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Five Cricketers of the Year 2021

How Crawley, Holder, Rizwan, Sibley and Stevens achieved their honours

ESPNcricinfo staff
Updated on 14-Apr-2021
Zak Crawley is congratulated by the Pakistan players  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Zak Crawley is congratulated by the Pakistan players  •  PA Images via Getty Images

The Five Cricketers of the Year represent a tradition that dates back in Wisden to 1889, making this the oldest individual award in cricket. The Five are picked by the editor, and the selection is based, primarily but not exclusively, on the players' influence on the previous English season. No one can be chosen more than once.
Zak Crawley by Tim de Lisle
On August 21, as England warmed up for the Third Test against Pakistan at Southampton, several things were not happening to Zak Crawley. He was not about to be voted Young Cricketer of the Year by the Cricket Writers' Club, or Young Player of the Year by the PCA. He was not a shoo-in for Wisden's Five, or the cover of Playfair.
By 4.30 on August 22, all these honours were in the bag. It's amazing what you can achieve just by scoring 267.
This was Crawley's eighth Test, and his seventh as a stand-in. He had shown promise, but his height (6ft 5in) was more striking than his average (28). Now, at 22, he was the understudy who stole the show.
It's the storyline of All About Eve, the classic film revived as a stage hit. In the 2020 remake, All About Zak, the plot came with a twist: the novice was not a nasty piece of work. He agreed to meet at his home ground, Canterbury, on a November Thursday, which turned out to be day one of England's second lockdown. Kent's office was closed ("Please deliver all parcels and letters to Sainsbury's"). But here was Crawley, unruffled, loping across the car park with a smile. He apologised for being late; it had been a full five minutes. In two circuits of the St Lawrence ground, he retraced his whole career.
For the first lockdown, he had moved back to his parents', near Sevenoaks, and spent the long blank days running and reading. This time, he was staying put at the flat he shares with a team-mate, Grant Stewart. "Up there," Crawley said. He really does live above the shop. He moved in after reading that the great footballer Johan Cruyff had lived at Ajax's stadium in Amsterdam. While some players struggled with the biosecure bubble, gazing out at their workplace every night, Crawley was very much at home.
ZAK CRAWLEY was born in Bromley on February 3, 1998. His background looks stereotypical - commuter belt, comfortable home, private school - but again there's a twist. His father, Terry, was a carpet fitter who became a futures trader, earned millions and had his day in The Sun, under the headline "Rugs to riches". He was a scratch golfer, while Zak's mother, Lisa, and sister, India, played netball and lacrosse. But he inherited more than an eye for a ball.
"My dad always said I wasn't working hard enough at my sport," he told The Times. "Without realising it, I was soon working harder than other people my age." At seven, Zak played for Sevenoaks District Under-10s as a seamer; at ten, for Kent Under-11s when someone dropped out (the story of his life). By 11, he was a batsman, and had been to the final day of the 2009 Ashes at The Oval - "Flintoff's run-out and Swann taking the last wicket". But he wanted to be Kevin Pietersen. "I can relate to his height, not his playing style."
By 15, he was in the Tonbridge XI and the Kent Academy. "I'd go to the indoor school" - he points across the outfield - "three times a week for five years." It made him a back-foot player. "It's really quick in there, so I felt decent against pace."
He missed out on England's teenage teams, but landed a county contract at 17. "I was better at 17 than 18." Why? "This horrendous trigger movement - going across, getting lbw. A bit of natural talent meant I could get away with it." At 19, statuesque again, he made his first-class debut against the West Indians at Canterbury. "Got 60-odd, batted nicely."
Watching Tests on Sky, he reached two conclusions: the best players shone against pace and spin; and, of England's teams, the Test side were "probably the easiest" to break into. He went to Perth to be coached by Neil "Noddy" Holder, and spent a week facing spinners in Mumbai, observed by his mentor, Rob Key. "Found a way of using my feet and my wrists a bit more. Being wooden and English doesn't work."
