I wrote about Darren Stevens a few years ago (The Old Fox, July 2018: I think it still holds up). Since then his career has been even more extraordinary.
In 2018, as well as reaching the 50-over final at Lord’s (which they lost, to Hampshire) Kent gained promotion to the first division of the County Championship, and Stevens played his part in that.
2019 was not straightforward, however. In a fascinating interview on the Final Word podcast with Adam Collins and Geoff Lemon, Stevens said that Kent’s director of cricket, Paul Downton, said that he would be bound to struggle to take wickets in the first division, and that his run output would need to increase. (Interestingly, despite his phenomenal success as a new ball “trundler” for Kent, Stevens regards himself as a batsman who bowls.
Midway through the season he was told that his contract would not be renewed. His response was remarkable. Against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge – one of the Test match grounds where Downton said he would struggle – Stevens top scored in Kent’s first innings with 88, taking a particular liking to India’s highly skilful off-spinner R Ashwin, whom he smacked for 54 off 40 balls. He then demolished Nottinghamshire’s batting twice, taking five for 39 in the first innings and five for 33 in the second; Kent won by 227 runs.
“Stevo” was just warming up. The following week, against Yorkshire at Headingley – yes, another Test match ground – Stevens made 237, his highest first-class score, off 225 balls, putting on 346 for the sixth wicket with Sam Billings. When Stevens came to the wicket the score was 39 for five; they made 482 for 8 and eventually won by 433 runs. Stevens took five wickets in Yorkshire’s second innings, becoming the second oldest man to score a double century and take a Michelle Pfeiffer (as Graeme Swann would say) in first-class cricket; the oldest is WG Grace.
Very sensibly, Kent offered him a new contract after all.
Stevens had the sort of 2020 endured by many people the world over. His father died of a Covid-related condition in a hospice. Stevens spent much of the summer living in a caravan in his cousin’s drive in Leicester so that he could at least be close to his mother, whom Covid regulations did not allow him to visit, or even hug her.
And then there was the cricket. In April and May it looked as though there would be none. But the England and Wales Cricket Board worked something like a miracle. There was no County Championship but the Bob Willis Trophy was a more than adequate substitute, culminating in a five-day final at Lord’s between Essex, the winners, and Somerset. Kent came second to Essex in the South Group with 3 wins out of 5, and Stevens took 29 wickets, almost a third of the county’s total, at 15.55. And to cap it all, he was named as one of the. Five Cricketers of The Year in Wisden 2021.
You can only be one of Wisden’s famous five once. Otherwise Stevens would surely have a sporting chance of being picked again in 2022.
After seven matches he has taken 19 wickets at an average of just over 20. On his 45th birthday he took five for 53 (his 30th five-for) against Glamorgan at Cardiff, which included dismissing the Australian Marnus Labushagne (Test average 60) leg before for 11. In the first match of the season, against Northamptonshire at Northampton he scored 116 in Kent’s first innings.
But he went into record-breaking mode in the return match against Glamorgan at Canterbury. Kent, put in by the visitors, started well and were 60 without loss after 16.2 overs. A flurry of wickets then fell and Stevens went in with the score on 80 for 5. Before long it was 92 for 7.
Kent’s final total was 307, of which Stevens made 190. So – this is obvious, but it is a point worth making – he made 190 out of 214 made while he was at the crease. This is really phenomenal. His ninth-wicket partnership with Miguel Cummins realised 166 runs, of which Cummins’ share was 1. Stevens faced 149 balls for his 190, and hit 15 sixes and 15 fours. No batsman aged 40 or over has hit more than his 15 sixes in an innings. (He is also in third place on that particular list, having hit nine at Headingley.) One of the really good things about what has been a brilliant start to the Championship season is that all the games are now live streamed: it is really worth looking at the highlights of Stevens’ innings on Youtube. (Of course as the summer gets into full swing it all has to be interrupted for The Hundred.) When Glamorgan batted Stevens opened the bowling and had Labushagne leg before again.
Incidentally, Kent have yet to win a game and are rooted to the bottom of their group. Without Stevens they would be embarrassing.
There is something truly wonderful about Stevens’ career. He made his debut for Lancashire in 1997, a few weeks after Tony Blair ‘s Labour Party defeated John Major in the general election. Stevens’ first game was against Sussex at Eastbourne (one of the Sussex team was the former England batsman Bill Athey, who had made his debut for Yorkshire back in 1976). Leicestershire, who, one feels, with the pressures of The Hundred and all the rest of it, are hanging. On to their first-class status by a thread, were a power in the land back then. They were tenth in the table that year – this was before the introduction of the two-division Championship – but they had won the title in 1996 and won it again in 1998. Stevens had an inconsistent record with them. He had what looked like a breakthrough season in 1999 when he made what Wisden called an “entertaining” century as an opener against Sussex at Arundel. Colin Cowdrey, one of the great men of the game, was there to see it and presented Stevens with a painting of the ground afterwards; it remains Stevens’ principal item of cricketing memorabilia.
Leicestershire released Stevens after the 2004 season and he went to Kent. The rest, as they say… Of course the odd thing is that he hardly ever bowled at Leicestershire; Stevens has attributed his longevity partly to this fact. It was thanks to the “out of the box” mentality of successive Kent captains David Fulton and Rob Key that led to him becoming one of the leading new ball bowlers in the county game. Wisden’s report of the Somerset v Kent match at Taunton in 2010 seems prescient (Stevens took four for 38 on the first day): “The first-day success of Stevens’ unexceptional medium-pace, which accounted for Buttler, Hildreth and Kieswetter in a sequence of six wickets in 11 overs, exposed the danger of producing grassy pitches.”
Part of the appeal of Stevens’ career is his longevity of course. We like the idea of somebody continuing to perform at that level at that age. In this era it is fair to say that it is exceptional for someone to be playing first-class cricket at 45. But it wasn’t so long ago that it was at least not unheard of. Brian Close was 46 when he last played for England. When Stevens made his 237 in 2019, Wisden produced a list of batsmen over 40 who had scored double centuries in first-class cricket; there were ten in all and 8 of them were older than him. (The most recent had been Graham Gooch (also 43) in 1996; the one before that had been Vijay Hazare in 1957-58.) When I started watching county cricket in the 1960s several of our team, Hampshire, seemed quite old to me. Of course everybody seems old when you are, say, 11: but Henry Horton and Derek Shackleton in particular seemed ancient. They were about 40.
But it is not just his age which makes Stevo so appealing. Old pros back between the wars played for ever. One of Hampshire ‘s greatest, Phil Mead, carried on till he was 50. There were others, too; Wilfred Rhodes played for England when he was over 50. But did they love the game? Rhodes probably yes, although he would never have put it that way. But Mead? I doubt it. “Another ton of coal for the winter”, Mead used to chunter as he ran down the pitch for the single that would give him another fifty, and a bonus. Mead carried on out of necessity.
Of course Stevens is a professional; I’m not suggesting he is playing for fun. Simply staying fit enough to perform must be a serious business, though the golf obviously helps. But even the fitness reveals the passion that is at the root of Stevens’ longevity; his love for this beautiful game is obvious and uplifting.
Long may he continue.
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