Sam Northeast’s match-winning century started and ended to mild, but universal, applause. The least you might expect on reaching three figures but, for the former Kent captain (105 not out from 95 balls), not necessarily a given; in last year’s final at Lord’s Northeast walked out to a sea of boos from the Kent travelling support.
“Saturday football crowd,” remarked one voice in the stands. Not, therefore, like the county regulars who were out in numbers today. Because they’re protective of their own here in Canterbury. Kent, after all, have been through a lot; capitulating to a 90-run defeat today, last week they notched only their first County Championship win in the First Division since 2010. Gritty realism, some might suggest pessimism, is a hallmark of the Kent faithful who have felt constantly aggrieved at their players being overlooked for higher honours, Northeast among them.
Despite the acrimonious nature of Northeast’s departure early last year, no one, deep down, at his boyhood club would begrudge him should England come knocking. More a question of “when” rather than “if” according to most in these parts, Northeast will win an England call-up. Especially if he keeps playing his former club. Alongside his unbeaten 75 in last year’s One-Day Cup final, Northeast has now scored 180 runs in two List A innings against Kent, therefore yet to form an average.
He’s starting to settle too. After an inconsistent season hampered by a finger injury, he has two centuries and a 99 in three matches across all formats already this year. It is a sign of how well Northeast has been welcomed into the Hampshire dressing room when, still on 88 and with just five balls of the innings left, he mis-hit a heave towards long-on. Chris Wood never thought twice about turning for a second, making a suicidal dash back towards the non-strikers end. Wood had sacrificed himself but Northeast, crucially, retained the strike and with it the opportunity to reach three figures. This he did two balls later, a fine stroke down the ground for a much safer two.
There was a sense of inevitability that this match would have at least one high scoring innings; before today, four of the five highest totals in List A matches between these two counties came last year. There was a sense of inevitability too as to which way this match was going to go when Heino Kuhn, Kent’s interim captain and 2018’s runaway leading run scorer, was cruelly run out for nought, backing up at the non-strikers end. Six overs in, three wickets down and the chase was up.
The St Lawrence Ground is a traditional cricket fiefdom at its best. A quaint, slightly disordered venue, on the first day of the white ball season its open banks were lined with packed lunches, faded sun hats and well worn fleeces proudly displaying county crests. It could not have been further away from the grand aura of Lord’s, where England’s preliminary World Cup squad was announced earlier in the morning.
An announcement which came at exactly the time the first ball of the One-Day Cup was being sent down. As a further reflection of where domestic one-day cricket stands according to its governing body, only one player from these two sides, last year’s best, made the cut. Not that he was present however; Joe Denly, like current Kent captain Sam Billings, is at the IPL.
Back in Blighty and on a good deck, Kent opted to bowl. A bold move for an attack which seemed either too raw and inexperienced, or too far the other way; Darren Stevens, now in his 22nd year of professional cricket, has played almost eight times the number of List A games than Kent’s four other front line bowlers. Still, Matthew Milnes, on List A debut, scalped a five-for and with it a warm welcome to his new club.
We mustn’t forget the James Vince sub-plot however. Captain of the reigning champions, a majestic 171 in last year’s semis he lured us in with a dreamy drive through the covers off his first ball. In the cruellest of put-downs, Vince was this morning named in England’s ODI outfit to take on Ireland, replacing rested bigger beasts, this is the only squad in selector Ed Smith’s carefully worded statement in whose players have not got a chance for World Cup contention.
A neat swivel off the hips had us all wondering as Vince dealt in clean cut strokes and crisp boundaries. Each effortless drive was guided to the ropes like a missile, its target decided hours before the bowler had even released the ball. Because that is the man that Vince is: the type of well presented fella our mothers want introducing to. Nothing untoward, nothing fancy and certainly nothing unexpected.
Only England don’t play like that anymore. Just as Smith, in attendance, started to question the merits of Vince’s omission, all of a sudden he, and we, were reminded of exactly why the victorious captain no longer features automatically on an England team sheet. The left arm spinner Imran Qayyum was bought on and three balls later Vince was gone, an exact replica of proceedings last summer. Both hitting out, both as Vince was starting to motor and seemingly infallible to the naked eye, all of a sudden Vince was gone, victim once more to the demons in his head and lessons, as ever, not learnt.
• A version of this article was originally printed in The Telegraph on 17 April 2019.