In 2019, he made 111 against Nottinghamshire at Tunbridge Wells - "probably the best innings I've played". He also hit 69 at The Oval, against Morne Morkel and Sam Curran. The national selector, Ed Smith, who was there, felt Crawley improved as the standard rose. Playing for the Lions against the Australians - at Canterbury - he scored 43. When Smith rang to say he was going on tour, Crawley assumed he meant the Lions. "Then he mentioned Chris Silverwood." He called his father, and walked round to tell his mother, who had come to watch him. Those were the days.
On tour in New Zealand, Jos Buttler hurt his back in the gym, handing Crawley a Test debut, at No. 6. He made only one, but landed another chance in South Africa, when Rory Burns was injured playing football. Opening with his friend Dom Sibley, Crawley began with four, 25, 44 and 66 - going up and up, if not away.
After lockdown, deputising for Joe Root, he stroked a classy 76 against West Indies, only to collect a golden duck when he finally made the first-choice XI. Squeezed out for two Tests because Ben Stokes couldn't bowl, he studied the Pakistan attack on video. When Stokes flew to New Zealand for family reasons, Crawley made 53. Then, suddenly, the strands of his life came together - Tonbridge and Canterbury, Perth and Mumbai, Key's guidance and Smith's belief, his own talent and drive. He mastered pace and spin, reaching 67 as England wobbled, and making 200 more after being joined by Buttler. When nerves struck in the nineties, and again on 197, he kept Crawley calm. He hit 34 fours and a single six, a sublime chip over mid-off. As he passed 221, Key's Test best, "Mark Wood shouted from the boundary." In a full ground, the shout would have gone unheard.
When Crawley was stumped, it was the first time he'd not minded being out. He had the biggest score by an England No. 3 since Wally Hammond in 1932-33, but the highlight had been simply reaching three figures. "All the nets I'd done, all the times I'd gone on my own to hit some balls - it all seemed worth it."
Back at Kent, he rattled up big Twenty20 runs at high speed, including another century at Southampton. Crawley was living the dream, but when had the dreaming begun? As a boy, after a game, Zak had a ritual: lobbing his socks at the laundry basket in his bedroom. If they went in, he told himself, he'd play for England. Did they go in? "It was quite a big basket."
Jason Holder by George Dobell
In a year partially defined by racial divide, a group of West Indian cricketers came to England's rescue. When they arrived on June 9, there was barely any team sport going on in the world. And while the Caribbean had been largely untouched by Covid-19, in the UK concert halls and conference centres became emergency hospitals and morgues. Faced with weeks in lockdown, the West Indies players would receive only 50% of their normal tour fees because their board were grappling with the implications of the virus. Who could have blamed them had they stayed at home? But they came. And, after they proved the viability of sport in a bio-bubble, Ireland, Pakistan and Australia followed.
For English cricket, contemplating financial disaster, it should not be forgotten that West Indies came first. Leading from the front was their captain, Jason Holder. With his soft voice, old-world manners and a physique that wouldn't shame a superhero, he had something of the Golden Age Hollywood star. Now, he graduated into a statesman. For the tour had another context: the recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. American police had killed black people before, but Floyd's death sparked global outrage.
Former England opener Michael Carberry was the first to make the Black Lives Matter movement relevant to cricket. His testimony of a sport "rife with racism" won support from black players past and present. Within weeks, it became apparent cricket had a significant issue.
Holder and his squad were determined to show solidarity. After discussions with the England management, both teams wore a BLM logo on their shirts, while the squads, plus backroom staff and officials, would take a knee before the first ball in each game. It was a rare example of cricket uniting in a humanitarian gesture - and a defining image of the summer. "It was about educating," says Holder. "The world needed to understand what was going on. A lot of people might not have experienced racism, but there are many from the Caribbean who have. We've guys in our team who have been racially abused. We needed to stand behind those people, and show we supported the movement. We knew it would have a massive impact."
