THIS was the game that Kent, last year's finalists, had to win to be comfortable about qualifying for the quarter-finals of the Benson & Hedges Cup. They managed it, but they made a meal of it. Gloucestershire took them to the last ball of a match reduced to 43 overs a side because of overnight rain.
For a long time, as they matched Gloucestershire run for run, Kent looked to be playing within themselves. Matthew Walker guided them through the first 29 overs with a sound half-century, but in the middle stages the Gloucestershire bowlers contained the Kent batsmen to such an extent that 25 overs passed without a boundary.
Graham Cowdrey ended the drought with a crashing four off Courtney Walsh, but his dismissal next ball gave the West Indian his best figures in this competition. However, it was Mark Ealham's straight six off Mark Alleyne that turned the tide for Kent, with 11 coming off that 40th over, and his 32, plus his three wickets, deservedly won him the Gold Award.
Matthew Fleming's edged four in the penultimate over might have brought a century for all the cheering, but it was rough justice after a worthy performance by the Gloucestershire bowlers.
Gloucestershire's batting was topped and tailed by Tim Hancock and Walsh respectively. In between there was some distinctly ordinary batting as Ealham, finding his run-grinding rhythm, brought Kent back into contention. Hancock and Rob Cunliffe had begun with 81 in 15 overs, benefiting only marginally from the field restrictions for the first 12 overs, and at the end, with the innings in some disarray, Walsh helped add 36 for the last wicket in five-and-a-half overs.
Hancock, pulling and driving with panache, provided the impetus, hitting seven fours in his 56 before Fleming knocked back his middle stump off an inside edge. Cunliffe was less fluent, and there was a hint of frustration in his dismissal. Succumbing to the temptation of Ealham's away swing, he was neatly caught by Carl Hooper at slip.
Swaddled in sweaters, Hooper had been looking out of sorts in the cold and squelchy conditions. However this and his second catch, one-handed and low to his left to account for Alleyne, confirmed him as a natural born cricketer whatever the weather. He also picked up a wicket when Tony Wright unluckily trod on his stumps as he played to leg.
As the first four wickets fell in 30 balls for the addition of 17 runs, Kent perceptibly shifted from cruise into a higher gear. Alan Igglesden came back strongly to earn two wickets after his first three overs had conceded 23 runs, and Fleming was as resourceful as ever.
Smart work behind the stumps by the wicketkeeper Steve Marsh gave his fielders a standard to aspire to, and all in all Kent had reined in Gloucestershire competently until Walsh got the bit between his teeth coming up to the break.Reuse content