons and his average drops below 15. He did little in white ball cricket.
At age 28, and with a previous triple and double century to his name, Dickson should be in his cricketing prime. Next season will be crucial for him in determining his career trajectory.
Need to work on
Kent will for sure want to improve on this year’s white ball form. Losing captain Sam Billings with a shoulder injury for most of the season didn’t help, so they will be hoping for a bigger batting contribution from him together with some sound captaincy decisions.
Kent may also want to review their overseas player choices. Mohammad Nabi didn’t perform badly, but eight wickets in nine Blast games wasn’t a great haul. Faf du Plessis came in for a couple of late games and scored useful runs.
Recognising their spin weakness, Kent have signed under-19 off-spinner Hamidullah Qadri from Derbyshire. Developing his undoubted potential will be a key task. The signing of Qadri presumably means that there is no future at Kent for Ollie Rayner. Rayner was on loan for part of the 2019 season from Middlesex who have now released him.
With Mitchell Claydon leaving for Sussex, Kent have signed seamer Tim Groenewald from Somerset. He is joining his fourth county, having previously played for Warwickshire and Derbyshire. Though now 35, he is a reliable performer who has never let any of his counties down; and he has an advantage in that he has a good record of staying fit.
Kent have also signed batsman Jack Leaning from Yorkshire on a three-year contract.
Bowling coach Allan Donald has left after doing, by all reports, an excellent job. Unlike Donald, his replacement will be expected to work full-time.
Like the curate’s egg, Kent’s season was good in parts. Supporters might have settled for a good Championship placing, but they would no doubt have hoped for final stages qualification in at least one of the white ball competitions.
On a more positive note, Kent did win the Second XI Trophy; and Kent Women won the Royal London Women’s County Championship.