County cricket: Kent’s Royal London Cup win was a great 50-over showcase | Cricket

Ball one: Remembrance of things past

“We’ll have a bat.” Really Joe Denly? In mid-September? In a one-day final? Does nobody remember Phil DeFreitas? But so much about cricket has changed since the old orthodoxies of the 1970s and 1980s, even since 1995 when I saw these two sides duke it out for the Benson & Hedges Cup at Lord’s.

Back then, three archetypal Test match batters, Michael Atherton, Jason Gallian and John Crawley, dominated the Lancashire innings, scoring 212 of 274 for seven from the designated 55 overs. Hitters such as Graham Lloyd, Wasim Akram and Ian Austin barely got in, but few cared because the target set (five an over!) was deemed a stiff one.

Those of us in the Lancashire seats in 1995 sat back and enjoyed a perfect chase. Aravinda de Silva thrilled everyone with a magnificently constructed 112, batting on a different plane, fully deserving of the Gold Award. But local lads Austin, Mike Watkinson, Gary Yates and Glen Chapple (OK – he’s nearly local) kept squeezing and taking wickets at the other end and the result was never really in doubt.

Fast forward to the present and the sun was baking a glassy outfield at Trent Bridge as the same two clubs locked horns again 27 years on. The extent of that heat so late in the summer is another difference from 20th-century life, one that provokes an unease even as we delight in its warmth. Whether the 21st century will provide as warm a reception for 50-over county cricket is another concern to cloud the bluest of skies.

Ball two: Lavelle washes away any selection doubts

Ollie Robinson (who we know can push on, as his 206 in the competition’s first match demonstrated) had got through the first hour for Kent at almost a run a ball and had a personal platform to accelerate. Then Liam Hurt got a length delivery to seam back through the gate, rapping the inside edge en route.

George Lavelle had to get everything right: sufficiently balanced to push off his left foot (usually the “wrong” one for a wicketkeeper with a right-hander at the crease); sufficiently athletic to dive to reach a ball that would have eluded many other keepers, so thick was the edge; sufficiently adept with the gloves to hold on to the catch in the ends of his fingers, scooping it up from ankle height.

Lavelle is 22 and keeping in this match only because Phil Salt is away with England. It might have been a tight call in deciding between him and the other George, the all-rounder, Balderson, with Dane Vilas able to take the gloves if required. In a single moment of brilliance, the young technician justified his place as an old-school wicketkeeper-battter (in that order).

Ball three: Kent’s batters make the most of reprieves

Kent set Lancashire 307 to win the cup. At the halfway mark, that looked about par, the fact that no batter really got away offset by Lancashire leaking runs through dropped catches and some rather substandard out cricket.

With the camel an extinct creature in cricket, outfields akin to a snooker table’s baize and year-round contracts facilitating practice and analysis of almost any situation that might arise in the harum-scarum death overs, it seemed anomalous for so many errors to yield runs. Lavelle conceded a single with an unnecessary throw at the stumps, and Keaton Jennings and Luke Wells nearly had an on-field row after Jennings appeared to get a late call for a skyer. The Red Rose men dropped more than they caught too.

Rob Jones and Jennings did effect a fine relay catch in the deep, but that does not excuse a shoddy 25 overs or so from Lancashire. Fielding can often be the difference between sides in finals and it’s hard to believe that Kent will be more careless.

Tom Bailey of Lancashire is bowled by Nathan Gilchrist.
Tom Bailey of Lancashire is bowled by Nathan Gilchrist. Photograph: Steve Poole/Shutterstock

Ball four: The long and the short of it

Luke Wells completed a less than happy day with a meek dismissal for 16, bringing Josh Bohannon to the crease. It doesn’t help that the No 3 is batting with the beanpole Jennings, but he looks very short to the naked eye. Power hitting is not his forte, and Kent knew that if they could choke off the horizontal bat shots square on either side of the wicket, Lancashire’s scoring rate could be arrested.

Bohannon’s lack of power found him out in the end, a pale pick-up shot pouched well inside the boundary by Grant Stewart. If you’re going to hit the ball there (and the delivery did demand it) you have to hit it for six. If you can’t, then there has to be a question mark against the selection in a white-ball XI. Balderson (yes, I am missing him) would have offered more with the bat and also been a very handy bowling option.

Ball five: Good Game! Good Game!

Usually by 5.15pm on a sunny day, the Barmy Army might be in full (tedious) voice, a variety of royals in fancy dress may be essaying a conga or a DJ might be witlessly geeing up the crowd. Not at Trent Bridge.

With 17 overs to bowl, Lancashire were 176 for four, 15 behind the DLS par and the crowd was very interested in every ball. Kent supporters applauded every dot, Lancashire supporters every single. Everyone inside the ground (not much corporate hospitality, not many neutrals) was aware of the stakes and the fact that, six and a half hours after play started, we were no closer to knowing the eventual victors.

I had cause to reflect on a statement I used to trot out in the early days of T20 – limited-overs cricket is the second-best game in the world.

Ball six: Kent win in fine advert for 50-overs format

In the final analysis, Kent bowled better and batted better, but the key difference was the fielding, with Lancashire no more than C- and Kent an A+.

Lancashire might wonder about the balance of their side, short of power-hitters and specialist slow bowling, but they were turned over by a fine team effort. It was led by 20-year-old Joey Evison, who sounds like he should be opening for Sammy Davis Jr at The Sands Hotel in 1967, but actually opened for Kent with a beautifully judged 97, supplemented by canny spells with the ball and the second of three spectacular catches. He was an obvious player of the match, but his skipper Joe Denly was not far behind, especially in galvanising such a strong collective performance.

Player of the match Joey Evison smashes a six on his way to 97 for Kent.
Player of the match Joey Evison smashes a six on his way to 97 for Kent. Photograph: Steve Bond/PPAUK/Shutterstock

Kent have ended a run of losing appearances in finals, but there were no real losers. Both sides stayed true to the players who had seen them through to the showpiece occasion, allowing squad players the chance to go down in local folklore (with Darren Stevens). If the stardust and standard wasn’t what it might have been with a Liam Livingstone or a Sam Billings in town, nobody cared much in a partisan crowd, who were right behind the lads who wore their team’s colours.

It was a hard-fought match too, played in good spirit in front of a raucous, but not boorish, house that took perhaps half the seats available. Like much of English cricket, the future of the domestic 50-over competition is in question but, for two years in a row, it has produced great entertainment, created new heroes and delivered a sustained narrative. With Kent’s name added next to Glamorgan’s in 2021, a pair of cricket’s less glamorous clubs have grasped a little glory too.

If the Royal London Cup and its successors are to be shunted around and devalued further in pursuit of “high performance”, English cricket should know what it’s losing. Feel free to ask Kent’s players and fans if you want an answer to that one.

This article is from The 99.94 Cricket Blog
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