45-year-old allrounder takes 2 for 22 without conceding a boundary as Hampshire stumble to defeat
Kent 176 for 6 (Robinson 48, Denly 44, Bell-Drummond 42, Crane 3-23) beat Hampshire 138 for 9 (Klaassen 4-32) by 38 runs
Modern T20 cricket is almost unrecognisable from the format launched as the Twenty20 Cup in 2003 but at least one thing has not changed: Darren Stevens, county cricket’s Peter Pan, is still a match-winner. A week short of 18 years since his debut in the format, opening the batting in Leicestershire’s first-ever T20 fixture, Stevens made his long-awaited return to Kent’s Vitality Blast side after a four-year absence and turned their season opener on its head to spearhead a comfortable win.Hampshire had reached 51 without loss after the powerplay when Stevens came into the attack but at the end of a miserly four-over spell featuring two wickets, no boundaries and only 22 runs, they were dead and buried: the required rate had soared from exactly nine an over to an eye-watering 12.71, setting a collapse of nine wickets for 78 runs in motion. Fred Klaassen won the match award for his four wickets, but had the grace to admit it had been: “The Darren Stevens show – quite remarkable.”
For the last three years Stevens has told anyone who would listen – and plenty who wouldn’t, including Kent’s coaching staff – that T20 is his favourite format and that he should have been part of their side, but his returns with the bat had tailed off from 2015-17 and he had played an increasingly peripheral role with the ball. He had won the competition twice, but those days were long gone.
An unsuccessful loan spell at Derbyshire in 2019 seemed to confirm he was no longer the white-ball force that had once come close to an England cap and with his Championship bowling as potent as ever, Kent opted to manage his workload and looked the other way. He had first fallen out of the side when injured in 2018: “When I came back, the youngsters were doing okay and they just said ‘we’re going to give them a bit of a go’,” he said. “I get it, but I’m just gutted.”
But tonight their hand was forced. Sam Billings and Zak Crawley were with England’s Test squad, while Qais Ahmad and Adam Milne were still in quarantine; Imran Qayyum’s retirement had forced them to bring in James Logan on a short-term deal at the 11th hour, and Harry Podmore was not risked on his way back from injury.So in came Stevens, becoming the first 45-year-old to make an appearance in English domestic T20 cricket. Joe Denly and Daniel Bell-Drummond got Kent off to a flying start, making 44 and 42 respectively off 23 balls each, while Ollie Robinson – the other one – anchored the innings after Mason Crane picked up three middle-over wickets with his legbreaks.Robinson’s stand of 54 with Jordan Cox for the sixth wicket meant Stevens faced a single ball after walking out to a warm ovation from the 1,000 or so fans at Canterbury, which he clipped to square leg for one. And when Bell-Drummond threw the new ball to Denly rather than Stevens – who had briefly been a first-over specialist in 2017, often limited to a solitary over in an innings – it seemed as though this grand return would be little more than an anti-climax.
But Stevens’ scriptwriters have a penchant for the romantic. D’Arcy Short and James Vince – one of the Blast’s best opening pairs on paper – had tucked into Klaassen and Grant Stewart in the first six overs and Stevens’ arrival in the seventh was designed to limit the damage, on a pitch that suited pace-off options throughout the night.
“From the Nackington Road End, Darren Stevens,” declared the ground’s announcer to the loudest cheer of the night. And then, the inevitable: a length ball just outside leg stump to the left-hander, a tickle down the leg side, a clean catch from Robinson and a joyous celebration. Short stood perplexed, convinced the ball had flicked his pad rather than his inside edge, but by the time he had dragged himself off the Kent faithful were one in song: “There’s only one Darren Stevens”.
Sam Northeast, who had spoken about his difficulties facing his great mate Stevens after inviting him onto the Two Hacks, One Pro podcast last year, was the new man at No. 3. He punched his first ball for a couple but struggled to get the next four away, managing only three dots and a single. “I’m feeling good as hell,” Lizzo sang over the PA system at the end of the over and Stevens must have been too.
Stevens was backed up by Logan, a tall left-arm spinner from Wakefield who was born six months after Stevens’ first-class debut, whose three overs would cost only 14 runs as he nagged away on a length, and Stevens conceded only five from his second over, changing his grip and his pace and bowling to his field.
The pressure told as Northeast hacked Logan to long-off, running in off the rope, and with Vince too losing his fluency, he decided to take a length ball from Stevens on; Cox ran in to take the catch at deep midwicket, and the celebrations resumed. When Klaassen returned to take two wickets in the 15th over, Hampshire still hadn’t found the rope since the fielding restrictions were lifted and despite Joe Weatherley’s late flourish, they were always a long way short.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98