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Darren Stevens: 'I'm performing at the highest level I've ever played at, so why stop?'

He's seen many last games and heard every cliché about his age, but at 46 the former Kent allrounder isn't ready to hang up his boots yet

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
Stevens helped Kent lift the Royal London One-Day Cup this year, though he had a frustrating Championship season with the county  •  Nathan Stirk/ECB/Getty Images

Stevens helped Kent lift the Royal London One-Day Cup this year, though he had a frustrating Championship season with the county  •  Nathan Stirk/ECB/Getty Images

Darren Stevens has been asked this question a lot: why?
He will celebrate his 47th birthday just as the 2023 county season is starting - playing for who knows what team after Kent cut him adrift at the end of 18 years of service. Why on earth would he want to play on?
Crucially, Stevens asks himself: why not?
"I've still got the bit between my teeth," he says. "I still love the challenges. It comes down to desire, desire to keep competing and keep challenging myself each year.
"The game is moving quickly. Look at Test cricket now: we've gone from scoring at three an over to the boys looking at trying to go at five an over. The game's moving so quickly, white-ball and red-ball, and the key is sticking with that and trying to keep up with the times.
Stevens says he has lots of friends from over the years of playing and playing abroad, a number of whom played international cricket and when they finished at that level, came back to county cricket to play for a year or two before suddenly fading out. "I've spoken to them about it," he says.
One such conversation was with Jacques Rudolph, the former South Africa international, who called time on his career at the end of a four-year stint with Glamorgan in 2017, aged 36. Surprised that Stevens, five years his senior, wasn't joining him in retirement, Rudolph said, "I don't know how you do it." Again, Stevens flipped the perspective: "I said, 'Well how are you not doing it?'" Rudolph told him that he'd lost the desire and struggled to get up for games.
"For me, this is the highest level I've ever played at," Stevens says. "I've played a lot of England A and I've been on a few England A tours and Academy tours. I'd say that's probably on par with first-class cricket. But I've never played international cricket. This is disappointing for me, but it never happened.
"So actually playing first-class cricket is the highest I've ever played. I'm performing at the highest level I've ever played at. So why stop? Why stop doing it?"
Speaking on a chilly May evening at Beckenham after toiling hard for what turned out to be his only wicket of the match - he had Ollie Pope caught behind four runs shy of a century late on the opening day of Kent's ultimately drawn Championship fixture with Surrey - Stevens is confident that when he does decide to retire, it will be "an instant thing". To put a time frame on it beforehand, he says, would be a mistake.
"If I say to you now, 'I'm finishing at the end of the year', my body will shut down because it will know it's coming to an end," he says. "Whereas in my mind I'm like, 'No, no, no, I'm still playing in 2023', and that's how I look at it."
Now, in September, having just helped Kent lift the Royal London One-Day Cup and injured his groin in doing so, ruling him out of contention for the last two Championship games of the year, Stevens feels the same way. The timing of any decision is something else he has discussed extensively with friends who are also colleagues.
"I ask them all the time: 'When do you know? How do you know? I just want to keep playing.' And they say, 'You don't know yet. You keep playing.'
"They all say you'll know when you know. At the minute, I've not got that at all. I've thought about it, but then I'm like, 'I'm loving this.'
"Joe Denly makes a joke most mornings when we're warming up together and he says, 'Mate, how do you keep doing this?' Don't get me wrong, some mornings get a bit tedious, but I love it. I really enjoy it."
All this after a rather frustrating 2022 season, in the Championship at least, where he played just five games before the middle of May and none after that, scoring 148 runs at an average of 24.66 and taking four wickets at 92.75. He is at pains to point out that being struck on the collarbone early in the season was a freakish injury and that a calf niggle he picked up in August kept him out for only 12 days. But then came his latest injury to ruin any chance of a red-ball swansong with Kent, who boosted their chances of avoiding relegation by defeating Hampshire last week.
Stevens held Kent's highest batting average in the Royal London Cup, scoring 250 runs from his six games at 125 with a highest score of 84 not out. He went wicketless in 41 overs across five innings, bowling with an economy rate of 4.87. He played just two matches in the T20 Blast. And the season has been peppered with passages of the brilliance fans have come to expect of Stevens.
There was his brutal 168 off just 142 to rescue Kent from 95 for 4 to 418 for 6 on the opening day of a four-day match against Sri Lanka's Development XI in early May after fighting his case unsuccessfully to play in Kent's Championship match against Yorkshire.
Much later in the season he helped propel his side into the Royal London Cup knockout stages with a 41-ball 49 as Kent defeated Lancashire by two wickets in their final group game, which was also Stevens' last at Canterbury.
He smashed 41 off just 24 balls and conceded only 37 runs from his ten overs as Kent eased past his former club, Leicestershire, in the quarter-final and his 84 off 65 broke Hampshire hearts in their semi-final after Kent had wobbled to 20 for 2 inside six overs and 68 for 3 inside 15 chasing 311.
The previous year, upon being left out of the side for Kent's Blast quarter-final against Birmingham Bears despite playing all 12 group games, Stevens told coach Matt Walker and captain Sam Billings, "I'll win you the comp" if they got to Finals Day. He went on to play a crucial role with bat and ball in the semi-final victory over Sussex and lifted the trophy after a more modest performance against Somerset in the final.
Stevens "at it again" or "proving a point" or "defying his age" became running themes as he turned matches either through a belligerent batting display or key spell with the ball. That narrative ramped up after one particularly remarkable innings that stands out as one of his personal highlights.
