County Focus: Broke and bottom of the pile, Kent will need more than Bligh spirit
A Kentish graveyard bore witness to a touching ceremony last Wednesday. The Cobham plot containing the remains of Ivo Bligh – the man who first brought the Ashes urn back from Australia, in 1882 – had been refurbished thanks to a campaign led by the Cricket Society, and a rededication was taking place.
Among the crowd at the churchyard near Gravesend were the Kent captain Rob Key and the county's wicketkeeper Geraint Jones, both of whom have followed Bligh into England colours. For all of the event's solemnity, however, the pair may have enjoyed the break from Kent's current plight: the club are bottom of the Second Division having lost their last four games.
Given that Kent won this division by a streak two years ago, and were in the running to stay in the top flight into the final knockings of 2010, their current plight is a bit of a surprise. But perhaps it has been coming. Kent, it now appears, have lived beyond their means in recent years, eschewing a long tradition of local players in favour of South African imports, not all of whom gave value for money.
The depth of their financial problems first became clear at the start of last season, when the club declared an annual loss of over £800,000. Since then the focus has been on survival. The squad has been pared back, to the extent the bowling now looks as weak as it has in many years. As weak as, perhaps, it has ever done.
But the attack cannot be solely blamed for Kent's plight (even if Paul Farbrace, the county's otherwise admirable coach, thought the recent defeat at Glamorgan was down to his bowlers), no more than financial problems can explain why a batting line-up that, on paper, is the match of any in the division is failing so badly. Too often this year Kent have been 120 for 6, thus exposing the bowling. The results have been inevitable.
It's hard to explain why such a talented line-up should be struggling for runs: is it the Tiflex ball used in the Second Division but not the First, which has the reputation of extravagant swing early in an innings? Are the club's financial problems weighing on the club's older heads? Could it even be that those elder statesmen – Key (32), Martin van Jaarsveld (36) and Jones (34) – are past their best?
Amid all this on-field angst, the situation off the field is gradually improving. While some supporters are not happy with the time it is taking to remake the club's headquarters at Canterbury, at least work is under way. Before last season, the St Lawrence Ground's noted elegance had been somewhat compromised by a surfeit of rust and flaking paint.
And that's not the only sign of renewal. The team that faced a Loughborough MCCU last week boasted a top seven in which the oldest man, captain Sam Northeast, was 21. The likes of Adam Ball (18) – who had to miss the defeat to Glamorgan because he needed to go back to school – and Daniel Bell-Drummond (17), who struck 80 against Loughborough, hold the promise of far better times ahead.
In the immediate future, Key's side face seventh-placed Derbyshire, another club that has endured its portion of discord of late. At this admittedly early stage, today's match has the flavour of a wooden spoon play-off.
Kent have not finished bottom since 1995, and then they swept almost all before them in one-day cricket, winning the Sunday League. Key, one of the game's most well-liked characters, may be coming to the end of his time as captain and will not want his final act to be an 18th-place finish. Perhaps it's time he invoked another great Kent name of the past, the all-rounder Frank Woolley. "When I am batting, I am the attack," he once said. Kent could do with a bit of that spirit now.
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