West Indies' players also raised a gloved fist - a nod towards the civil rights-inspired protest at the Mexico Olympics of 1968, though Holder had also raised a clenched fist on reaching his maiden Test century, in April 2015, as a mark of respect to Nelson Mandela.
But West Indies weren't in town just for the gestures: they had a series to win. "We felt our message was enforced by playing solid cricket," says Holder. "In the past, we haven't started series well, but we drew on it for motivation. It sparked something within the group. We've always had that 'flamboyant' tag. We've always been seen as saga boys. But I want people to know we're more than that. Living in the bubble, and standing up for injustice, brought us closer. We were proud to be standing shoulder to shoulder with our brother."
JASON OMAR HOLDER was born in Bridgetown, Barbados, on November 5, 1991. Although his parents divorced before he went to primary school, they remained on good terms, and played a full role in his upbringing. "Manners come first," was the mantra of his mother, Denise. School reports tell of "a dignified bearing and spirit… stirred by intellectual curiosity" at an age when other boys were still running around with untied shoelaces.
Physically and metaphorically, he was head and shoulders above the rest. The Holders were not a cricket family. With his height (6ft 7in) and ability, Jason could have chosen a different sport: his elder brother, Andre, a couple of inches taller, won a basketball scholarship to the US. But his father, Ronald, enrolled him on a summer programme at the Empire Club aged eight, before his mother took him to the prestigious Wanderers Club. Between there and The St Michael School, where West Indies seamer Ezra Moseley was coach, his gifts were nurtured. At nine, he made the Barbados Under-13 side; even then, he was the tallest. By 17, he was playing first-class cricket.
When Holder was offered the West Indies one-day captaincy, at 23, Denise urged him not to accept. But Clive Lloyd, who made the offer, reasoned that West Indies had a man who could lead them for a decade. Within a year, and without any first-class captaincy experience, he had the Test job, too.
He dismisses the idea this may have compromised his development, but there have been moments when a willingness to take responsibility has hurt him. During the 2015 World Cup, he assumed the role of death bowler, and against South Africa leaked 64 in his last two overs after his first five had cost nine. An analysis of one for 104 remains the most expensive in West Indies history.
It was a wiser, better, cricketer who flew to England in 2020 - the No. 1 allrounder in the Test rankings and, after one match, No. 2 in the bowling. His career-best six for 42 in Southampton helped inflict on England their only Test defeat of the year. Moving the ball both ways, from a nagging line and length, it was a masterful demonstration. England hit back. No side had won a Test at Old Trafford after inserting the opposition; Holder attempted it, in vain, twice. But he insists it was the execution that went awry. And it is true that, late on the fourth day of the Second Test, West Indies were 242 for four, perhaps an hour or two from securing a draw and, with it, the Wisden Trophy.
Asked if he could move into politics like Sir Frank Worrell, he says, with feeling: "No chance." But as the conversation moves on, the potential politician, the embryonic statesman, the natural leader with a sense of justice, returns to the surface. "More has to be done so world cricket doesn't die," he says. "Smaller territories are going to feel the financial brunt of Covid-19 most. The ICC have to step in. And if they're not prepared to distribute revenues from global events more evenly, then the touring team should be entitled to a portion of revenue from bilateral series." One way or another, you suspect Holder will still be a giant, still striving to make a difference, still leading from the front, well beyond the boundary.
Mohammad Rizwan by Osman Samiuddin
A little like goalkeepers and the Ballon d'Or, it isn't often wicketkeepers are Wisden Cricketers of the Year. Since the first players were chosen in 1889, they have accounted for only one in 15. And many of those were chosen for their batting as much as their glovework.
There is a paradox here. Like goalkeepers, the less attention wicketkeepers attract, the better we imagine they have performed. And there is a theme among some of the Almanack's recent wicketkeeping winners: Mark Boucher's "unpretentious" style, Matt Prior going "unnoticed", and the same adjective for Jack Russell, "until the rare fumble". Even a purist such as Chris Read might have missed out had he not led Nottinghamshire to the Championship.
It says something about the modern accent on a keeper's batting that Mohammad Rizwan's work behind the stumps last summer was noticed, precisely for its expertise. Few wicketkeepers emerge well from an England tour, because of the late wobble, the often low bounce, the murky light. And Rizwan's five catches and a stumping in three Tests does not sound like a rich haul; his England counterpart, Jos Buttler, caught nine.
Yet there was an adroitness to Rizwan's work. Those numbers hide more than they tell. His grab to dismiss Ben Stokes on the final day at Old Trafford was spectacular: Yasir Shah's googly, from round the wicket, pitched in the rough, spat at the batsman, brushed his glove and climbed further, so that Rizwan parried it from around his left shoulder, before recovering to complete the catch. Then there was his balance while pulling off a diving take in front of first slip to dismiss Joe Root at Southampton, possible even after a step to leg because the ball was so straight. And the anticlimactic end to the monumental 267 from Zak Crawley, who fell to Asad Shafiq's part-time off-spin, dimmed a sparkling leg-side stumping.
There were runs, too, harking back in manner and tone to a pre-Gilchristian age. Scored in a crisis, of course, but nuggety; malleable enough to accommodate the strengths or limitations of the partner; sensitive to the need of the hour.
Wicketkeeping, though, was Rizwan's superpower, all the more remarkable given he had done the job only once before in England - the most difficult country, he says, for keepers. But he was well prepared, thanks to years of practising when he had least motivation. "I believe I have a few things in my control, one of which is how hard I can work," he says. "Work that, deep inside, I don't want to do. I would wake up very early, right after Fajr [dawn] prayers, when you really don't want to wake up, and then do two hours of keeping. In Ramadan, I would practise at noon for a couple of hours before a game."
Beyond that, beyond tips from mentors such as Rashid Latif and Steve Rixon, and beyond the conditioning work of Grant Bradburn, there was an unshakable resolve. "My attitude was, I don't care where the ball hits me: it can't go past me. The pain from being hit will go away. But the pain of letting through four byes will never go. Those runs will never come back. You can break fingers or your mouth, so my aim was: 'OK, break them, but just don't let it get through you.'"
MOHAMMAD RIZWAN was born in Peshawar on June 1, 1992, the middle of three brothers among six siblings. His father, Akhter Parvez, didn't approve of his cricket as a child, though his grandfather was greatly encouraging.
In early tape-ball games, Rizwan - honing his reflexes and wit - became known as "Jonty" because of his willingness to dive on any surface. He had no wicketkeeping hero, but he does remember wanting gloves when others wanted bats and pads. He became so renowned that teams would call him up to keep in one-off tape-ball finals.
But it was when he joined the esteemed Islamia College, and Shama Club, one of the region's best, that his rise acquired a sharper gradient. By 2007, he was playing for Peshawar Under-19. Thereafter, Rizwan's progress slowed a touch, partly because Pakistan's cricket gaze was only just starting to spread beyond Karachi and Punjab. His first-class debut took another 18 months, but the grounding was useful: in 2008-09, he hit five fifties (four unbeaten) in his first seven innings. Yet had it not been for a finger injury to Riaz Afridi - elder brother of current Test seamer Shaheen Shah Afridi - Peshawar might have remained Rizwan's ceiling.
Against Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited, the scene's dominant side, in 2011-12, Rizwan came on as substitute, and took a spectacular catch at third slip, attracting the attention of Sui Northern coach Basit Ali. When, a few weeks later - against Sui Northern once more - Rizwan held eight catches and scored a vital 46, Basit had seen enough. A formal offer followed. Worried about breaking into such a strong XI, Rizwan prevaricated; but once he understood how much he could learn from being around Test cricketers, he made the move.
In his first first-class game for his new side, he made 68. If it took him a while to break into the Pakistan team, it was because of the omnipresence, until 2019, of Sarfraz Ahmed. A few white-ball internationals here, a lone Test in New Zealand there (playing as a batsman at Hamilton, he was bounced out first ball by Neil Wagner).
But Sarfraz's demise changed Rizwan's fortunes so much that, when Azhar Ali was removed as Test captain late last year, Rizwan was one of two candidates to replace him. Ultimately, the job went to Babar Azam, but the selectors had been taken with Rizwan's pristine 37 and 95 at the Gabba in 2019-20, his second Test, three years after his first.
Two fifties in difficult conditions in England sealed his standing. And when Babar was injured in New Zealand at the end of 2020, Rizwan took charge, scoring 71, 60 and 61 in a 2-0 defeat. In an era of terrible, underprepared pitches in Pakistan, he had a first-class average of 43, displaying cussedness all the way. "This England attack, they have swing and pace, and I got hit by Jofra Archer. I was nervous until then, but once I got hit, I thought: 'I'm set now.' Nothing worse can happen." In fact, only good things did.
Dominic Sibley by Rob Smyth
Dom Sibley knew he wouldn't get much sleep. Two or three hours probably, four if he was lucky. It had always been this way. Adrenalin and anticipation mean that, if he is unbeaten overnight, he is likely to be not out in more ways than one. "When I bat, I can't switch off," he says. "I'm excited, especially if I'm near a hundred."
On the night of July 16, Sibley was 86 not out against West Indies at Old Trafford, tantalisingly close to satisfying his new craving: Test hundreds. Six months earlier, in Cape Town, he had been on 85 overnight, before reaching his maiden century. Never mind the nervous nineties: in 2020, Sibley had to deal with the eternal eighties.
His natural tempo can make the journey to a century a long one - he doesn't use the motorway - but he keeps getting there. A breakthrough innings at Grace Road in September 2018 was the first of 12 first-class hundreds in under two years, more than anyone else in the world over the same period. For a man with Sibley's substance-to-style ratio, that's an important badge of honour. The sequence includes those two Test centuries, in his first year as an England opener. "I know what it takes to score a Test hundred now," he said. "It's draining and it's tough work, but it's the best feeling in the world."
Sibley got the 14 runs he needed against West Indies, and went on to bat over nine hours for 120. A mighty partnership of 260 with Ben Stokes was the foundation of victory in the match and the series, and the highlight of a summer in which Sibley was England's chief bricklayer.
DOMINIC PETER SIBLEY, born on September 5, 1995, in Epsom, has been scoring runs for as long as anyone can remember. Cricket was part of his family life, and his father, Mark, was briefly the ECB's commercial director.
Dom joined Surrey at the age of nine, and his potential was soon being spoken of in hushed tones. He was first mentioned in Wisden for hitting six sixes in an over for Whitgift School Under-13s, but it was not until 2011 that he started to think a career in cricket might be possible. He won five awards at the Bunbury Festival and, two days later, smashed a double-hundred in the Surrey Championship for Ashtead against a Weybridge attack including former England seamer Jimmy Ormond. Sibley was 15.
He enjoyed other sports, especially rugby, but the case for focusing on cricket was irresistible. In 2013, he became the youngest (18 years 21 days) since W. G. Grace in 1866 to score a first-class double-century in England - 242 for Surrey against Yorkshire. But the fairytale turned into a cautionary tale. "I thought I'd cracked it, and my career would be a smooth ride. That's why cricket is such a great game, because there are so many ups and downs. Mother Cricket keeps you on your toes."
A lack of confidence, new signings at Surrey, and the weight of expectation made the next few years a struggle. A fresh start at Warwickshire in 2017 didn't help. Then, the following year, before that trip to Leicester, Jonathan Trott suggested he open his stance. Sibley tried it in the nets, and felt more balanced. It was his Eureka moment.
On the day Alastair Cook scored a century in his final Test, Sibley made 106 against Leicestershire - the first of six hundreds in consecutive first-class matches across two summers. In between, he resisted the lure of club cricket in Perth, and spent the winter in England, grooving his new technique. "I wanted to film myself, and understand what had made me score those hundreds. It was a case of homing in on that, and doing the dark, dingy hours."
A Test call-up became inevitable. Sibley was picked on sheer weight of runs, not to mention balls faced: 3,024 in the 2019 Championship, more than 1,000 clear of any Division One rival. With Chris Silverwood replacing Trevor Bayliss as England coach, Sibley was a symbolic departure from the limited-overs Test cricket they had been playing. Last summer, he was at it again, facing 941 balls in Tests, over 100 more than anybody else.
England's average score when he was dismissed was 92; the figure for Cook, Andrew Strauss and Geoffrey Boycott over their careers was in the eighties. By seeing the shine off the new ball, and taking the spring out of the bowlers' step, Sibley made life easier for an explosive middle order. He was frustrated by unconverted starts - "I should have scored another century in South Africa, and maybe another in the summer" - but they were valuable innings, the batting equivalent of bowling a long spell into the wind.
While he is reluctant to accept praise for thirties and forties, he was surprised by the criticism of his scoring-rate after his Old Trafford century, especially as it took place in favourable bowling conditions: "Getting negative comments after a Test hundred was a bit of an eye-opener." Oddly, life in the bubble made it even harder to escape the outside world, because he had no access to his inner circle. "Usually I like to go out for food, or see friends and get away from the game. We couldn't do that, so I ended up reading on my phone more than I normally would."
The critics of Sibley's tempo - and bottom-handed technique - were guilty of looking a gift plodder in the mouth. His approach was just what England needed, and his team-mates told him as much in the dressing-room during a rainy third day. Further validation came when England squared the series, just as they had at Cape Town. In their six Test victories of 2020, only Stokes scored more runs. Sibley is desperate for more - not just centuries, but centuries in wins.
After his false dawn in 2013, he will never take good form for granted again. He nets compulsively, and his self-improvement regime extended to losing almost two stone during the spring lockdown, a response to watching team-mates train in the humidity of Sri Lanka.
While his physical fitness needed work, his mental strength is God-given. Yet Sibley is as intrigued as anyone by his old-fashioned ability to bat for hours. "Honestly, I don't know where it comes from. At school I couldn't concentrate at all! When I was younger, I got some big scores, and people said I could bat for long periods of time, so I just kept trying to do that." Doesn't he ever get bored? "Ah mate, you don't get tired of batting. If I'm still out there at 6pm, I'm where I want to be." If it means a few more sleepless nights, he can live with that.
Darren Stevens by Mark Pennell
The dismissal itself was typical enough, yet for Darren Stevens it was unforgettable. In early August, against Sussex at Canterbury, he skidded one down the Nackington Road slope to the left-handed George Garton; it pitched on middle, hit the seam, and clattered off stump. Stevens wheeled away to celebrate his 27th first-class five-for. Business as usual? Not quite.
He was holding the ball aloft, not to acknowledge the crowd, since there was none, but in dedication to his father, Bob, who had recently died at a Leicester care home from Covid-related illnesses. "My dad loved cricket, loved watching me play, loved walking round at Canterbury," he says. "I knew he'd be up there, watching me bowl, with a pint at his right hand. When dad died, there was some talk about a few county games being played, but I wasn't bothered about cricket going ahead or not.
"My priority was the family, my mum especially: she was self-isolating for a fortnight after dad passed. "I spent that time living in a tiny caravan on my cousin's driveway in Leicester to try and be near her. That way, I could visit mum, speak to her through the window and show her she wasn't alone. I so wanted to give her a hug, but we couldn't - it was horrible. Then we had the funeral, which was dreadful too, because we had to restrict the numbers.
"So when the cricket did finally come, it was a welcome distraction. I considered not playing, but then I thought again of my dad, who'd have been telling me to get on with it. If ever I'd had an injury niggle, he used to say: 'Your grandad would play with a broken leg.' Dad would have wanted me to play on. So I did."
The Sussex game provided the first of Stevens's three five-wicket returns as Kent came second in the South Group of the Bob Willis Trophy. He finished the competition with 29 wickets at 15; only Essex off-spinner Simon Harmer and Somerset's Craig Overton took more.
For the second year running, Stevens convinced the club to extend his contract, and was set to play into his 46th year - his 17th with Kent, and 25th in all. There were no plans to call time on a career that, across three formats, has reaped 27,323 runs and 820 wickets. Wisden hasn't chosen an older Cricketer of the Year since Leicestershire's Ewart Astill in 1933. Among players in their forties, only W. G. Grace had previously taken ten wickets in a match and scored a double-hundred in the same English season, as Stevens did in 2019.
He is now the oldest bowler to regularly open Kent's attack since Edgar Willsher in the 1870s. And he is the county's first non-international to be recognised by the Almanack since Jack Bryan in 1922. Not bad for a colour-blind cricketer who struggles to differentiate between browns, reds and greens.
DARREN IAN STEVENS was born in Leicester on April 30, 1976. Both his father, who ran a cleaning company, and his grandfather Reg played club cricket, while his mother, Maddy, worked as a seamstress for hosiery firms, and helped make the teas. At school, Stevens loved football and even dabbled with baseball but, thanks to his father's persistence, he went for cricket.
He joined Leicestershire in 1997, scoring the first of his four Championship centuries for them against Sussex at Arundel, as an opener; to mark the occasion, Colin Cowdrey presented him with an oil painting of the ground. But after eight seasons he was struggling to keep his place, having gained a reputation for "pretty thirties".
He hit 105 and 70 in his penultimate home game, in 2004, against a Hampshire attack including Chris Tremlett and Shane Warne, but was released a fortnight later. He joined Kent, where he became an instant favourite for his aggressive but stylish batting, and sharp slip catching. Yet not until surgery for a chronic ankle issue did he become a relentlessly accurate seamer.
Stevens credits Rob Key, his former county captain, for his epiphany. During an early-season draw with Lancashire on a sluggish Old Trafford pitch in 2010, Key - keen to manage the workload of his frontline seamers - threw the second new ball to Stevens, who finished with four for 44. A year later came six for 60 (the first of 29 hauls of five or more) as Essex were beaten at Chelmsford. His best return is eight for 75, against his former county, at Canterbury in 2017 - a summer that produced a career-best first-class tally of 63.
His longevity as a seamer may owe something to the fact that he rarely bowled for Leicestershire: 105.3 overs produced six first-class wickets at 67, with a best of two for 50, in his final game. Though occasionally derided as a Division Two trundler, Stevens has two match hauls of ten or more: 11 for 70 as Kent drubbed Surrey at Canterbury in 2011, then ten for 92 at Trent Bridge in 2019. A week later, he took five for 20 against Yorkshire, having hit 237. That was one of 34 first-class hundreds - he has also made seven in one-day matches - that mark him out as a rare breed: a genuine all-rounder, good enough to hold his place as batsman or bowler.
His ability to destroy an attack also made him a central figure in Kent's white-ball teams until early 2019. The high point came in 2007, when he clattered the winning boundary against Gloucestershire in a tight Twenty20 Cup final at Edgbaston - Kent's first trophy in six years.
During the close season, Stevens has played club cricket in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, and starred for T20 franchises in Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Bangladesh, where his team, Dhaka Gladiators, won back-to-back titles. After the second of those triumphs, in 2012-13, he became embroiled in match-fixing allegations; charged with failing to report a corrupt approach, he was later exonerated. The next two Bangladesh Premier Leagues were cancelled, but he returned in 2015-16 to play for Comilla Victorians: three tidy overs in the final helped clinch his third BPL title out of three.
But Kent is where the heart is, and his enthusiastic description of the wicket that had him acknowledging his dad that afternoon at Canterbury tells of a passion that hasn't waned. "It was a good ball. We spoke about trying to hit Garton on the pads, because he gets across with his front foot. I swung everything into him and, once he started staying leg side, I ran one down the slope. The plan worked." It often has.