Feature

'Bittersweet' - End of the Kent road for ageless cult hero Darren Stevens

"It is unthinkable that a player of his talent was never selected to play international cricket," says Paul Downton of the club legend

David Hopps
David Hopps
12-Aug-2022
"I'm looking forward to the next chapter but looking back I am very proud of the one I've just completed"  •  Getty Images

"I'm looking forward to the next chapter but looking back I am very proud of the one I've just completed"  •  Getty Images

Time appears to have caught up with Darren Stevens, whose 17 years with Kent will reach its conclusion at the end of the season at the age of 46.
But what's this? Surely not a hint that there might be one final season left in the tank? He has no wish to retire just yet if he can help it, and his farewell message to Kent supporters certainly invited the thought. "I'm looking forward to the next chapter but looking back I am very proud of the one I've just completed. Stevo x".
"I don't feel like I'm ready to give up," he told BBC Sport. "I love the game so much. I have that passion for it. That is why I'm still playing now. I still feel like I can do a job with the bat and the ball."
Kent's director of cricket, Paul Downton, said that it was "unthinkable" that a player blessed with Stevens' talents - he is famously hard working, too - had never played for England. Stevens' final seasons in county cricket have taken on quite a turn. Last year, he became the oldest player ever to be named Wisden Cricketer of the Year, appropriate recognition of his 26-year professional career.
But there has been indignity, too, as he became an unwilling symbol for the faults of red-ball cricket on England's professional circuit, all because of his long-established mastery at exposing county batting techniques on green seaming pitches. For a player who respects and loves the game so much, such journalistic shorthand was unfortunate.

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Stevens has been a cult hero at Kent. His cudgelling middle-order batting could change the face of matches that appeared lost, and his medium-pace bowling, which developed in the second phase of his career - and which these days is delivered at around 70mph - could cause havoc if the conditions were favourable.
For Kent alone, he has played more than 630 matches across all formats, with more than 28,000 runs and nearly 900 wickets to his name.
Rob Key, now ECB's managing director of England men's cricket, was Kent captain when he threw the new ball to Stevens and changed his career for ever. All 31 of his five-wicket hauls in first-class cricket came after his 35th birthday, an extraordinary feat.
"His numbers are remarkable in the modern era, which, along with his ability to influence and win matches, make him a true Kent legend. It is unthinkable that a player of his talent was never selected to play international cricket"
Paul Downton, Kent's director of cricket
He had joined the county as a specialist batter and had to wait until he was 43 for his first hat-trick. When it came, it was in the low-key circumstances of a Second XI match between Kent and Somerset in Taunton Vale.
Among his 43 centuries, few will live in the memory more than his career-best 237 from 225 deliveries against Yorkshire in 2019. Kent, who were unsure whether to re-engage him, opened contractual negotiations before the sweat on his pads had dried.
There was another extraordinary effort against Glamorgan in 2021, when he became the oldest player to hit a Championship hundred for 35 years, and dedicated the innings to his father, who had died from Covid-19. By then, county cricket was benefiting from live streaming, and messages that 'Stevo' was at it again flew well beyond Kent into all parts of the country.
Against the white-ball, Stevens was also central to Kent Spitfires' successful T20 sides, lifting the ECB domestic T20 trophy in 2007 and 2021, 14 years apart.
"It's bittersweet that my time at Kent has finally come to an end after such a long run and where I am so proud to have lived out my boyhood dream with such a phenomenal club," he said. "The memories will stay with me forever.
"There are so many people to thank that contributed to my time here, David Fulton and Simon Willis for giving me the opportunity to represent the club back in 2005. Keysie [Rob Key] for giving me the new ball and beginning my bowling career. All my team mates over the years, and the Kent employees that have helped me in all different ways.
"Last but by no means least the fans. How you have stuck by me over the years - celebrating my highs and supporting me through my lows, your support has been overwhelming and something I will always be grateful for so thank you."
Downton said, "Over the last 25 years Darren Stevens has been an inspirational cricketer. His ability to time a cricket stroke and his subtle skill with the ball have made him a crowd favourite wherever he has played. His numbers are remarkable in the modern era, which, along with his ability to influence and win matches, make him a true Kent legend.
"It is unthinkable that a player of his talent was never selected to play international cricket."
Flatter county pitches this season - instructed by the ECB to more closely resemble Test surfaces - and a succession of injuries have made life hard for Stevens this summer. He has taken just six wickets at an average of 75 in six matches, a striking contrast to the previous five seasons where his wickets cost less than 20 apiece.
There might still be a county out there who might take a gamble, perhaps on a pay-to-play contract. Leicestershire, where his career began, would be a nice thought.
Kent have already earmarked Joey Evison, signed from Nottinghamshire, as a replacement. Evison is 20 and highly promising. By a quick calculation, he needs only 26 years' worth of net sessions, solo training, and crowd-pleasing, match-turning feats to rival the qualities of an extraordinary county cricketer.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps