Glamorgan 55 for 2 trail Kent 307 (Stevens 190, van der Gugten 4-34, Neser 4-67) by 252 runs
The oldest swinger in town was at it again in Canterbury, clubbing the ball to all parts, defying age and occasionally defying logic. Darren Stevens played one of the most remarkable attacking innings witnessed in the Championship for many a year as he again underlined his status as one of the most notable servants county cricket has ever known.
Stevens’ resounding assault on Glamorgan’s bowling, glorious in its simplicity, brought him 190 from 149 balls. Kent, at one time 128 for 8, made 307 as he walloped 15 sixes and 15 fours. On a day of strong breezes which bent tree branches, removed umpires’ caps and caused advertising boards to take flight, the Stevens whirlwind settled in the middle of the square and caused the most damage of all.
At 45 years and 21 days, he became the oldest player to score a first-class century since Chris Balderstone (45 years, 247 days) for Leicestershire in July 1986. (Geoffrey Boycott might remind you that he was a slightly older 45-year-old when he struck two centuries earlier that month, although without Stevens’ shower of sixes.)
To put things in perspective, before this round of matches the leading six-hitter in the Championship was Nottinghamshire’s Tom Moores… with seven. To further put things into perspective, Stevens entered this game with six single-figure scores on the bounce. In the past two years he has virtually had to talk his way into squeezing another year’s contract. Kent supporters will hope he again has the gift of the gab in September because they are not yet ready to let go. He is a player who can’t be pinned down, who every so often does wondrous things with bat or ball.
How fortunate we feel as we edge gingerly out of this global pandemic, like rabbits out of burrows, to witness cricket so free of guile. How blessed Stevens must feel to still be playing on; he lost his father, who loved watching him play, to a Covid-related illness about a year ago, and lived in a caravan for two weeks on his cousin’s driveway in Leicester so he could talk through the window to his mum, who was self-isolating. Dreadful times, and these are the days that we treasure more strongly as a result.
Greedily for the statisticians, the six that mattered most was the one that got away. If only Stevens had made a sweeter connection with a blow down the ground against the legspin of the Australia Test batsman, Marnus Labuschagne, he would have equalled the most sixes in English first-class cricket, jointly held by Graham Napier and Andrew Symonds. As soon as he hit it, he walked away from the crease, pausing momentarily to glance over his shoulder to confirm that Kiran Carlson had held the catch at long-on.
It was by no means certain that Carlson would hang on because in the latter stages of their browbeating, Glamorgan had been run ragged. Stevens was dropped three times, a tough diving chance for Lloyd in the slips when he was 67, on 136 when Labuschagne failed to hold a waist-high, running catch at deep square, and again one run later, this time Billy Root the offender as he pushed the ball over the ropes at deep midwicket.
Kent’s ninth-wicket record – 171 by Mark Ealham and Paul Strang – also narrowly survived, and that serves as a reminder of the redoubtable part played by Miguel Cummins, who likes a bit of a tail-end hit, but who loyally committed himself to abstinence. Of their extraordinary stand of 166 in 28 overs, Stevens made 160, Cummins 1 and extras made up the rest; Stevens’ contribution of 96.38% of the partnership runs was a record for 100-plus stands in first-class cricket. Cummins had made 7, from 61 balls, when he dragged on Labuschagne to end Kent’s innings.
Stevens majored in leg-side clunks and consummate lofts down the ground. He used the wind intelligently, lofting when it was in his favour, wary when it was not. The most startling six was something different when he dropped to one knee to hit David Lloyd’s medium pace over extra cover. The least impressive was probably his first, a wind-assisted top-edged pull to fine leg against Michael Hogan.
Every Glamorgan bowler suffered from Stevens’ assault, although the Australian pair, Labuschagne and Michael Neser suffered less than most. Neser, bearded and strongly built, had sparked Kent’s collapse from their overnight 70 for 2 with inswingers to pick off Jamie Cox, Jack Leaning and Daniel Bell-Drummond, but Stevens treated him to a leg-side pick-up when he lost his line. Labuschagne, the seventh bowler tried, looked spooked as he began with a full toss that was called a wide, but he settled and briefly made Stevens look a little cumbersome.
Timm van der Gugten, who had rendered Kent strokeless for much of the morning session, conceded two sixes and still returned 4 for 34 in 19 overs. Andrew Salter’s offspin was the meekest adversary. Stevens cleared the boundary five times two overs; Salter tried to hide one or two, but there was no hiding place; he might as well have been the infant putting his hands over his eyes and hoping that the big, bad man could not see him.
This was a heartwarming innings, an innings of abandon, one which for all his cricketing nous ultimately reduced to game to the basics of “bat hits ball.” It was apt that this was the week that crowds returned in limited numbers because few players have gained more affection than Stevens has in Kent, and indeed beyond. And as well as the smattering of spectators who braved the cheerless conditions, many more rushed to the ball-by-ball services and the live stream.
When Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack named Stevens as one of their Five Cricketers of the Year in April it brought delight to many on the county circuit, and some nonplussed looks beyond. He was the oldest player to be given the honour since Leicestershire’s Ewart Astill in 1933 and his reputation had been built without a single international cap. He did not need to prove himself a worthy recipient, but he did anyway.
Later, to prevent stiffness setting in, he bowled a few overs and took a wicket – that of Labuschagne, for the second time this season. Afterwards, his captain, Sam Billings made a dressing room speech in tribute, and a rousing one it would have been. Glamorgan, who must have imagined themselves in a winning position, were 55 for 2 at the close, 252 behind, regathering their poise.
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps