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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.

 

Overseas player(s)

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.

 

Batting

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.    

 

Seam bowling

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.     

 

Spin bowling

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.

 

Prediction 

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.

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If you read my earlier article entitled “A Short Trip to the Oval”, you will be aware that I cannot resist a tense last hour or so of a county championship cricket match.  So it was last week when, after just two days of the scheduled four day match between Kent and Essex at the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury, the visitors were 180 for 9, only 64 ahead of their hosts with one wicket left. With the weather set fair for the day and despite the fact that the pitch was later described as “poor” by the English Cricket Board (ECB), who imposed an eight point penalty upon Kent, the odds were very heavily on a third successive home win.

I arrived on the ground at 9.40 to find John Jamieson and Tony Pigott  from the English Cricket Board (ECB) still conducting what must have been approaching the longest pitch inspection in cricket history (Jamieson had been present at the ground since the start of the match 48 hours earlier).  The players from both sides were already going through their cricket related preparations before embarking upon the more popular – and dangerous – games of football, the Kent version of which proved the downfall of spinner James Tredwell who was unable to field on the resumption of play an hour later.

The popular book selling father and son partnership of David and Keith Summerfield were still on the ground, having been thwarted (at least initially) in their dash to Hove by a flat battery on their van.  The prompt attendance of the fourth emergency service, however, enabled them to get away with a sporting chance of reaching the south coast in time for the first ball of the day, although it meant that neither could we have our customary early morning discussion on the state of play in the match (and the world for that matter), nor could I purchase the two Neville Cardus books I had spied on the previous day.  Saved from myself I suppose – but there’s always next week!

The Club, to its credit, had let people in free, given the likelihood of the game finishing before lunch. It was a glorious morning, fit to adorn a full day’s cricket in front of what transpired to be a decent crowd, boosted by healthy hospitality numbers (the conclusion of the game on the previous evening, which had still been a distinct possibility in the late afternoon, would have been a financial and  promotional headache for the club’s Chief Executive, Jamie Clifford.

Unfortunately, Jonesy’s Kitchen in the newly and tastefully refurbished Leslie Ames Stand (which a few months before had been ripe for demolition) was only serving bacon rolls for breakfast, but an almost full lunch menu was on offer, although with the game finishing at 12.25, I doubt that many spectators would have stayed to enjoy it.

The entry of the Kent side, led by stand-in captain Geraint Jones, onto the field of play finally put paid to the pitch inspectors’ peering and scraping, and prompted the announcer to ask the “ladies and gentlemen” populating the outfield (actually two small boys and a young girl playing catch) to “vacate”.

David Balcombe, on loan from Hampshire, made short work of  Tom Craddock, inducing him to snick a wide, lifting delivery into the captain’s gloves to leave Kent with just 70 runs to win. James Foster, the Essex captain, remained unbeaten, one short of a deserved half century – he has, along with Joe Denly and Jones, looked the most accomplished batsman on show. With memories of David Masters’s recent eight wicket haul in the final innings at Southend fresh in their minds, Kent supporters were viewing the “chase”, if a run rate of  little over a third of a run per over could be called that, with expectation and anxiety in equal measure. Yet it was Graham Napier, whose contributions with both bat and ball on the first two days had been pitiful, bowling from the Nackington Road End where Balcombe had taken his ten wicket haul, who was the main threat, bowling with real pace and extracting considerable bounce. It was a short ball that claimed the wicket of the just 18 year old Daniel Bell-Drummond on his Championship debut, who played a hook far too early, resulting in the ball looping to cover for a simple catch. Little was expected of Sam Northeast and he lived down to those expectations by being caught plumb in front to a ball that kept rather low from Napier.

Replicating his recent form, Denly had looked comfortable, scoring 17 of the first 18 runs with two thumping fours and a Darren Stevens-like six over extra cover, before being adjudged lbw to another one that kept low, this time from Masters. 18 for 3 and alarm bells were ringing. To make matters worse, Martin van Jaarsveld almost immediately pulled up and called for a runner.

In view of the still small number of runs needed, it might have been wise for him to have left the field at this point, to return only if absolutely necessary – staying out there and playing a number of violent shots thereafter, one of which cleared the square leg boundary, cannot have helped the groin injury that had been sustained before his innings apparently.  He was also shortly afterwards hit on the helmet by another rising delivery from the fiery Napier. I suspect that his pride, and anxiety to finish the job, which, with the captain’s brilliant cameo, he did, took over at this point. Bell-Drummond, who had probably not even taken his pads off at this stage, returned to do van Jaarsveld’s running for him (not that he needed to do much). Stevens’s poor Championship season continued when he snicked Napier to Foster to leave the home side at 35-4.

But our increasing fears at this point were unfounded as Captain Jones, in keeping with the Corporal of the same name in Dad’s Army, did not panic, but rather played half a dozen crashing shots (five drives and a pull) to the boundary in, I think, just eight balls, to herald a six wicket victory. Now what had all the fuss been about? Brief as it was (just 14 balls), it was reminiscent of his sensational Canterbury Week century against Somerset last year. It is heartening that he has found some form at the back end of the season because he is such a popular and committed player. It is reported that he doesn’t want the captaincy, either in the one or four (did I say four?) day formats beyond the end of this season. As we know, he has demanding commitments off the field as well as on it, and his position is, therefore, understandable. But if, despite Director of Cricket, Paul Farbrace’s protestations to the contrary at the Club Forum on the previous evening, Rob Key does call it a day, either in one day only or all cricket, Jones would get my vote. But that’s for the future.

Don’t let the eight points deduction for a poor pitch detract from another impressive performance by a Kent side that had the odds stacked against them when Essex won the toss. The batting of Jones (in both innings), Denly and Tredwell was as good as it has been all year, and Balcombe bowled with genuine pace, bounce and accuracy – he would be an outstanding acquisition for next season, but perhaps existing contractual arrangements and the rise in his stock in the Hampshire and wider county scene that his loan spell at Kent has engendered, might prove too great an obstacle.

So at 12.25pm, with the blue sky and warm sun still smiling on the ground, we all went home – well, those of us who weren’t being wined and dined with no tiresome distractions such as cricket in the Harris Room and Leslie Ames Stand hospitality boxes.

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Below is my report of the first day’s play in the LV County Championship game between Kent and Middlesex at the St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury on Wednesday 17th August 2011.

Rob Key, returning to the Kent side after sitting out the two recent CB40 matches nursing his troublesome wrist injury, won the toss on a bright morning at the St Lawrence Ground and elected to bat. Azhar Mahmood, fresh from his all-round heroics the night before in the thrilling CB40 win over the same opponents, replacing the injured Simon Cook, was the only change in the Kent team that had beaten Surrey equally impressively in the Championship game of Canterbury Week.

Openers Key and Joe Denly played watchfully against the accurate opening attack of Murtagh and Collymore, both of whom extracted some bounce and a little movement.  The opening 11 overs brought just 13 runs, with the only boundary coming from an edge by Denly between third slip and gully. Only when Crook replaced Collymore did Denly open up with two expansive back foot drives through the off side for successive boundaries.

Despite his excellent recent form in the four day game, Key struggled in particular, playing and missing on several occasions. When he did play his first shot in anger – a handsome cover drive – it was brilliantly fielded. 

The predominantly blue skies gave way to an off white cloud cover that began to provide more assistance for the Middlesex seamers.  Crook was unlucky when he induced Denly to snick two deliveries past third slip for four, though the opener followed this with two further boundaries with sumptuous straight and off drives off Collymore. The introduction of the Middlesex captain, Neil Dexter, into the attack was greeted by Denly with two more powerful drives through extra cover and mid off.

Key continued to struggle, particularly against Collymore, finally edging an outswinger to Malan at first slip for 17 with the score at 61. Sam Northeast, fresh from his mature fifty in the previous evening’s match, started in confident mood, but was caught behind by Simpson off Crook shortly before lunch for 3, leaving Kent 71 for 2. Denly responded with a cover drive off the same bowler to bring up a fine half century, and Kent went to lunch at 77 for 2.

A highly entertaining afternoon session brought 165 runs and 8 wickets.  Martin van Jaarsveld, who had failed to score in the CB40 match, made just two before being caught behind off Crook with the score at 83.  Denly followed just four runs later when he was given out, perhaps a little unluckily again, leg before to Tim Murtagh for a fine 55.

Darren Stevens and Geraint Jones steadied the ship with a stand of 45, mostly by virtue of expansive drives, before the latter was adjudged leg before to Collymore for 26.  The hero of the previous evening, Mahmood, joined Stevens but anxious to get off the mark off his first ball, he failed to get back in his crease in time to beat the bowler Collymore’s javelin-like throw. 

Kent were now 132 for 6, which soon became 155 for 8 as, firstly, Stevens played tamely onto his stumps off Dexter for 27 and Ball edged Collymore to Dalrymple at second slip for 8. James Tredwell and Matt Coles added a breezy 57 for the ninth wicket with a series of thumping drives and judicious sweeps befpre Tredwell became the second player to chop onto his stumps off Collymore for 31.

Wahab Riaz’s arrival at the wicket placed Coles in the unfamiliar role of senior batsman, and he appeared to take that responsibility seriously by advising the Pakistani international that he should curb his natural game whilst he was left to play his shots.  In fact, Riaz acquitted himself well, even contributing equally to a final wicket stand of 30.  He was left 17 not out when Coles, much to his and the crowd’s disappointment, pulled Murtagh to the mid wicket boundary nine short of what would have been a deserved fifty, a fitting achievement for what was probably his most mature innings in the Championship side. 

Kent were all out for 242, falling eight short of a second batting point.  Collymore was the pick of the Middlesex bowlers, taking 4 for 69 whilst Murtagh and Crook both took two wickets.  Tea was taken at this point.

Middlesex began their innings with 31 overs remaining in the day, and a very late finish on the cards. However, increased cloud cover and slight drizzle called a halt to their innings after just 13 overs at a relatively untroubled 55 for no wicket, 187 behind the home side.  Robson, who had been the main aggressor, was 37 not out and his partner, Newman, 16 not out at the close.

The state of play at the end of the first day is almost identical to the previous week’s match against Surrey when Kent made 266 and their adversaries proceeded comfortably to 50 for no wicket.   Largely by virtue of Darren Stevens’s career best bowling figures of 7-21, Kent skittled Surrey out for 127 the next morning and went on to win by a massive 265 runs following a second collapse by the visitors on the third afternoon in very poor light.

Away from the action on the field, the  day’s highlight was undoubtedly the continuing, and largely unwitting, entertainment provided by the Club’s new tannoy announcer.  Having jettisoned the bizarre “bowled lbw” form of dismissal, he still delights by telling us about changes in the bowling AFTER they have taken place, often prefacing it “as you may have already noticed”!  And it would appear that Middlesex now have three members of the Murtagh family in their side, as today their bowling attack included Tim, Timothy and even James!

Footnote: Despite the unpromising position that Kent found themselves at the end of this first day, they went on to secure another impressive win over promotion-chasing Middlesex by 65 runs on the last evening.

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