Kent reclaim the high ground after a season of 'no grumbling' pays off

A season that began amid uncertainty has culminated in a remarkable resurgence for one of the oldest and proudest clubs in the land

With all due deference to mathematics, the celebrations were on hold. But the reaction after Kent claimed the tenth Glamorgan wicket to complete an innings win on a cool, blustery September morning told a Canterbury tale. The men of Kent knew they were heading back to Division One of the Championship, after eight seasons of toil, and the applause that rolled down from the Cowdrey, Woolley and Underwood & Knott stands spoke of joy as well as relief.
A season that began amid uncertainty, following the departure of their captain and leading batsman, Sam Northeast, to Hampshire and with his successor, Sam Billings, absent at the IPL, has culminated in a remarkable resurgence: Royal London Cup finalists (Kent's first trip to Lord's for a decade), they reached the knockout stages of the Vitality Blast, and have now secured promotion.
As data analyst Dan Weston pointed out on Twitter, Kent have won more games overall this year, and have a higher win percentage, than any other county - including Division One champions Surrey. That sentence alone (perhaps even just the words "data analyst" or "Twitter") may have caused an unexpected frisson among regular visitors to the St Lawrence Ground.
Billings was down on the outfield minutes after wrapping up victory, being glad-handed by all and sundry. Jeremy Cowdrey - son of Colin, brother of Chris and Graham, and a member of the Kent committee - was moved to do a headstand, such was the pervasive mood of elation. "I don't know what that was all about," Billings laughed afterwards.
For Kent's captain and wicketkeeper, this has been an especially satisfying season. There were those who doubted the wisdom of Billings' appointment given he was going to miss the first six weeks of the season - not to mention Kent's trip to the Caribbean, where they reached the semi-finals of the Super50 Cup - but after returning as an IPL winner with Chennai Super Kings, he has overseen the dramatic rise of a young squad.
The workload of leading, keeping and scoring runs might have daunted some, but Billings just wanted to get stuck in. He had become used to (if not satisfied with) a bit-part role with England, as well as cameo appearances in various T20 leagues around the world, but reckons a return to the county grind was the best thing for him.
"I just needed to play cricket," he said. "I've been on and off the whole time, been carted around running drinks everywhere. Ultimately it's just been pleasing to be settled and play some cricket. As a group we've benefited, but also from my sanity point of view... I've enjoyed my cricket more than ever this summer.
"You can't beat coming home and playing for your home county. I've been at the club since I was eight years old. To win games of cricket this year, in all formats, with this group of players and the set-up we've got at the moment, it means a hell of a lot. I'm Kent through and through, so it's been a fantastic year."
It is a decade since Kent were relegated for the first time, becoming the last of the 18 counties to experience life in Division Two. They briefly returned to the top tier in 2010, and were disgruntled to miss out on promotion despite finishing second in 2016 (when only one team went up due to the switch to an eight-team top flight), meaning they have spent nine seasons out of ten in the lower half of the Championship, English first-class cricket's ghetto - the "stigma" of which former coach Jimmy Adams referred to wearily, while unsuccessfully trying to navigate a path out.
With Northeast negotiating his departure and the club's chief executive, Jamie Clifford, leaving at the start of the year for a position at Lord's, many expected another summer of flux. Kent's new captain missed their pre-season tour due to England duty, while his deputy Joe Denly won a call to the Pakistan Super League, but Billings suggested their absence actually helped Kent's 2018 prospects "because people had to step up".
Head coach Matt Walker focused on tightening up the culture of the dressing room and the club made key signings on and off the field. Paul Downton, sacked by England as managing director in 2015, returned to the club where his career began as a player. His work as Kent's first director of cricket has helped modernise a county where previously the captain and coach had to spend much of their time dealing with committee business.
"In the past we've had different things going on behind the scenes," Billings said. "Paul Downton has been a huge revelation, we've been pushing for a director of cricket for a number of years. It enables the coach and the captain to deal with the first team and the second team and the players. It takes a lot of stress away from Walksy and myself. We can focus on winning games of cricket."
Former South Africa quick Allan Donald also arrived as Walker's assistant, after a protracted year gaining his coaching qualifications. His influence was immediate - "When he talks, you listen," Denly said - and he encouraged the Kent dressing room to consider the Championship as their own version of Test cricket, the highest level of the game.
The emphasis, according to Denly, became one of "no grumbling" and playing for each other.
"It's pretty simple, a 'team-first' attitude," said Walker, a member of the last Kent team to play in Division One. "We wanted to create a family. It hasn't probably been like that for a little while. We set ourselves some standards, some values that we live by - nothing major but just some non-negotiable standards that are kept daily.
"To be honest, I didn't expect it to happen this quick. I thought this year was going to be a bit of a stepping stone. At the start of the year, I was more interested in getting the culture right ... Everyone wants to play Division One cricket. We want to test ourselves against the best teams in the country, we want to have a chance of winning the overall County Championship."
Kent actually lost their opening game, at home to Gloucestershire, with Denly admitting he was "anxious" about stepping in as captain. He has since been happy to assume a role in the leadership group, as Billings has impressively stamped a mark in his first season in charge.
"He's a very passionate guy, Sam. When he gets out, we tend to give him a bit of space in the changing room," Denly said. "But he thinks about the game very well, he's very shrewd - just little moments throughout the season, where he's brought bowlers on, made little adjustments in the field, and we've got wickets from that. He's got a good cricket brain."
Their success has come via contributions throughout the side. Denly, a potential Test tourist this winter, is Kent's leading run-scorer, just ahead of Heino Kuhn, the South African Kolpak signing identified as the sort of player who would compensate for Northeast's runs. Zak Crawley, a Tonbridge School graduate whose 168 set up victory over Glamorgan - Kent's fifth in a row and tenth this season - has enjoyed a breakthrough 2018, while Darren Stevens continues to chug in like a venerable steam engine, last week signing a contract to play into his 44th year.
They have also enjoyed the services of perhaps the overseas signing of the summer, New Zealander Matt Henry, who has scythed his way through Division Two, taking 74 wickets at 14.67. His arrival was an unexpected benefit of Billings' perpetual gig as England 12th man, after he spoke to Henry while they both carried drinks during the winter. "I said do you fancy coming to play some county cricket, and he was like 'I'm all over it'. I managed to tap him up during the Christchurch ODI!"
Like Billings, Henry still has aspirations to succeed at international level. But there was little doubting what Championship success meant to this group, when a couple of hours later Sussex's failure to claim a fourth batting point against Warwickshire was confirmed. An exuberant chant burst forth from the players' dressing room, and reverberated around the ground: "We are going up, say we are going up! We are going up, say we are going up!"
The prospect of contesting the Division Two title against Warwickshire at Edgbaston next week remains, but Billings won't be stopping there. "Kent is a sleeping giant. It's a huge club, in terms of county cricket. This resurgence is only the start."

Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick