Published: 06:00, 27 August 2020
It’s been 13 years since Kent won their one and only T20 competition. Current head coach Matt Walker was part of the team at Edgbaston that defeated Gloucestershire. The evergreen Darren Stevens hit the winning boundary, Ryan McLaren took a hat-trick and Simon Cook conceded just 16 runs from his four overs.
Fast forward to the present day. The affable Walker is leading the way forward, Stevens is still on the playing staff – of course – although he’s not likely to feature for the Spitfires this summer and Cook is in his first season as the club’s bowling coach . Kent start their campaign today against Hampshire at Canterbury, behind closed doors with spectators still not allowed to watch professional sport in person.
Another thing remains the same, however, and that’s the desire to win trophies. With Sam Billings and Joe Denly away on international duty, Daniel Bell-Drummond continues to stand in as captain and Kent’s Test double centurion Zak Crawley returns to the squad with much greater expectation than when he left. “The mental side of his game is so strong,” enthuses Walker, talking about 22-year-old Crawley. The notion that he could get carried away by his success is “not a worry at all” he explains. “His feet are firmly on the ground, he’ll come back to us and be a Kent player again.”
No overseas players mean Kent are without Mohammad Nabi and Adam Milne – arguably two of the finest recruits on the county scene in this format – so their chances of success given the long list of absentees appears diminished. But the youngsters who have impressed so much in the Bob Willis Trophy this summer – Jordan Cox has a double century to his name while still a teenager – will get the chance to shine again.
Walker holds nothing back when outlining his ambition. Whether that can happen this summer remains to be seen. But like any progressive coach ahead of a new competition, the aspiration to outperform their rivals is still there.
“We want to become the best T20 side in the land, that’s the vision of ours,” states the 46-year-old Gravesend-born coach. “It may take a little bit of time, it may happen sooner than we think. We may go on and win it this year, we just don’t know. We’ve got young players, some playing their third or fourth games.
“There’s a bit of inexperience in the bowling line-up but that’s what we want – the guys want to play and be in this team. It will be interesting to see how we go. I think it will more likely be a learning curve this season, they learn how to play T20 cricket. Unless you start playing in the competition, you don’t improve and learn from your mistakes.
“It really comes down to the crunch when you’re in battle playing against good sides and learning on the job, so to speak. This year will be a learning year for us but if we click with the players that we’ve got, then we could do something special.”
The domestic season may be shortened this summer to a little over two months but the often-unhelpful busy schedule remains securely in place. Kent will play 10 South group matches in a little over three weeks with one Bob Willis Trophy game against Hampshire – where Kent could yet reach the final of that competition - thrown into the mix to keep them on their toes.
Walker admits that everyone else is in the same boat but that doesn’t take away from the excitement the shortened format of the game brings. “It’s always the exciting part of the season and that’s no disrespect to the other two formats,” he added. “T20 always gets the juices flowing.
“It has come around quick as it tends to do. We’ve had four Championship games close together and then one day to prepare which isn’t always ideal but come Thursday everyone will be excited. Everyone wants to play, it’s the most exciting format and, as always, we’re looking forward to it.
“It’s been an unusual year as you can imagine. We’re playing quite a lot of cricket close to each other and it doesn’t give players a lot of time to recover and prep. We’ve had a one-day turnaround and sometimes that can work, the mind is free of any clutter and you can go in with your game head on and get into it.
“It helps when you play well. I’ve been very impressed with the guys since the start of the year. It hasn’t been your usual preparation period. They’ve come to terms with everything, the rules and regulations that are in place, but I think we’ve played some really good cricket in the Bob Willis Trophy. We’ve played four pretty good games and there’s loads of positives to come out of it. The win against Surrey has lifted us going into T20.”
Cue the jokes about social distancing at Championship games but one distinct difference this summer will be the lack of atmosphere at T20 matches. Kent regularly attract crowds of 5,000 to Canterbury but the only support potential match-winners will receive this time around will be from within the camp.
Walker noted: “We’ve come to terms with it in four-day cricket when usually there’s a mumble and a small buzz going around, and you get instant feedback when you play a good shot or get a wicket. T20 will be even stranger in that respect. It’s a high-pace, high-energy game and usually the crowd plays such an enormous part. That’s going to be strange and the first couple of games will be quite odd but we know it’s coming and we’re ready for it. We’ve got to create our own energy.
“The South group is extremely strong, there are very good sides with very good players. We’ll have to be on our best form to challenge. We’ve got to be at our best to beat any of the sides in the South group.”
Kent’s T20 Blast fixtures (all behind closed doors): Aug 27: Hampshire (Canterbury), Aug 29: Middlesex (Lord’s), Sep 1: Surrey (Canterbury), Sep 3: Sussex (Hove), Sep 5: Essex (Kia Oval), Sep 12: Sussex (Canterbury), Sep 14: Hampshire (Ageas Bowl), Sep 16: Middlesex (Canterbury), Sep 18: Essex (Canterbury), Sep 20: Surrey (Kia Oval).