CRICKET COMMENTARY : Kent desperate to end their long wait for title

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After all the talk, and before it all starts again, maybe we should try to concentrate on the cricket for a moment, unfashionable though that idea is becoming.

While the other contenders for the Championship have been busy over the weekend, Kent, the leaders going into the current round of matches, have been trying to contain the Australians at Canterbury by way of preparation for their run-in, which starts at Taunton on Wednesday.

Kent have been waiting for almost 20 years for another Championship to add to the three they won or tied for in the 1970s. Rightly or wrongly, that now seems like a golden era for the county game, and for no team more than Kent. With Alan Knott and Derek Underwood, Asif Iqbal and Bernard Julian, they won nine different titles, including a double of some description three times.

But the 1980s brought no reward, and the '90s has yielded just one Sunday League title, two years ago. That was not enough to appease members who saw their team finish bottom of the Championship that same year, and despite a marked improvement to fourth place last season, time was up for their Australian coach, Darryl Foster, and their captain, Mark Benson.

Steve Marsh, the wicketkeeper, has replaced Benson on a permanent basis after standing in for much of last season, owing to the injury which finally forced Benson into retirement. Foster stepped down quite late in the close season, but Kent moved quickly to appoint the former Derbyshire and New Zealand opener, John Wright, to see if he could bring them the one title they really want.

So far, for Wright, so good. But despite reaching the final of the Benson and Hedges Cup, where they were soundly beaten by Surrey, Wright is only too aware that his new team has won nothing yet. "At this stage it's all right, but I say to the lads that it changes very quickly," Wright says.

"I'm pleased that we could already have won a title, and we'll get there in the end. I feel if we play well enough we're capable of winning all our matches. We batted well against Essex in the last match, which is pleasing as we've struggled a little with our top six this year. But we've always got there in the end, because we do work hard at partnerships and we do bat down the order. Martin McCague also bowled quick and did exactly what we needed."

For some sides, the beating they took from Surrey at Lord's might have had an adverse effect on the rest of their season, coming as it did in the middle of a bad run. Defeat by Middlesex in the first round of the NatWest Trophy was followed by losing to the bottom club, Northamptonshire, in the Championship, and another home defeat, to Leicestershire, came immediately after the Benson and Hedges final.

Wright has to be given credit for not allowing heads to drop. "It wasn't too difficult because we had already agreed that we wanted to compete hard every day that we played," he says. "We were just disappointed that we didn't play as well as we could [against Surrey]. I think that hurt the lads, and we had a flat patch with the home games at Maidstone and Canterbury, on wickets that didn't provide an even contest between bat and ball."

Wickets generally, not just in Kent, are something Wright would like to see change for the better. "I think slow wickets have been a problem," he says. "We've got a leg-spinner [Paul Strang], we've got a quality bowling attack and it's critical to have wickets where you don't have to manufacture a result, but wickets with a bit of pace.

"The volume of cricket is also significant in that it's more of a time- management thing, in trying to keep people fresh and eager. I was aware of that as a player and it hasn't change as a coach. Any major changes that you want to make, one or two days is not sufficient. The balance between competing and technique is upset.

"But I certainly think the four-day game is more competitive than the three-day game was. I don't doubt the players' attitudes, and really that's the hallmark of a good club: when you've got guys who are always competing, wherever you are in the table. You get it in some clubs more than others and it's up to people like myself to get that right."

The signs are that Wright is getting it right, and Kent look a good bet for the Championship; but a date with Yorkshire at Headingley in two weeks' time is beginning to look interesting...