MEN of Kent and Kentish Men might well not be feeling in maximum chipper mode this week after their pasting in the Benson and Hedges Cup final, but there is consolation. The 1997 championship is still within their grasp and when the clock is turned back 100 years things don`t seem so bad.

In 1897 Kent had a nightmare season, not quite their worst since the County Championship had become formally organised seven years before, for in 1895 they picked up their first wooden spoon, but they won only two of their 18 games, finishing 12th out of 14 sides.

There were many reasons for the poor showing. The captain, Mr Frank Marchant, was seldom able to get together his best eleven. Marchant himself had the decency to turn up for each of the 18 fixtures, the highly promising wicketkeeper Huish, the star of the summer, Mr J R Mason and the bowling professionals Martin and Wright, matched his enthusiasm for the Kentish cause, but there were far too many passing strangers, onenight stands and fly-by-nights. One of these was the recently retired Governor of Bombay, Lord Harris, one of the most influential figures in cricket`s history, who played his final first-class game for Kent against Lancashire at Old Trafford. The game, Frank Sugg`s benefit, was washed out after the first day, the fourth Lord Harris having appropriately scored four.

In 1896, Mr C J Burnup was a newcomer to the side who showed enormous promise as a batsman, "possessed of a fine natural style with plenty of hitting power", according to Wisden. He scored an excellent century against the Australians, one of only three Englishmen to do so all summer. Observers of Kent forecast that Cuthbert James would play a major part in what was predicted to be a golden future for the county.

Burnup was indeed to do great things for Kent, but not in 1897. To Mr Marchant`s chagrin, Burnup made arrangements that summer to visit South Africa with the Corinthians` football team and played just once, scoring a hundred against Notting- hamshire early in the season. Burnup was as good a footballer as he was a cricketer, having represented England against Scot- land in 1896. He never became a double international but must have come close.

While Burnup was burning it up on the football fields of the Cape and the Natal Midlands, Marchant was left holding several other babies. The biggest setback was Walter Hearne`s leg finally giving way. Hearne, or rather his knee, was a source of constant frustration to Kent supporters from the first twinge three or four years earlier. He was an extremely reliable right-arm medium-pacer who imparted a fair amount of spin and had near-Statham like consistency of length. In 1894 he took 114 wickets at just over 13 apiece. In 1897 he had his foot up on the pavilion rail and soon became the county`s scorer.

Top of the Kent averages in 1896 had been the Rev W Rashleigh, who seemed to have been at the peak of his powers as an elegant strokeplayer. He had taken Holy Orders in 1892 but despite this, or perhaps because of this, had considerable time for cricket. In 1897, however, God was not on his side and his average descended from 40 to 20.

Another gifted amateur, Mr W H Patterson, a solicitor who had been a batting stalwart of the county side during the second half of most summers for nearly 20 years, failed to ap- pear at all. Fortunately, Jack Mason, another lawyer, had a great season. Described in his Wisden obituary in 1959 as "one of the finest amateur all-rounders to play for Kent since the days of Alfred Mynn", he was the only batsman in 1897 to score 1,000 runs for the county, and in addition took 44 wickets in his 18 matches. He went to Australia the following winter under A E Stoddart, playing in all five Tests, but he underachieved. He was never to win a home cap.

The left-armer, Fred `Nutty` Martin, was still a force in the land, though never likely on his 1897 showing to return to the England colours he had graced with stunning figures in his one home Test in 1890. That year at the Oval he took 12 Australian wickets for 102 but apart from one game in Cape Town, that was it internationally.

For Kent in 1897 he was the only man to take 50 wickets. Fred Huish kept wicket with "a consistency that delighted everyone" but he was no Alec Stewart with the bat. The other ever-present pro, Walter Wright, one of the first practitioners of swerve, did sterling work at the age of 41 in taking 47 wickets, but his best days were behind him.

All in all the Kent characters of 1897 sound a terrific bunch, but the whole proved a lot less than the sum of the parts. But at least the Canterbury festival was a financial success, with the Old Stagers performing Mr Haddon Chambers`s drama The Idler and Sydney Grundy`s A Pair of Spectacles - obviously a cricketing play.

Perhaps Mr Marchant should have blamed the fixtures secretary for the poor showing, as no championship games were played against five of the weaker counties, including the only two who did worse than Kent in 1897 - Derbyshire and Leicestershire. I have a feeling that the ghosts of Frank Marchant and his side will be cheered by a Kent 1997 championship performance that will be a good deal more successful than their own blighted campaign.