The Guardian: Royal London final – Forty years of hurt, and Kent will still be dreaming

Hampshire 330-7; Kent 269. Hampshire win by 61 runs
Sam Billings scores 75 off 60 but four run-outs cost Kent

Forty years of hurt, and Kent will still be dreaming. While England’s footballers look to rectify 52 years without a trophy, Kent’s last one-day triumph was in 1978 and the wait continues. A Rilee Rossouw century, four run-outs and an unbeaten 75 by their former captain Sam Northeast denied Kent a title once more, with Hampshire ultimately easing to a 61-run victory.

Queues around the corner and a crowd of almost 21,000 to witness the occasion gave evidence enough that a Lord’s final, despite the growing uncertainty surrounding domestic one-day cricket, retains an aura. Pre-match, the sense of occasion was not lost on the players. Dale Steyn talked of how special a Lord’s final was, his Hampshire captain, James Vince, spoke of being desperate for the trophy and Sam Billings wanted “the glory days back at Kent”.

The last time Kent won a final, county cricket’s Sunday league was one of the few places where consumption of alcohol was permitted on this denoted day of rest. While Billings was trying to re-enact the feats of yesteryear on the pitch, however, Kent’s travelling supporters appeared just as enthusiastic about achieving something similar off it. At least, the presumably beer-induced chanting made it appear so. At first, it was amicable enough. As Darren Stevens entered the Kent attack at the ripe old age of 42 and with 16 wickets in the tournament to date, chants of “Stev-o, Stev-o” started ringing around the ground. They say spinners do not reach their prime until 30; the same might be said of Stevens, a niggling, teasing seamer, but at 40.

Although Stevens toiled wicketless for 59 runs, when the left-arm spinner Imran Qayyum had the in-form Vince, his second wicket, caught at long-on for 23, there should have been much to cheer about among the Kent-centric spectators. Cue the ugly side of parochial county crowds. Northeast was booed first on walking to the crease and once again on reaching a sweetly struck 50.

Perhaps it was the reprieve handed to Northeast when he was dropped off a sharp chance by his successor, Billings, on 41 that dulled them. Maybe it was the afternoon sun. For only by the time Northeast strode off the field, having steered Hampshire to 330, did the boos finally make way for tentative, albeit reluctant, applause. Sport can be fierce, emotional and at times brutal but this reception, for a man simply trying to achieve his dream of playing for England, was uncalled for.

“That’s not really cricket, is it,” said Billings post-match of Northeast’s reception. “Sam’s a classy player, he showed that today, he played very well. Of course, whenever a player leaves a club there is going to be a bitterness but I don’t think that’s fair at all, really, to be blunt.”

Not that the ever-sanguine Northeast cared all that much. The England coach, Trevor Bayliss, was present in his bid to watch more county cricket, as was the national selector, Ed Smith, here to keep an eye on the generous smattering of young English talent. It was not a bad time for Northeast, who has missed almost two months of this season through a finger fracture, to deliver.

However, while Northeast (75 not out off 60), Daniel Bell-Drummond (86 off 89), Billings (75 off 60) and Tom Alsop (72 off 75) all put in admirable performances, it was another Kent veteran, albeit one 10 years younger than Stevens, who was living up to the spinners’ cliche. Before Saturday, only four wickets had fallen to an Englishman’s leg spin in Lord’s domestic finals. The 32-year-old Joe Denly’s four wickets doubled that tally. The calls, now more in jest, of “Denly for England” have resumed. Alongside Rossouw’s 114-ball 125, this was the standout feat. Combining with Qayyum, spin provided returns for Kent of six for 117, compared with seam’s contribution of two for 211.

Asked if Denly might be called a genuine all-rounder, Billings’s response was immediate. “Without a doubt. I think he’s done it consistently now and it’s a great asset to have on your side – if you’ve got that genuine sixth option who can bowl 10 overs. Some people might have thought it was Mumbai with him bowling in the last five overs!”

That this is only Billings’ first season as captain was demonstrated perhaps in his reluctance to turn to Qayyum, who picked up the first two wickets, sooner than the 23rd over. Hampshire, by contrast, had gone to great lengths to ensure they had their two England spinners at hand, Mason Crane playing despite a stress fracture, alongside Liam Dawson. Billings might be forgiven, however; this was only the second time this season that Kent have not taken a wicket in the first 10 overs. The first-wicket stand of 136, between Alsop and Rossouw, ultimately provided the platform for Hampshire’s daunting total.

• A version of this article was originally published in The Guardian on 30 June 2018. To access the original please click here.

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