The Old Fox

In Some Cricketers.. by Bill Ricquier

The so-called showpiece one-day Lord’s final – in its current incarnation, The Royal Lindon One -Day Cup – has undoubtedly lost something of its lustre since it moved from late August / early September to late June.

Still, this year’s finalists, Hampshire and Kent, put on an entertaining spectacle before an appreciative crowd in glorious sunshine. Hampshire won by 61 runs, former South African international Rilee Rossouw making a splendid hundred for Hampshire, supported by fine contributions from Tom Alsop and Sam Northeast (who, as Kent’s captain until switching counties this year, received an extremely mixed reception). But Hampshire did not have it all their own way. At the 40-over stage it looked as though they might get far more than their eventual 330 for seven. (itself a record for a domestic 50-over final) but Kent, especially through part-time leg-spinner Joe Denly, controlled the critical final ten overs pretty well. It was always going to be a big ask for Kent. There was a nasty moment for Hampshire captain James Vince when leg-spinner Mason Crane, playing after having had an injection in his lower back, left the field, but he did return and, despite a resourceful innings from opener Daniel Bell -Drummond, Kent never really looked like winning.

A showpiece final is often an opportunity to see some top international players. There is a problem now with the way domestic and international cricket are structured. England players are allowed to play so little county cricket that it is becoming unusual to see them on such a stage, although Stuart Broad did play for Nottinghamshire in last year’s final. As it happens neither side in this year’s final has current England regulars though Hampshire had Vince, Crane and Liam Dawson on display. The best overseas players, since 1968 such a feature of the county game, now find it difficult to fit in a meaningful county season into the packed international schedule. Still, the crowd at Lord’s were lucky enough to see the greatest fast bowler of his generation, Dale Steyn, turning out for Hampshire.

And there is usually a stalwart or two of the county game to applaud. This year it was the turn of the ultimate modern stalwart, the indestructible 42-year old Kent all-rounder Darren Stevens.

Hampshire had last appeared in a Lord’s final in 2012; Vince, Dawson and Chris Wood were survivors from that game. Kent last appeared in one in 1978. No, no, “Stevo” wasn’t playing. But he was the only member of their team who had played in a Lord’s final before – for Leicestershire against Somerset in – wait for it -2001. (Somerset won.)

Stevens made his debut for Leicestershire in 1997. At that time the county were still very much a power in the land – they won the County Championship in 1996 and 1998. Stevens was a right-handed middle order batsman, orthodox, aggressive and attractive to watch. He made his first century – 150 – against Sussex at Arundel in 1999 and gradually established himself in the side, being awarded his county cap in 2002.

He was regarded as good enough for selection for England A’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2001-02.

But Leicestershire were a team in decline. They were third in the Championship in 1999, securing a place in the first division in the new two-division structure, but they slid down over the next couple of years and came bottom of the first division in 2003. At the end of the 2004 season Stevens left to join Kent, who were then in Division One. He was thus one of the first to switch from a second to a first division side, an increasingly common move (Northeast being but one example).

He had a splendid season in 2005, scoring over twelve hundred runs at an average of close to 50, with four-hundreds, including 208 against Glamorgan at Canterbury, he had finally properly arrived as a first-class cricketer. He was also a safe pair of hands as a close fielder, and – this, according to Wisden’s report on Kent, was a genuine revelation – he started taking wickets with his “seemingly innocuous medium pace slingers”.

A couple of middling years followed, with Kent being relegated in 2007 but in 2009 Stevens played his part in a successful campaign for promotion, scoring 208 against Middlesex at Uxbridge. But he scarcely bowled at all.

The county only lasted one year in Division One but Stevens personally had a satisfactory season in 2010, topping the county’s averages with 935 runs at 44.52. The county’s real problem was bowling with too many frontline bowlers suffering injuries. As the Wisden report noted “Come the end of the season [ captain Rob] Key was giving Darren Stevens the new ball.”

The rest, as they say, is history. In 2011 he took 41 wickets at 21- although like many of his teammates he had a poor season with the bat – and against Surrey at Canterbury he took 11 wickets in the match, including seven for 21 in the first innings. He had an outstanding year with the bat in 2013, when he scored over 1,200 runs at an average of 63. The highlight came in the final game of the season against Lancashire at Canterbury. Kent had been set 418 to win and got them, thanks to what Wisden called a phenomenal fourth day double century by Stevens. He also claimed 32 wickets in the season, and hit the summer’s fastest century, off 44 balls.

In 2014 he took 56 championship wickets and started to open the bowling more regularly. The trend continued in 2015 when he took 61 Championship wickets at an average of 20. His batting revived in 2016, when he scored 782 runs at an average of 48, and he still took 37 wickets. 2017 saw no diminution of his powers; 700 runs at 41, 62 wickets at 18 (including eight-for-75 against Leicestershire at Canterbury), and an amazing 147 (reaching his century off 48 balls with 10-sixes and six-fours) – a Kent record in the 50-over tournament, against Glamorgan at Swansea.

He has always been a highly accomplished limited overs player, excelling in all the formats. He had a spell in the Bangladesh Premier League – that country’s T20 franchise competition – in 2013 but this led to the darkest period of his career; he was charged by the ICC with failing to report an illegal approach. He was exonerated but the process took over a year.

Darren Stevens is a curiously paradoxical figure. His figures – which I have deliberately referred to in some detail – show what a very valuable player he has been for his county over a very long period. There is no disputing Stevens’ talent. That was apparent in his Leicestershire days. Until his late thirties there was sometimes a question mark about dedication and determination but not anymore. Certainly, less capable cricketers have appeared for England.

He probably just didn’t score enough runs at the right times to force his way into the England side as a batsman. And conventional wisdom has it that his bowling style simply doesn’t cut it at Test level, at least against the better sides on good surfaces.

There is something in that. In fact, it is his bowling that is at the heart of the Stevens paradox. He has produced amazing figures over the years, yet he is frequently singled out by pundits as somehow symbolising everything that is wrong with county cricket.

Again, although it seems simplistic – like attributing the cause of the First World War to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand – you can see what they mean. Everybody wants to encourage young fast bowlers; one day one of them might be good enough to step into the capacious boots of Broad and James Anderson, who is approaching Stevensesque levels of antiquity. But when so much county cricket is played in April and May, who needs a fast bowler when you’ve got a dibbly-dobbly merchant like Darren Stevens?

But one cannot blame the man himself. On the contrary he should be celebrated. Cricketers like Stevens are the reason why the county game should be cherished, not thrown on the scrapheap of history in the way the ECB are clearly determined to do.

And, speaking as a devoted Hampshireman, I for one would not have been too upset had Stevo ended up on the winning side at Lord’s.

Bill Ricquier

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