It was almost exactly three years ago that Stevens smashed 237 (off 225 balls) and took 5 for 20 in Yorkshire's second innings (among seven wickets for the match) as Kent won their clash in the penultimate round of the Championship by 433 runs. It came after Kent had told Stevens they wouldn't be renewing his contract and prompted an about-face from the club, who offered him a new one-year deal.
Long before that, though, he had produced another match-winning knock that would prove key to his career.
It was September 2013, just over a month after Stevens had been charged by the ICC for failing to report a corrupt approach while playing in the Bangladesh Premier League, a charge carrying a maximum penalty of a five-year ban. He was acquitted the following February, but he walked out to face a formidable Lancashire outfit in a late-season Championship fixture with, he says, a lot of uncertainty hanging over him.
"I thought that was me done," he says. "I played my last game, as I thought at that time, against Lancashire in a four-day game at Canterbury.
"They'd won the league, they had not lost a four-day game all year and they set us 418 I think it was [Kent needed 386 of those on the last day] and I got 205 not out and we won the game. So that stands out as it was another occasion when I thought it was my last game."
The fact he's been living on year-by-year contract renewals for the better part of a decade has perhaps played into his hands a little bit. He describes himself as "stubborn", someone who will always fight to play. But it's more about responsibility.
"It's my job as a professional cricketer... I feel bad not to be playing and helping Kent win games," he says. "If in their eyes they don't feel I'm right on, I'm not right on, but I'll make sure I'll be right on next game."
It wasn't always that way. Stevens, who arrived at Kent in 2005 after eight years at his native county, Leicestershire, feels he took his talent for granted far too much when he was younger.
"I went through a patch when I left Leicester to come to Kent where I was a little bit disrespectful to the game," he says. "The more I've gone on, I've used it more as enjoying each day as if basically it's my last game out there and just respecting the game a little bit more. Now it's like every day is a new day and I just keep enjoying it because when I do stop, I can't go back to it.
"When I was a bit younger, at Leicester, I think I abused it in a way. I was very natural and I didn't realise how talented I was at that age. I used to get a bit of stick for it from the older guys, but I was just there [at Leicestershire] and enjoying it and having a laugh with my mates, as you do, but actually, my job was to win games of cricket and I didn't really see it then. When I came to Kent, I realised you only get one chance at this and I switched on and made the most of it."
So it's understandable that Stevens wants to play as long as possible, but also that he is actively seeking a role as a player-coach for next season.
"I've been very privileged to play cricket for 26 years as a professional and have a lot of experiences all over the world. The game has taken me all over the place and it's been an amazing journey." he says. "I just feel if I don't coach, it's bad of me not giving back to the game."
He spent this season as a bowling coach with South East Stars and doing some school coaching but he is keen to work with a professional men's team. He is in talks with two clubs, neither of which is Kent, who have told him they can't see a place for him in the changing room as both a player and a coach.
So, despite all those times proving his worth after he had effectively been told he was surplus to requirements, the latest of them with Kent, Stevens said he didn't "want to fight any more".
Kent's victory over Hampshire boosted their hopes of remaining in Division One ahead of their final-round clash with relegation rivals Somerset. Day two of that match at Canterbury was dubbed "Stevo Day", featuring a presentation and celebratory book for supporters to write down their favourite memories of him. All in all, he looks back on his time at the club fondly.
"It's been an amazing journey," he says. "I'm a Leicester boy, born and bred, and obviously always will be, but since I moved to Kent, I've got a beautiful family down here. We love it down here and Kent gave me that opportunity.
"But if it wasn't for Simon Willis and David Fulton [Kent coach and captain at the time] and Graham Ford [then director of cricket] seeing something in me and bringing me into the squad to try and strengthen the squad, who knows where I would have been? I can't thank those guys enough for taking the chance on me."
But it was someone else seeing something, or taking a chance, that changed the shape of Stevens' career and, he believes, provided a secret to his longevity. Towards the end of the 2010 Championship season Rob Key, Kent's then captain who is now England's managing director of men's cricket, threw him the new ball. He did the same again for the first match of the 2011 season, and after Stevens claimed 6 for 60 in Essex's first innings and nine for the match as Kent won by 57 runs, the die was cast.
"The bowling's helped me," says Stevens. "When I first started, I was a batsman, a top-order batsman at Leicester and then I moved down the order in my last couple years there.
"I've always bowled. At Leicester we had a lot of allrounders so I was never going to get a chance there but I learned lots; I was like a sponge when it came to bowling. When I came to Kent, I got a little bit more of an opportunity.
"The last 12 years I've bowled with the new ball and I've done a good job. Everybody will tell me, 'You're a good allrounder' and I say, 'Okay, yeah, cool but actually I'm a professional batsman, my job is to bat.' The bowling was a bit of a bonus."
A hunger to learn, try new things and evolve have kept Stevens young. Backing his defence while batting in recent years, knowing that as an aggressive player the scoring shot will come has helped. Practising his reverse sweep throughout last winter - not for hours like his younger team-mates but for a quality half-hour at a time "because it takes it out of your body a little bit more" became another example of working smarter. And then there's that huge bank of experience to draw from.
"I've got a lot of knowledge built up inside of all different situations, all different pitches against different teams, I suppose," he says. "The experience, the knowledge of everything, of the years of playing, and I put it all together and I just assess situations quickly and go with it."
With so much to share, why would he not want to? Why not indeed.

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo