By Matt Somerford
Kent’s fourth successive season in LV= County Championship Division Two offered as much reason for optimism as it did frustration.
A growing band of promising home-grown players fired Kent to the semi-finals of the Royal London One-Day Cup, yet a sixth-placed championship finish underlined that there is still much work to be done to bridge the gap between potential and results.
Five of the starting XI that lost their cup semi-final to a battle-hardened Warwickshire were born in Kent – and under the age of 25 – and in skipper Rob Key they have a long-time leader to ensure such talent is nurtured.
Kent have never spent so long outside the top flight but in the likes of Sam Billings and Adam Riley – both called up for this winter’s England Performance Programme tour – as well as vice-captain Sam Northeast, Alex Blake and Fabian Cowdrey the green shoots for the future are apparent.
According to Northeast, who hit 1,636 runs in all formats last summer, everything is in place for Kent to begin moving forward again.
But the 24-year-old, who was handed the captaincy duties at times during their cup run, knows the hard work is probably just starting.
“We showed glimpses of what we can do this season,” Northeast told ecb.co.uk.
“I think the semi-final at Edgbaston was an indicator of our season in some ways. We did so well to get there and played some excellent cricket but we just didn’t perform on the day.
“It was one of those seasons where we played some really good cricket at times and then not at others. We were not consistent enough. That is something we have to acknowledge.”
Inconsistency often has an association of youth and while Kent could be forgiven stomaching setbacks along the way, Northeast is wary of allowing apology-making to get in the path of progress.
“That’s the excuse. You can’t keep saying that and falling back on that as a reason,” he said.
“It is something we have to learn from to get that consistency so that we can mount a challenge.
“When you look in the championship we beat Surrey twice and then at the end of the season we dominated against Hampshire, who went on to be the champions, at the Ageas Bowl.
“Then we come back to Canterbury and put in a bad performance against Gloucestershire to finish.”
Northeast points to Billings’ eye-catching finish to the season as a blueprint for his team-mates to follow.
The 23-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman stormed into England calculations in the 50-over competition, where he was the fourth-highest run-scorer at an unmatched strike rate of 154.
Billings also hit half-centuries in each of the final four championship matches before being crowned Kent’s player of the season.
“He found a method to be successful during the season,” Northeast said.
“In the T20 he was struggling with his form and he had to find a way of dealing with it.
“It is hard because of the schedule. It probably has been tough this season; it’s new for everyone, knowing you have to come back hard so quickly in different formats.
“But he found a method and a way to get through it and enjoyed a good end to the season. That was the best example of what it takes during the season.”
Kent are hardly reliant on their young guns though with skipper Key and evergreen all-rounder Darren Stevens, who just missed out on winning the FTI MVP after yet another busy workload in his 18th first-class season.
“I don’t know how he bowls as many overs as he does; he’ll be playing until he’s 45 at this rate,” Northeast said.
“He is brilliant and it was a shame to see him just miss out to Jeetan Patel for that award. I thought he deserved it for the performances he put in across the season.”
Northeast has long been touted as a future captain and under the tutelage of Key he was able to mix leadership duties with the important job of churning out runs.
The right-hander, who will spend the winter playing club cricket in Brisbane, was Kent’s second-highest run-scorer in all three formats, a tidy return after a dip in form last year saw him average just 26 in the championship.
“It ended up a pretty decent season personally,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say I was great but at the end of the season I was second-top scorer in all formats and so therefore it was a pretty good season overall.
“I’m happy that I was able to make runs in all formats. It is tough switching your mindset with the way the schedule is, but you have to deal with that.
“I enjoyed the captaincy role I had too – I got a few opportunities in the one-dayers.
“It gives me a little bit of a taste of what is to come. I do enjoy it and we won some tight games as well.”
While Key endured a lean time in the championship – he was still the highest run-scorer in the NatWest T20 Blast – and Northeast does not expect to be taking the reins off him any time soon.
“Keysey has done a great job in the role and I’m lucky to be able to learn from him,” he said.
“I think he’s done an unbelievable job for the club I think he will come back stronger next season and certainly all of the players hope that.
“I don’t want to put words into his mouth – you would have to ask him – but I would think he wants to keep going. Certainly he would have the backing of all of the players.”
Certainly Key’s experience is invaluable to the club and a Kent core is being established with the addition of Matt Walker to the coaching staff earlier this year.
“Adding Matt Walker to the staff was important I think. There is a really good environment at the club,” Northeast said.
“It is easy to work with the coaching staff and senior players and everyone is willing to learn. Everything is in place to do well. We just have to go out and perform.
“Getting to the semi-finals of the one-day cup showed we can do that. We would have liked to have gone on further, but it gave all the youngsters a taste of that winning feeling. We can take that with us into next season.”
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