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Viljoen, Billings keep up Kent pursuit

Kent 211 for 5 (Billings 64) lead Sussex 180 (Brown 54, Viljoen 3-70) by 31 runs
Scorecard

In a normal year, Essex and Kent would be entering the final stage of the season sitting prettily for promotion. Both are showing signs of a rebirth and both have batsmen who deserve a Division One stage: Nick Browne, Tom Westley and Dan Lawrence at Essex; Daniel Bell-Drummond, Sam Northeast and Sam Billings at Kent. But this is no ordinary year.

Only the champions will be promoted this summer to enable the reduction of Division One to eight clubs to ease a congested fixture list. Kent, 24 points behind Essex with three matches remaining, need to close that gap before the sides meet in the final match of the season at Canterbury. The battle is far from over, but they remain the county most likely to suffer.

That situation demands not only winning, but winning well. Kent are neatly placed to achieve the first after bundling out Sussex for 180, but achieving 400 for maximum batting points will be far from straightforward after closing on 211 for 5, especially as they are fielding an extra bowler. From the moment that Steve Magoffin removed their top three with the new ball, continuing a recent burst of form, they were under pressure. They will have been grateful to see Darren Stevens dropped at slip late on.

Sam Billings' partnership with Sam Northeast was an interesting, as well as a classy, retort on a glorious summer's evening: Billings full of pent-up life; Northeast languidly looking on. They threatened to steal the game in a gorgeous sunlit spell, but Ajmal Shahzad had Northeast caught at second slip and Billings was lbw to David Wiese, hunting out the leg side.

Some of those observing Billings from a Hove deckchair must have reflected at times that he has more energy than a man can safely accommodate. He hit a career-best 171 against Gloucestershire last week, an achievement matched only by the arrival of a replica Manchester United shirt with Paul Pogba's name on the back. He has been wearing it with pride, although he stopped short from batting in it.

There is always the chance that his appetite will run away with him. In an otherwise restrained innings, Shahzad was despatched for four boundaries in an over, the last of them a swat which flew past the stumps at the bowler's end and rattled into the sightscreen. On such an evening, he might briefly have been the Sussex-born essayist, Hilaire Belloc, working the chest-high grass on the South Downs, "sweeping my scythe until the air was full of odours".

Sussex, in theory, were also still in the promotion shake-up - a further 19 points behind with a game in hand - but they are severely depleted. Nine were absent here: Ed Joyce and Chris Jordan on international duty, Luke Wright and George Garton among six players injured and Jofra Archer away at a funeral in the Caribbean. They responded by giving a first-class debut to Tom Haines, a 17-year-old opener, while Fynn Hudson-Prentice and Craig Cachopa made their first Championship appearances of the summer.

Given their vulnerability, for them to produce such a lively first-session pitch, upon which Kent had little hesitation in choosing to bowl, was something of a turn-up. Sussex collapsed to 70 for 6 by the 25th over and, even though Kent would have been frustrated by their escape, courtesy of a spirited counter-attack by Ben Brown and Ollie Robinson, at least the pitch was slowly easing in the process. Billings suggests it isn't - and he has batted on it. We shall see.

Hardus Viljoen, the South Africa quick brought in to bolster Kent in late season, had time to reflect on the oddities of Division Two county cricket as he awaited his turn to cause havoc down the Hove slope. By the time he got the ball in his hand, Sussex were four down, the ageless Stevens dispatching Haines - caught off a glove for a fifth-ball duck - and Luke Wells in an 11-over spell, and Matt Coles having Hudson-Prentice lbw.

Chris Nash, the batting mainstay, was run out taking a third to deep square leg and outdone by an excellent sprint and retrieve from short leg by Sean Dickson. If one moment encapsulated Kent's energetic approach to county cricket this season that was surely it.

When Viljoen was set loose, he handled the slope with great deliberation, determinedly going down the gears like a heavy vehicle on a 25% hill. He was not the runaway that might have been anticipated, which was a relief as nobody had thought to dig him an escape route piled deep with sand.

Two wickets came quickly, but he took a pounding after lunch, Brown starting the session with four boundaries in an over, his last five overs disappearing for 49. But Brown departed to a mis-pull and Kent's batsmen were tasked with reasserting their superiority.