May 7, 2013

Kent faithful tested early

Two draws and a defeat have got the members muttering but Kent haven't suddenly become a rubbish team overnight

The hashtag #keepthefaith is one my Kent supporting friends and I have often appended to our tweets in recent years and, only a few days into May, there are fears it might come in for some hefty use over the summer. Tipped by many pre-season as promotion candidates, it is all feeling a tad 2011 at the moment. Following a largely injury free 2012, just three matches in to this campaign key players Darren Stevens and Mike Powell are already scrapping over first dibs on the physio's treatment table.

To add to the impending sense of doom, day three of our long-awaited first home match - a well attended and gloriously sunny day at Canterbury - saw the ignominious return of that old pest, the batting collapse. It's fair to say the members are muttering.

You have to smile, though. Abiding - at times almost reluctant - love mixed with crushed hopes and disappointing anticlimax provides great fodder for inspiring a good old moan in the stands. If you believed all you heard, you'd be forgiven for thinking the players can't be bothered. You might assume they don't care, forget they are inherently competitive, and think they shrug off losing as easily as they change their socks. But there, as they say, goes a flying pig. Losing inside three days hurts and professional sportsmen know that better than anyone. To suggest players aren't trying is insulting tosh.

Jimmy Adams is famed for his lengthy debriefs after matches but the players won't need him to detail why the performance against Northamptonshire just wasn't good enough. It was a decent pitch, yet only four Kent batsmen registered a score higher than 20 in the match - Geraint Jones did so in both innings - and this has to be put right, and fast. In seemingly perfect batting conditions, the side were three down in their second innings even before the 32-run deficit of the first had been cancelled out and they crumpled with little resistance, Jones aside. The visitors knocked off the 104 runs required with only a minor hiccup and their celebratory sing-song post match will have made uncomfortable listening in the dressing room below.

All this notwithstanding, it is a little premature to be writing Kent off just yet. Sure, it has been a faltering start but pre-season preparations and the MCCU game were badly hampered by the weather and rain affected both opening matches. I like to think I'm not valiantly straw clutching but we were probably a little undercooked.

By all accounts the Grace "Road" pitch lived up to its name, offering little for the bowlers. Lancashire away, one of the trickiest matches Kent will face in the Championship this season even before James Anderson was made available by England, has been safely negotiated without loss. There were centuries in each of the opening two fixtures. It would also be unjust to deny Northants the credit they deserve. Their fielding is tight, they have enviable strength in depth in their batting - Copeland at No. 11 has a first-class average of 20.65 - and they currently boast three of the four leading wicket-takers in the division. They aren't top of the table by accident.

There are further reasons for Kent supporters to be optimistic. Daniel Bell-Drummond continues to impress and batted beautifully for his 68 in the first innings against Northants, while Brendan Nash is averaging 58.80 and Powell 66.66 for their six outings so far. Chief amongst fans' early concerns was whether the team will consistently take 20 wickets a match, a task not helped by catches going down faster against Leicestershire and Lancashire than a pint of Spitfire on the St Lawrence Ground's "Happy Hill".

This was noticeably an area of improvement against Northants, with just a couple of spilled half-chances that I can recall. The seamers all bowled well and only Stephen Peters and Steven Crook looked truly comfortable against some testing bowling on the second day. It was especially good to see Calum Haggett bowl with intent and take wickets on his home debut. He looks to be a promising addition to the squad.

So it may not be the start Kent supporters had hoped for but we haven't suddenly become a rubbish team overnight. Keep the faith!

Sarah Ansell is a sports photographer specialising in cricket. She tweets here