Although the county championship season does not start for another fortnight (sic), and the squad may still not be quite finalised, the commencement of domestic cricket at Beckenham tomorrow with a one day friendly against Middlesex might seem an opportune moment to speculate how well prepared Kent County Cricket Club are for the coming season.
The Close Season
Much has happened since that last grubby pink ball was despatched to the extra cover boundary at an eerie and chilly St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury at 8 o’clock in the middle of September.
Firstly, former coach, Paul Fabrace, paid the price for the team’s pitiful 2011 LV County Championship campaign, when they were only spared the wooden spoon by Leicestershire, and had one of their worst seasons since the days when Queen Victoria was looking forward to her Diamond Jubilee. In one of “life’s little ironies” as Thomas Hardy referred to them, Kent’s first competitive game of the season is a trip to Headingley on Maundy Thursday to face his new employers.
Farbrace has been replaced as “Head Coach” (rather than “Director of Cricket”, the title he held), by former West Indians batsman and captain, Jimmy Adams, an appointment that has been met with cautious optimism amongst the county’s followers and considerable enthusiasm in the dressing room.
Two of the club’s most experienced batsmen, Joe Denly and Martin van Jaarsveld, also departed for newly promoted Middlesex and South Africa respectively, the former to play Division One cricket and further his stalled England ambitions, and the latter to play out the rest of his career in his home country, where he hoped to recapture the form that had largely deserted him in his final season at Canterbury. Recent reports indicate that the move is proving a success.
In addition, the county released infuriating and injury prone quick bowler, Robbie Joseph and former England U-19 batsman, James Goodman, left first class cricket altogether to attend university before pursuing a business career.
Australian born West Indian test player, Brendan Nash, will be the overseas player for the entire season. The 34 year old will certainly add some steel and dependability to the middle order in the championship side, and is already in form with a double century for Jamaica against Guyana just four weeks ago, but it is difficult to envisage him strengthening the batting in the T20 competition, having played just one game in that format in his career and not even making it to the crease (though he did execute a run out!).
Adams has expressed hope that there is still room for at least one other, more dynamic, player for the T20 campaign in the budget, although the Club’s management appear to be less enthusiastic. That said, that was the thinking at this time last year when the Club insisted that they would manage without an overseas player in that competition, and then proceeded to make what some felt were panic signings in Wahab Riaz and Charl Langeveldt.
Given that there are less T20 group matches this year, with the consequent loss of revenue, it is crucial that the Club strives to secure the services of a “name” player (or two), not only to encourage spectators through the turnstiles, but also to increase the chances of the side progressing past the group stage, a goal that would, at present, seem challenging.
Following Denly and van Jaarsveld’s departures, Chairman George Kennedy, promised that the savings accrued would be reinvested in “established international batsmen”. Whilst with 21 tests under his belt, Nash may fit that bill, supporters have been rather underwhelmed by the signings of Glamorgan veteran, Mike Powell, and 32 year old left handed opener, Scott Newman, the former on a permanent contract and the latter initially on a two month loan, ironically determined to use the experience to regain his place at the top of the Middlesex order usurped by Denly. Both men have indicated that they have a point to prove to the “former” employers, which, it is hoped, will work to Kent’s advantage.
Ben Harmison, younger brother of Ashes winning fast bowler, Steve, has also moved from Durham where he had become surplus to requirements. After a century on his first class debut in 2006, he has largely underachieved and it is hoped that the move will resurrect, or rather kick start, his career. In fact, it is unclear at this stage whether he is a genuine all-rounder, a bowler who bats a bit or a batsmen who bowls a bit. It will be interesting to watch how he adapts to his new county. By all accounts, Adams was impressed with him on the trip to Antigua, which augurs well, but this is a big season for him.
That phrase – “this is a big season for” – could, in fact, be applied to several Kent players, none more so than 22 year old Sam Northeast, the schoolboy prodigy who had a mediocre 2011, largely batting at number 3 in the LVCC, though he did show some aptitude as the “enforcer” in the one day side. At the end of the season, perhaps surprisingly, he only signed a one year contract, indicating that he wanted evidence of Kent’s ambition before committing himself to something more long term. This irritated some supporters who felt that it was not only putting himself under more pressure than necessary, but, should he have a stellar 2012, would be enabling him to secure a longer term contract at a more fashionable county at the end of the season.
Another of the home-grown players who needs to start converting his undoubted talent into big runs is 23 year old Alex Blake. His century at Headingley on what proved to be the penultimate day of the 2010 season as Kent were relegated from the LVCC Division One, appeared to herald great things in the future. However, apart from an impressive 96 at The Oval, when he was run out by number 11, Ashley Shaw, a combination of injury and injudicious shots early in his innings, blighted his season in 2011. Now he has completed his studies at Bradford University, and is available for the full season, the powerful left hander has the opportunity to cement his place in the top / middle order. If he succeeds, his “stand and deliver” style will be highly entertaining to watch.
