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Kent live in Darren Stevens' world as veteran lines up final glory

45-year-old stars with bat and ball after missing quarter-final, to make point to team-mates

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Darren Stevens struck with his first ball as Kent closed in on the final  •  PA Images/Getty

Darren Stevens struck with his first ball as Kent closed in on the final  •  PA Images/Getty

The decision to schedule T20 Blast Finals Day more than three weeks after the quarter-finals has robbed the tournament of most of its star overseas players and Kent were no different to the rest. They retained the services of Qais Ahmad, the Afghan legspinner, but were without the spearhead of their pace attack in Adam Milne, long since departed to the UAE ahead of the IPL's imminent resumption to fulfil his contract with Mumbai Indians.
But Milne's absence opened the door for county cricket's cult hero to return to their side after his omission for Kent's quarter-final win against Birmingham Bears. "It's a like-for-like replacement," grinned Sam Billings, confirming at the toss that Darren Stevens, their 45-year-old Grand Old Man, had been recalled to their middle order, with Alex Blake also missing through injury.
Stevens' T20 career was as good as over two years ago. Faced with the prospect of sitting in Kent's dug-out for the second season in a row, Stevens went on loan to Derbyshire for the 2019 Blast but after four underwhelming appearances in the group stage, he found himself running drinks. They made it to Finals Day but opted to pick Anuj Dal as a non-bowling No. 6 ahead of him; Dal was out first ball in a heavy defeat to Essex as Stevens watched on in a fluorescent bib. Kent left him out again through the 2020 season despite his efforts to force his way into the side, and it was unpalatable for another county to consider signing a veteran allrounder bowling medium-paced cutters on loan, limiting opportunities for their own young players in the process.
Meanwhile, Stevens was busy telling anyone who would listen - and plenty who wouldn't - that he felt hard done by. "I feel over the last few years that I'm gutted not to have played and feel like I could have made a massive impact in some of the quarter-finals we've lost or the games leading up to that," he told the Two Hacks, One Pro podcast last year.
"I was at every training session making a point that I'm still smacking it out the ground and can still bowl well enough and am still diving around in the field better than these 22-year-olds. I want to play and I made it clear, but for some reason my mate Billings was like 'well, we're going young'. In a way I get it, but in a way I don't. That's my big thing: I want to win trophies.
"With the teams I've played in at Kent, I feel like only winning one trophy is criminal. Even in the last few years I've been biting at the bit to play Twenty20 cricket and I've felt like they've missed me in the middle of the innings. They've got this thing in their head 'well, we're going to go young because we've got to give them a chance to do well'. You've still got to pick the best side to win the game or the competition."
Stevens' return to the side this season came amid an availability crisis at Kent with several senior bowlers injured and Billings joining Zak Crawley on England Test duty. In a joyous comeback, he snared two wickets in four boundary-less overs and while his overall statistics were unremarkable, he was picked for every game he was available for, up until the quarter-finals.
His recall on Finals Day brought with it a sense of inevitability. "We knew it was going to be his day," laughed Daniel Bell-Drummond during the innings break, after he had thrashed his way to a vital 47 not out off 28 balls to drag Kent towards a competitive 168 and recover from a mid-innings wobble. The pick of his shots was an impudent scoop for four off Chris Jordan, an old dog showing off his new tricks.
Then, brought on to bowl the eighth over with Sussex struggling in their run chase, Stevens induced a chop-on from David Wiese to strike with his first ball. He celebrated with a fist pump and a broad grin as his fan club - four men in retro Kent replica shirts and latex bald caps - jumped around wildly in the Hollies Stand. Stevens' scriptwriter is the finest in the business.
For all the light-hearted jibes that fly Stevens' way, his continued success is a tribute to his insatiable appetite to improve and compete; county cricket has had few finest servants. He opened the batting with Virender Sehwag and was dismissed by Chris Silverwood on his T20 debut in 2003; the first of his two titles came in 2004, two weeks after his semi-final opponent Archie Lenham was born.
"He said when we dropped him 'don't worry, get me to Finals Day and I'll do it for you,'" Billings joked, struggling to conceal his joy at leading Kent into their first T20 final since 2008. "We're living in Darren's world, aren't we?"

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98