Kent 193 for 3 (Denly 59, Billings 53*) beat Hampshire 185 for 9 (Ervine 56, Afridi 35, Sammy 30, Griffiths 2-24) by eight runs
When you are reeling from an onslaught of eight sixes in 22 balls, Shahid Afridi has a look of wild ambition about him and his batting partner Darren Sammy is looking more he-man by the minute, it is hard to keep faith that victory is in your grasp.
Kent held their nerve as Hampshire's high-impact duo reeled off their moves like a couple of seasoned tag wrestlers, withstanding their late assault to claim an eight-run win in the NatWest Blast.
Canterbury is one of the quietest grounds on the circuit, where even the hum of the ice cream van is in danger of receiving a noise abatement notice, but as Hampshire recovered in that unfettered phase from 97 for 5 to 157 for 6 - slashing the requirement to 37 in four overs after being out of the game - the squeals of apprehension were getting louder by the moment.
But David Griffiths' mastery of yorkers at the death, completing an excellent spell of 2 for 24, saw Kent home, Afridi toeing a low full toss to Darren Stevens at long-on and Sammy falling with 11 needed off five balls when he flayed and edged to the wicketkeeper. The last pair produced no grand finale, Kent thereby gaining revenge for their nine-run defeat last week at the Ageas Bowl.
Hampshire are the acknowledged masters of T20 cricket in England with six successive appearances at Finals Day; Kent, beaten quarter-finalists in two cup competitions last season, pronounced themselves the most exciting young batting side in the country.
But Twenty20 has little respect for reputations and both had started slowly in this season's NatWest Blast with one victory in three. Canterbury therefore staged what could be regarded, even this early in the tournament, as the first crunch game of the season and Hampshire, bottom of the Championship and disrupted by injuries, will now need a considerable change of fortune if they are going to extend their extraordinary Finals Day record.
"It was a game that never felt done and dusted," said Kent's skipper Sam Northeast. "It's never ideal when you've got Sammy and Afridi walking out, hitting it from ball one. Griff has been brilliant for us and it's great to have him fit again after his back surgery. He's seriously one of the best bowlers at the death when he's fit and that was a remarkable little spell from him again."
Sean Ervine, Hampshire's captain, had single-handedly kept Hampshire's chase alive, reaching his half-century with a full-shouldered long-on swing against Stevens, 17 off the over announcing the charge. When Ervine was run out by Griffiths, Hampshire finally had Afridi and but 112 for 6 was no sort of preparation. "With two superstars at the back, we have to take the game deep," bemoaned Ervine. "Four run outs didn't help us either."
Without Michael Carberry, injured, and James Vince, elevated this season to England's Test side, Hampshire's top order is vulnerable. They were three down for 51 in the seventh over. Jimmy Adams chipped to mid-on; Lewis McManus ran himself out at the non-striker's end, sent back by Adam Wheater who had driven straight to Denly in the covers; and Wheater was deceived by Ivan Thomas' slower ball.
Sam Billings' return to Kent from a first season of IPL had been low key until now, but in his third appearance in the NatWest Blast since his stint with Delhi Daredevils he displayed some of the adventure which last season began to cement his reputation. His unbeaten 55 from 30 balls was capped by an audacious steel-wristed swept six off Tino Best.
Few would have anticipated such entertainment 24 hours earlier with the Canterbury outfield underwater after taking the brunt of one of the brief thunderstorms that have crossed the country this week.
With that in mind, having been put into bat, Kent would be satisfied with a Powerplay return of 52 for 0 on a slow surface. Denly and Bell-Drummond hunted the short legside slope towards the Lime Tree Café with alacrity and when Denly twice flicked Afridi for six into the building site at midwicket, where a series of retirement homes are in the early stages of development - Rob Key rumoured not to be interested - Kent's authority was clear.
By the time, Kent's openers departed in the 11th over they were 98 runs to the good. Denly sought the leg-side boundary once too often and Liam Dawson took a neat, diving catch, and Best ardour was roused by the sight of Bell-Drummond's splayed stumps. Dawson, a vital controlling influence, found some encouragement from a damp pitch that had escaped the covers, persuading Northeast and Billings to allow themselves a brief reassessment.
Hampshire lacked three bowlers who made such a contribution to their success last season. The veteran Yasir Arafat decamped to Somerset on a season-long loan, Danny Briggs joined Sussex to escape his creeping reputation as a specialist one-day spinner and Chris Wood is out for the season with a knee injury. That is 53 wickets down, with Briggs also going at only seven an over.
Against their replacements, Northeast and Billings broke free. Billings lofted straight and then, as Denly had before him, majored on the short leg-side boundary. When he swept Best into the building site, Kent's stewards already seemed to have a retirement flat in mind, leaving Gareth Berg to jog around the security fencing to retrieve the ball himself.