With Geraint Jones’s batting suffering a (hopefully temporary) decline in 2011, there were calls for Sam Billings, who had impressed in the one day game, not least for his brilliant boundary fielding (ironic given that he is the second choice wicketkeeper), to be blooded in the LVCC side. Jones’s natural desire to play every game, and Rob Key’s wrist injury calling for an opener as replacement, the slot went to exciting England U-19 opener Daniel Bell-Drummond. Billings will be at Loughborough University, where he is captain, until July, but his time will surely come. Bell-Drummond is more likely to be a regular in the one day side this season and 20 year old Chris Piesley, whose appearances in the LVCC side in 2011 were traumatic, may need to wait this chance, as will Fabian Cowdrey.
Darren Stevens also had a modest time with the bat in the four day game in 2011 and, in fact, displayed his match winning talents more often as a deadly medium pace bowler. It may only be speculation that that had a detrimental effect on his ability to occupy the crease for a long time, but it might still be better not to over rely on him as a stock bowler in 2012.
Despite being expected to concentrate on one day cricket, veteran Pakistani, Azhar Mahmood headed both the county’s first class batting and bowling averages. The decision to finally give him his head and allow him to bat at first wicket down in the T20 competition, proved inspirational as he was a revelation, carrying that form into his late season LVCC innings further down the order. It is not fanciful to think that, as the amount of bowling he is able to do inevitably diminishes, he could hold down a place as a front line batsman.
The lynchpin of the batting, as it has been for the past dozen years, should be the captain, Rob Key, who displayed, before his wrist injury terminated his 2011 season prematurely, signs of high class, most dramatically in his almost match winning innings at The Oval. If he can remain injury free and resist the lure of a full time media career, he can make a lot of runs for Kent for many years yet.
If Stevens and Jones can recreate their form of previous seasons, Northeast showcase his talent on a more consistent basis, both Powell and Nash provide solidity in the middle order, and the captain bat like he did in the period leading up to his injury in 2011, the lineup could deliver big runs. But that is no guarantee. Last season, the county boasted arguably the most experienced top six on the circuit, yet persistently underachieved.
The spearhead of the four day attack in 2011, Hampshire loanee, David Balcombe has returned to his parent county, leaving the pace bowling department looking particularly threadbare. The paucity of experienced medium fast bowlers even led Kent to re-sign veteran Simon Cook when, for most of the late summer and autumn, it had looked that his Kent career was over.
That “big season” tag could also apply to 21 year old Matt Coles. An enthusiastic trier, he looked genuinely quick at times last season and earned himself a call-up to the Potential England Performance Programme in India, from whence he joined the England Lions tour as of Sri Lanka as replacement for Stuart Meaker. He is also a powerful left-handed batsmen and could yet become a genuine all-rounder.
Supporters will hope that Balcombe’s exploits will be replicated this year by 6 feet 7 inches Cornishman, Charlie Shreck, who signed after nine solid years at Nottinghamshire. Whilst Cook might be a bit part player, rather than the reliable “go to” bowler of previous years, much is expected of England U-19 captain, Adam Ball, whose left arm seamers impressed in 2011, especially in the T20 competition. He also looks a compact, orthodox batsman, but can clear the boundary when the occasion demands.
Although he can no longer be expected to bowl long spells, there remain few more canny seamers in the game than Azhar Mahmood, particularly “at the death” in one day games. It is likely, and probably prudent, that the burden upon him be lessened, if for no other reason than that it will allow him to build on his resurgent batting. Twenty year old left armer Ashley Shaw has produced some high class spells of swing bowling, but his persistent shin splints problem threatens to hamper his progress. Young quicks, Ivan Thomas and Ben Kemp will probably have to bide their time this season.
Thirty one year old Mark Davies, released by Durham after a spate of injuries, joined the squad on its recent ten day training trip to Antigua, and apparently impressed. A fit, hungry Davies would certainly bolster the seam attack.
James Tredwell will, as he has done for the past half dozen years, spearhead the spin bowling department, though his return to the England fold for the current Sri Lanka tour has given him renewed hope that his international career is not over yet. This may give off spinner, Adam Riley, twenty tomorrow, more first team chances, though he is still at Loughborough University. He showed some real promise last season, particularly early on, though injury and university limited his opportunities. He is still very young in spin bowling terms, but looks a potentially sound long term replacement for Tredwell. It should not be forgotten that the departures of Denly and van Jaarsveld will limit the part time slow bowling options, which might be a real issue in the one day game.
The signings of Powell, Shreck, Harmison, Newman and, potentially, Davies, have raised the average age of the first team squad dramatically. Having looked at the end of last year that the club was going to rely upon the emerging and, in many cases, still unproven, youngsters, the first team is now a much more experienced one. Time will tell whether the additional number of bodies has the required quality to challenge for honours in either the four or one day game.
Indeed, it is difficult to predict where Kent will finish in each competition. After a disastrous 2011, becoming competitive, particularly in the four day format, will be an improvement. That said, pre-season optimism dictates that a genuine challenge for promotion back to Division One of the LVCC, and reaching the knock-out phases of both the T20 and CB40 competitions, might not be beyond this squad, provided that the new recruits and established members deliver, and the youngsters make good progress.