Billings lights up Kent's big night
Kent 242 (Northeast 78, Billings 61, Payne 5-44) beat Gloucestershire 218 (Roderick 43, Harmison 3-40) by 24 runs
Kent were not to be denied. As Gloucestershire added 93 for the last four wickets, nerves were stretched tight and the crowd shouted themselves hoarse. With 32 required from 23 balls, Ben Harmison could not hold a diving, one-handed catch a long-off. Benny Howell was the batsman to survive but he was bowled off the final delivery of Mitch Claydon's over, leaving Gloucestershire nine down.
When Rob Key stooped to take a catch off Craig Miles from the first ball of the 48th over, cheers rang around the ground, only for the third umpire to rule that he could not be sure it was cleanly taken. Two balls later, David Griffiths broke the bails of last man David Payne and victory was sealed.
The plight of the British seaside town has been brought into focus this week by confirmation that Ukip leader Nigel Farage will stand for parliamentary election in South Thanet, the constituency adjacent to Canterbury and Whistable. It is tempting to see this decline as in some ways mirroring county cricket's struggle for relevancy - both are pleasures from simpler times - but at the St Lawrence Ground, just a few miles from Farage's prospective Ramsgate base, it was possible to witness something resembling hope.
Kent were one-day kings during the '70s, which was about when it was last cool to spend your holidays messing about with a bucket and spade. They have not won a lot since but reached the semi-finals of the inaugural Royal London Cup with a 24-run win. Farage was spotted at the Tunbridge Wells festival earlier this season, though it is unknown whether the association is mutual. It seems unlikely that real ale and the fight against EU bureaucracy are central to the philosophy of Jimmy Adams' side.
The whirlwind batting of Sam Billings certainly is and his rambunctious 61 made Kent's wicketkeeper the third-highest scorer in this season's competition. It was the most fluent innings of the night by a comfortable majority, as both sides battled on a treacle surface that did not benefit from a cloudburst before the start of play.
Gloucestershire began with a flurry of boundaries from Chris Dent but, in their haste to make a statement, got ahead of themselves. With the assorted mysteries of Ben Harmison, Darren Stevens and Fabian Cowdrey - as well as the more classical merits of Adam Riley's offspin - ranged against them, the visitors slipped to 125 for 6 at just past the halfway point of their chase.
A stand of 53 between Will Gidman, the folk hero who is set to leave Gloucestershire for the bright lights of Nottingham next season, and Howell ensured home nerves remained taught but Griffiths followed a run of three successive wides by yorking Gidman. Without Michael Klinger, their overseas player and captain who broke an arm in last week's final group game, this was a chase too far for the last side remaining from Group A.
Billings has thrived on the return of 50-over cricket, averaging over 100 at a frankly indecent strike rate of 162.64. With a golden blond quiff and schoolboy grin, he radiates energy. Billings is from Pembury, near Tunbridge Wells, but played the sort of shots that would put creases in the locals' freshly starched linen.
His half-century came from 29 balls, with Dent's left-arm spin twice crunched over the midwicket boundary. He was lucky not to drag the ball on to his stumps in the following over, bowled by Jack Taylor; he proceeded to launch a six like a mortar round over long-on, followed by a rubber-wristed reverse-sweep for four. Billings is packing heat, that much is clear, though England do not want for an explosive keeper-batsman right now.
For both these sides, the Royal London Cup represented an opportunity to gloss another season of bobbing along in the quieter reaches of the county circuit. Kent are the only Division Two Championship side left in the competition. The prospect of a first knockout semi-final in five years and, potentially, a trip to Lord's thereafter should add frisson to the final few weeks.
Kent were without Doug Bollinger, who has returned to Australia ahead of the Champions League, and James Tredwell, on England duty. Suggestions that Tredwell has asked to be released from his contract and allowed to join Sussex, where he has been on loan for Championship cricket, were rebuffed by the club.
In preparation for this match, Kent had fielded a strong XI against New Zealand A earlier in the week. They were dismissed for 67, their second-lowest score in List A cricket, to lose by 172 runs. Nevertheless, Key chose to bat on winning the toss, only to become the first of two wickets in two balls for Payne. A score of 11 for 2 in the fifth over did not augur well for the chances of Kent posting something more substantial.
Key was back in the side after missing most of the campaign with a hamstring problem, replacing Daniel Bell-Drummond. After his brief return, it was left to vice-captain Sam Northeast and 21-year-old Cowdrey - the name of whose grandfather, Colin, looks down from the stands - to repair the early damage. Northeast is developing into an increasingly proficient limited-overs cricketer and played tidily for 78 but, perhaps inflamed by Billings' bloodlust, missed a straight ball attempting an ungainly swipe as Kent lost their last six wickets for 27 runs.
Will Gidman was treated disdainfully by Northeast and Cowdrey but he removed the latter when a ball stopped in the pitch, after a stand worth 106. Alex Gidman took the catch, a moment for the brothers to savour. There will not be many more.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick