Northamptonshire 384 (Duckett 208, Wakely 73) and 31 for 0 beat Kent 230 (Dickson 63, Coles 52, Gidman 51) and 184 (Viljoen 63, Kleinveldt 5-53) by ten wickets Scorecard
Around 3am this morning, Sam Billings checked into Kent's team hotel in Bromley. He had just completed the long drive down from Old Trafford, where he had been 12th man during England's T20 defeat against Pakistan, and not released until after the game had been completed.
After five hours' sleep, Billings arrived at Beckenham to prepare himself for the third day of Kent's Championship match with Northamptonshire. He netted for several hours, readjusting to the red ball after training for several days against the white ball - in vain as it turned out.
At 10.55 this morning, Billings walked out to the crease after the dismissal of Sam Northeast, Kent's batting totem all season. Kent were 22 for 5 and still trailed by 132 runs. They had to clear that deficit, and add another 200 runs or so, if they were to have a chance of gaining the victory their season depended on. It was time for a returning hero.
Initially, Billings did not seem like one. He edged his very first ball, from the relentlessly probing Ben Sanderson, through the slips, and a couple of other boundaries followed from edges. Yet there were glimpses - a cut off Sanderson, an extra-cover drive off Azharullah - that Billings' late night drive would be vindicated, and he would be the hero Kent needed.
In the last over before lunch, Billings shaped to drive, and then pulled his bat away: as if he had thought he was playing a T20, only to remind himself at the last split-second that this was a first-class game. The indecision proved fatal: Billings' did not lift his bat up in time, and the ball took an inside edge to uproot his off stump. As he trudged off, the fate of this game went with him. His efforts had been to no avail.
Kent could certainly feel aggrieved. By reducing Division One to eight teams from next year, and allowing only one team to win promotion this season, the ECB had already hampered their chances of returning to the top tier for the first time since 2010, before plucking their best young batsman away from such a crucial fixture.
Given that there are those who think that Billings could one day play in Test cricket too, it is debatable whether he learned as much from training with the England squad for two days than he would have done from playing a full part in the most important Championship game yet in Kent's season.
A few hours later, Kent had to accept that a season's worth of fine Championship cricket would not be enough to secure promotion. A fourth successive victory would have kept up the pressure on Essex, ahead of what could have been a winner-takes-all showdown at Canterbury next week. But instead this three-day defeat effectively scuppered them. Five points from their game in hand, against Glamorgan on Monday, will put Essex out of reach come what may.
Northants, meanwhile, could celebrate their win with a raucous sing-song. They had not merely beaten the second-placed side in Division Two; they had thumped them. If their first-innings total of 384 was underpinned by a brilliant double hundred from Ben Duckett, well-supported by Alex Wakely, then they showed the depth of their bowling stocks to take Kent's 20 wickets for a cost of just 414 in the match.
Rory Kleinveldt bowled superbly all match, swinging the ball late to claim eight wickets, but he had a coterie of fine support acts. Steven Crook took four wickets in the match, including the critical blows of Hardus Viljoen, driving once too often after a 63 that had been laced with powerful shots down the ground, and Billings in consecutive overs before lunch. Sanderson was remorseless in his line and length. And Rob Keogh, who will surely never replicate his nine-wicket haul last week, again suggested that he can be more than a serviceable offspinner.
Northants' sense of optimism is palpable. A year that has brought a second T20 Blast victory in four seasons, and a quarter-final spot in the Royal London One-Day Cup, has now yielded consecutive Championship victories. This was, in Wakely's belief, a complete performance. While the upturn in Northants' Championship form has come far too late for a tilt at promotion, he reckoned that was no bad thing. "Promotion would have been too early for us, with where we are as a squad," he said.
David Ripley, the head coach, left Beckenham early to return to Wantage Road. Tonight the ground will host an Extraordinary General Meeting, where members will be asked to vote to cede control of the club to a limited company, NCCC Holdings, to generate more investment. Wakely is among those who supports the move, believing that it will enable Northants to replicate the success of Northampton Saints, who became an incorporated company in 2000 and have been able to invest more in their squad and sporting facilities since.
While Northants "went nowhere" after winning the T20 Blast in 2013, Wakely is convinced that this time can be different.
And the most obvious reason of all for optimism lies in Ben Duckett who, rather inevitably, scored the winning run: he is on the brink of signing a new contract. Wakely reckons that he can be as good as AB de Villiers, and urged England to take him to Bangladesh. "He needs to be fast-tracked into the England team, as Joe Root was," he said. "Who knows how good he can be?"