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FEATURE: Division One return beckons for Kent’s young guns

Matt Walker

These are the weeks of previews and predictions. Such forecasts are often made by former cricketers with long experience of the game yet they should probably carry a cautionary disclaimer. For do you remember what folk were saying about Kent last March? 

A year ago it was tough to find many pundits who believed Sam Billings’ team would be celebrating promotion come September.

Yet six months or so later Kent were in with a chance of pipping Warwickshire for the Division Two title. Their cricket had surprised a lot of people and among their number was the county’s admirably straightforward head coach, Matt Walker.

“If I’m brutally honest we were a young side who had brought in new players,” said Walker.

“Despite the due diligence we always carry out you never know how those players are going to perform and I felt that our best chance of doing something was in the T20 Blast.

“We hoped to win some games of cricket and then assess things at the end of the season. But as it turned out the belief and confidence grew to the extent we won promotion, got to a Lord’s final and reached the last eight of the Blast.

“In terms of wins we were the most successful team in the land. So, yes, there was an element of surprise, I didn’t expect it to go as well as it did.”

Walker’s admission makes it possible to have an understanding of the excitement and anticipation around the Spitfire Ground this spring.

Having built a squad capable of getting into the First Division, the coach is looking forward to seeing how his players cope against the best teams in the land. But he has the reassurance that whatever happens, Kent’s foundations are secure.

“For me last year was about getting it right off the field and building something of which we were proud,” he said. “Bringing in a director of cricket changed everything and having Paul Downton in that role gave structure to the management team.

“Between us we set out a philosophy of the team-first family which had been lost over the years. Now there’s a brilliant atmosphere around the place.”

But while managers and coaches can scribble words like ‘mood’ and ‘positivity’ on flip charts until they run out of marker pens their efforts will be useless unless their players share those ambitions.

So what pleased Walker in 2018 was that Kent’s first-team squad subscribed to his approach and he believes this will help sustain them when difficult days come along this summer.

“When you saw how guys bought into what we were trying to deliver and how hard they worked, it wasn’t a surprise we won games,” he said.

“As we got deeper into the season it became a surprise when we didn’t play well. You’d see a performance you thought was the best you’d seen but next day it was followed by an even better one.

“It became clear that this group of players expected and expect high things of themselves.”

Matthew Renshaw is heading to Kent
Incoming from Queensland: Australia opener Matthew Renshaw has joined Kent for the first few County Championship matches. Photo: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

It helps, of course, when you have a bowler like Matt Henry, who took 75 wickets in Division Two last year. To his regret  Walker has decided Henry’s New Zealand commitments will make him unavailable this year, and with both Sam Billings and Joe Denly at the IPL, he has signed the Australian opener, Matt Renshaw, for the early part of the season while keeping the option of recruiting a strike bowler for later in the campaign.

Those decisions load extra responsibilities on the relatively inexperienced shoulders of seamers such as Harry Podmore and Grant Stewart, but Walker is comfortable with that.

“You could see young players grow last season and I’m hoping the young attack we have this year will be our attack for the next ten years and become a real force,” he said.

“A lot will be asked of those players because we don’t currently have an out-and-out strike bowler. We might have some tough days but I think they’ll learn a lot from it.”

And the coach is also excited about the arrival of Renshaw, who will soon be batting with Heino Kuhn, another of the county’s successful signings.

“People will see Matt coming over and say he’s getting ready for a possible Ashes series but we just looked at what we needed,” he said.

“Matt’s dynamic, young, hungry, he’s a left-hander and he’s played early-season cricket in England before.

“And it’s important we attract good people as well as good cricketers. They have to possess a level of skill but character is also right up there because it’s extremely important that we have the right people in the dressing-room.

“We want people who want to be here, people who are going to offer more than just turning up and playing. Heino does that and he was just such a great acquisition.”

No one who has seen the way Kuhn goes about his cricket is terribly surprised he has been appointed Kent’s interim skipper while Billings and Denly are at the IPL.

And when he leads his team out at Taunton next Friday, the South African will almost certainly have at his side the evergreen Darren Stevens, a cricketer who, at the grand age of 42, still has the enthusiasm of a 20-year-old and whose ambitions still burn so fiercely that he engaged a personal trainer this winter.

“It’s not a sentimental decision to keep Darren here,” said Walker. “We asked ourselves whether he offers us value and the answer was: Yes. He has great experience and great skill, especially early season with the new ball.

“But it was a difficult year for him last year because he wants to play in every single game and he didn’t play at all in the T20.

“The young kids are snapping at his heels but that’s something we’ve wanted for a long time. Darren still has the hunger, he still wants to be the best he can be and that’s why he’s had such an incredible career.

“God knows when he’s going to want to finish.”

PAUL EDWARDS / Photo: Getty Images

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