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Kent have chance to put the 'stigma' behind them

ESPNcricinfo assesses Kent ahead of the 2015 season

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Sam Billings played a brutal innings that defied conditions, Kent v Gloucestershire, Royal London Cup quarter-final, Canterbury, August 29, 2014

Sam Billings burst onto the scene last season  •  Getty Images

Last season
Championship: 6th Div 2; NatWest Blast: 7th South Group; Royal London Cup: Semi-finals
In: Joe Denly (Middlesex), Matt Coles (Hampshire)
Out: Geraint Jones (Gloucestershire), Mark Davies (retired)
Overseas: None
2014 in a nutshell
Kent's coach, Jimmy Adams, spoke early in the season about the "stigma" attached to being a Division Two side but his team rarely looked capable of shedding their second-tier status during another underwhelming Championship campaign. Three consecutive wins in the middle of summer was as good as it got, while they also failed to get beyond the group stage of the T20 Blast. But there was a shaft of dazzling light in their run to the semi-finals of the Royal London Cup, provided by several blistering performances from wicketkeeper Sam Billings, who finished fourth on the run-scorers' list and with a futuristic strike rate of 154.20. Adam Riley's emergence was another positive, while Daniel Bell-Drummond topped 1000 first-class runs for the first time.
2015 prospects
All that did not prevent Kent from continuing to shore up their finances, with a £658,000 profit hinting at renewed vitality in the southeast. There is a promising crop of young players, including Billings, Riley, Bell-Drummond and Fabian Cowdrey - grandson of Colin - coming through at Canterbury, supplementing the old guard of Rob Key, Brendon Nash and Darren Stevens. Such is the confidence at the club that indications are they will not sign an overseas player this year - even if that could be construed as putting the balance sheet above the possibility of greater success. The return of two former favourites in Joe Denly (from Middlesex) and Matt Coles (Hampshire) should provide greater strength in depth, however, and encourage hopes of a revival.
Power brokers
Adams is about to begin his fourth season in charge at Kent; he signed a new contract towards the end of 2014. Having guided the team to a third-place finish in 2012, the last two seasons have seen limited progress but Adams has spoken of the "positive energy floating around" and the possibility of winning trophies. Key will continue in his second spell as captain and he remains a forceful personality at the club, even if he struggled for consistent form with the bat last year.
Key player
Billings' profile had risen steadily over the last couple of years, as he dislodged the long-serving Geraint Jones behind the stumps and then set about cutting a dash with the bat. It then rocketed like a six off his bat after scoring 135 off 58 balls against Somerset in the Royal London Cup, leading to immediate comparisons with Jos Buttler, England's ramp-happy wicketkeeper-batsman. If anything, Billings, with his blonde quiff and scampish grin, appears an even more cartoon-like talent and a summer of consistent scoring could make him the official understudy.
Bright young thing
In his first full season, Riley usurped James Tredwell, England's ODI offspinner and former Kent captain, as first-choice slow man in Championship cricket - to the extent that Tredwell had to move up a division, on loan to Sussex, to get a game. Tall with a stately, high action, Riley won a place on England's Performance Programme trip to Sri Lanka over the winter and has already picked up his first wickets of 2015 after a decent showing for the MCC in the Champion County match in Abu Dhabi.
ESPNcricinfo verdict
Too long have Kent slumbered, content to tread water in Division Two and make an occasional cup run; the likes of Billings and Coles - eager to prove himself again - could provide the energy to help shakes things up. There is plenty of ability at Key's disposal, as well as an experienced core. Beyond the front-line attack, the bowling looks a touch light but Adams should be aiming for top four in the Championship to prove Kent are going in the right direction.
Bet365 odds: Championship 9-1, NatWest Blast 20-1, Royal London Cup 20-1

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick