Kent enjoy Caribbean success after difficult winter
The start of the English season is still some way off, with Siberian winds expected to chill the UK over the coming days. As England move on to the next leg of their five-month long antipodean winter, with a one-day series against New Zealand starting on Sunday, most counties are beginning their preparations for the summer with tours and warm-weather camps. Kent, meanwhile, are two games away from a trophy.
For the second season running, Kent have been involved in West Indies' domestic Super50 tournament. On Sunday, they booked their place in the last four with victory over Leeward Islands in their final Group B game, and in a few hours they will take on Barbados, the reigning champions, in Coolidge, Antigua.
Kent are among the most traditional of county clubs yet their winter has been marked by upheaval. The long-serving chief executive, Jamie Clifford, left for a position with MCC earlier this month, while Graham Johnson, chairman of the cricket committee, is not standing for re-election. On the playing side, Sam Northeast, successor to Rob Key as Kent's captain, was this week confirmed as having signed for Hampshire after a breakdown in his relationship with the management at Canterbury.
The squad out in Antigua have put all this to one side to record six wins from eight, finishing second behind Guyana in their group. Min Patel, the 2nd XI coach and assistant on tour, said their success had been down to "pretty good team cricket" as well as some "outstanding" fielding. "We've had virtually all of our top six get fifty-plusses and our bowlers have shared the wickets around," he said.
The possibility of silverware is perhaps an unexpected bonus - Hampshire, who were also invited this year, finished bottom of Group A (Northeast wasn't involved), while Kent managed only three wins in the 2016-17 competition - but Patel was confident that Kent are now at the fine-tuning stage ahead of the coming season.
"I think we're pretty much there," he said. "Sam moved on last week, which for both parties means we can crack on - that's been something that has hung over us this winter. Jamie's moved on to the MCC, we've got Paul Downton now as director of cricket. The things that we needed to be in place by the end of this trip and the start of pre-season are very much in place now, so we can set our focus as a management group on strategy and developing the squad. Those things that happened in the winter have been and gone. We're in the semi-finals of a sizeable tournament so the focus is on Barbados."
Another piece falling into place has been the arrival of Allan Donald, who was appointed assistant coach last season but was unable to take up the position as he had yet to complete the required coaching qualifications for a visa. Donald has taken charge in the Caribbean, with Matt Walker on secondment with England during their T20 tri-series, and the results have been encouraging.
"Al has come in and had an immediately positive impact, he's brought a real emphasis on training ground culture, which was drilled into him when he was a player," Patel said. "He's got a wealth of experience, not only playing but coaching around the world for various international teams and Twenty20 franchises. The boys have really bought into what he has to offer."
As Patel suggested, the success has been shared around in the Caribbean. Daniel Bell-Drummond is Kent's leading run-scorer, while young opener Zak Crawley - controversially denied a maiden hundred against Jamaica - has also impressed. Eight bowlers have taken six or more wickets, which has included 11 for Ivan Thomas and ten in five games for stand-in captain Joe Denly, whose late-flowering legspin threatens to match his batting renaissance.
Denly has now departed for the Pakistan Super League, the latest stop of a busy winter for him, but he will be in charge again for the start of the Championship season, with Sam Billings away at the IPL. Billings' appointment as captain was queried in some quarters, but Kent have become used to his early season absence and at least know he will be back; Northeast, on the other hand, has left his boyhood county with a significant hole to fill.
"We're talking about a player with experience and quality and runs in county cricket already, a guy who's pretty much guaranteed 1000 runs for the season," Patel said. "We will have to find a way to cover him off, so everyone else has to find two hundred more runs, or maybe we find a player that can add something - maybe not in Sam's range but close to it. Out here we've seen players taking on responsibility for getting those scores and winning games. Yes, we'll miss Sam Northeast but there's opportunities for other people to step up."
And what of the prospects for Kent returning to Canterbury for the spring with the Super50 Cup as a recherche addition to the St Lawrence trophy cabinet? First they will have to get past Barbados, winners of the competition in two of the past four seasons and a team blessed with a number West Indies internationals, including Shai Hope, Jason Holder, Roston Chase and Kemar Roach.
"If we get to that stage and win it, brilliant, but what we are trying to is put the players in the position of playing in games that require performance under pressure," Patel said. "We're very fortunate to get ourselves into the semi-final, hopefully we get into the final but there's an important game before then and we'll see the guys play under pressure that some of them might not have experienced - we're in the business of professional sport, winning games and tournaments, and these are the places you want to be, with a chance to compete against probably the strongest side in the Caribbean."
Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick