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Kent's rowdy bunch find their stride in T20

Sam Billings successfully pulled off the scoop AFP

Think of Kent cricket before the Blast and the images experienced over the course of 30 years and more still linger. Electric wheelchairs powering up the tarmac behind the old stands at Canterbury; bar room chit chat about Colin Cowdrey and Alan Knott, unreliable memories even then but none the worse for that; affable front-foot drives in endless sunshine; EW Swanton, that most trenchant of establishment cricket writers, revered in the Conservative south, occasionally reviled in the north, holding forth, with pocket watch to the ready, in the Band of Brothers marquee where there were really were scones and jam for tea; rickety old wooden stands resonant of civilised times, but in need of a lick of paint; picnic hampers and politeness; hold ups in play until rugs properly covered car windscreens - there were rules about how this should be done as I remember; the promise of a jolly young lad called Key; raffles for the Air Ambulance and the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust; a tree on the outfield for heaven's sake; generals, brigadiers, widows, and an assortment of ties denoting clubs, schools, sporting bodies and occasionally, just occasionally, merely a gentleman's outfitters of a certain style.

To establish Twenty20 cricket here, you needed to move carefully. Plan your campaign. Gaze askance upon anything radical. Pop music, floodlights, slogs across the line: all had to be regarded with deep suspicion. Introduce them without anybody noticing.

Kent finally have established Twenty20, just as 40 years ago they embraced the one-day game as skilfully as any side in the land. No county has played its T20 cricket this season with more fun, more adventure, more sense of camaraderie. A young and talented side has won new admirers, filled the ground with youthful voices, forged new memories. An all-English side, too, making names for themselves, making light of the absence of an overseas player. A new generation of Kent followers will now have memories, too.

"I think every article we read mentions that overseas thing," says Sam Billings, an all-round sportsman of some repute and awarded a one-debut by England this summer. "But I do think it has given us some responsibility as a pretty young side. We haven't been able to rely on an overseas player smashing it all over the place."

Kent stand on the brink of their first Twenty20 Finals Day for six years when Lancashire, runners-up last season, visit Canterbury on Saturday which did not seem on the cards when the club announced over the winter that they could not fund an overseas player because Canterbury City Council had blocked plans for 60 retirement flats on their St Lawrence ground. Such has been the youthful influx this season, perhaps they should resubmit them as student accommodation.

Now they host a fixture which begins reminders of the 1970s when Lancashire and Kent ruled the roost in limited-overs cricket. If Kent can somehow strengthen their seam bowling resources the opportunity beckons again.

"The PR and marketing team have done a fantastic job," Billings says. "The amount of kids we have seen at matches are more than we have ever seen before. T20 fed into the accessible part of society as far as cricket was concerned. People don't have time to spend all day at the cricket. They want everything now and quick."

Billings, by repute genial, self-assured and fiercely competitive, exudes generosity when he discusses Kent's season. Much of that generosity is lavished on Sam Northeast, Kent's T20 captain, who has responded confidently to the role now that Rob Key has taken a step back to the less vigorous world of the Championship, retirement not too far away. That Northeast will soon become Key's successor in all formats looks inevitable.

He will be to the taste of Kent's old guard, too. As a 13-year-old, he once made 18 hundreds in a term at his prep school - Wellesley House, Broadstairs, where he went on an all-fees-paid sports scholarship, following the likes of Chris and Graham Cowdrey. Kent's coaches visited him so as not to affect his schooling. Perhaps they even carried his homework.

"Sam has taken to the captaincy like a duck to water," Billings says. "He's been around a long time and he has always been built up to be the new up-and-coming superkid: he smashed all schoolboy records, made his debut at 17. He was in a sort of no-win situation, expected to set the world alight.

"Now with Rob taking a back seat has had to take the responsibility on. He is a pretty stubborn character - not shy to make a decision. We take the mickey out of him because with Rob around for so long he has every mannerism Rob has. Every single field change is out of the Rob Key handbook and he has the same expressions if someone smashes someone for four."

"Gayle just put it in the river. We had dropped him in the 40s and feared the worst. I said 'Chris, you live the dream don't you'. He turned round and drawled, 'Believe me I do"

Experience now comes in the form of Darren Stevens, an old hand finding himself in a dressing room of confident kids. Billings intimated that the experience might have cost him a bit in new clothes. "He dresses like a 21-year-old: Jack Wills, that kind of stuff. He's still young at heart. He has been one of the most valuable players in T20 for years. He probably started T20. Having his experience around the youngsters helps us."

Beneath the light-heartedness is the memory of a 51-run defeat against Lancashire in the Royal London Cup last Saturday, psychologically unhelpful perhaps, but more damaging had Alex Blake, another star of their T20 campaign, not thrashed 89 from 56 balls to reduce the margin to near-respectability. With a gap between the T20 group matches and the quarter-finals, that 50-over tie carries more resonance and could easily prey on nerves.

Billings puts the manner of the defeat down to fatigue. "We are a small squad and we have been tired. You could see that in the Championship against Northants as well. We've had a nice break and it's been much needed. We are pleased to be the last game in the round. Mentally and physically it's been brilliant for us.

"It was a big game, as far as the 50-over group is concerned, and it put Lancashire back in it. But Blake's knock sent them back up to Lancashire with a note: a reminder that we have some seriously dangerous players.

"Alex has been given more opportunity because of no overseas player. It's fantastic to see. We have always known how good he can be. There aren't many better death bowlers than James Faulkner and he hit him everywhere - including an extra-cover six that would have been six on any ground in the world."

Blake, used as a one-day specialist this season, also figures in one of Billings favourite memories of the T20 summer - the first indication that Kent would pose a serious threat. They were 70 for 5 at midway, in pursuit of 173, at the Ageas Bowl before Blake and Northeast fashioned a victory with four balls to spare. "We were down to 1% on the WASP result predictor," Billings says. "That was a recovery that filled us with belief."

Then there was a remarkable 48 hours for Northeast, first at Beckenham when his 96 from 47 balls saw off Surrey and then the match of the season at Taunton when he followed up with 114 from 51 balls - Kent's highest T20 score - but barely warranted a mention as Chris Gayle responded with 151, an innings Northeast happily praised as "ridiculous".

Kent got the win, though, by three runs, thanks to a stalwart final over from Mitch Claydon and, along the way, Billings enjoyed a verbal joust with Gayle, not remotely surprised to come off second best.

"Gayle just showed why he is one of the most expensive players in the world," he said. "He just pongoed into one and put it in the river. We had dropped him in the 40s and feared the worst. I said 'Chris, you live the dream don't you'. And he turned round and drawled, 'Believe me I do'. I thought fair play.

"Then after a dot ball he turned round and told me two of the next four balls would go for six and they did. You don't chirp someone like that. The last over was sensational. The second-to-last ball from Mitch went through Gayle's legs. That was memorable."

Billings has made his England debut this season, called up for the one-day series against New Zealand. There were glimpses of the exuberance and innovation of which Lancashire will be wary. In a season where Northeast and Blake have played the most sensational knocks, he must yearn to add his own contribution.

"It's a good carrot," he admitted. "It's a fact that people look at you and they think this bloke has played for England and needs to show why. I enjoy the responsibility and it would be great to show what I'm capable of."