Keeper of faith

B & H final: As Kent's leader follows a tradition of his county, the new generation at Surrey break with their past
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The Independent Online
For half a century in an almost seamless line one county provided England's wicketkeepers. Shout down a mine in Yorkshire and up would come a fast bowler, scrump in an apple orchard in Kent and there was almost certain to be a stunning stumper around.

Les Ames, the first of the great keeper-batsmen, started the dynasty by playing 45 Tests. He handed on the gloves to Godfrey Evans, who won 91 caps and became a flying legend. Not long after, Alan Knott, perhaps the best of them all, continued the noble line. Knott played for England 95 times and, as with his two predecessors, it became a certainty that the obelisk on the team sheet would be beside his name.

And then came Steve Marsh. No Tests, barely a sniff of a mention in international terms and yet he loses nothing by comparison with the venerated triumvirate. He has served Kent with equal devotion and has earned an honour which eluded them by being appointed captain of the county. Now, on Saturday he will lead his team out at Lord's in the Benson and Hedges Cup final.

"Of course, I wanted to play for England, any professional worth his salt does," he said last week at Maidstone as he waited for the rain to allow his side to resume their serious challenge for the County Championship. "There was a chance in 1991 when I had a good year and there was talk about a tour place but just before the squad was announced Mickey Stewart [then England manager] phoned me and said it had been a very close run thing but I wasn't in. I realised then that that was probably it as far as England were concerned."

Marsh was Kent's vice-captain for six years and if that seems to be a natural role for experienced keepers to fill - cajoling the team, advising the skipper - promotion to the top job is rare. The demands of motivating and devising strategy while concentrating on every single ball are perceived to be too great. Marsh has so far coped admirably.

"Look, everything is a lot easier when you're winning and we've got into that habit," he said, denying that it might be connnected with his leadership. "It hasn't been that great a change. I captained the side for most of last year because Mark Benson was injured and I would have been disappointed not to be offered the chance. It's the ideal place because you can see what the bowlers are doing, have an overall view of the field. I can keep concentrating. After all you're not changing things every ball."

It is not lost on Marsh that Alec Stewart gave up the captaincy when it was decided that he would keep wicket for the county as well as for England this summer. "But then he's batting right up the order too and that would really be too much."

Kent, the team of the Seventies, have lost the last five Lord's finals in which they have played. Marsh has appeared in three, all of them in the Benson and Hedges. "There has always been a feeling when we've got there before that we were second best," Marsh said. "Somehow we didn't have real belief in ourselves. Kent had won a lot in the Seveties with a team of great players and in some ways we've been in their shadow. But I think things changed when we won the Sunday League two seasons ago.

"This is the best Kent side I've played in as a unit. We play for each other and if we are not full of great players then I would rather have a team of players of 70 per cent ability giving 110 per cent effort than one of 110 per cent ability giving 70 per cent effort."

Marsh is 36, probably smokes more than he should but remains one of the side's fittest members as pre-season tests demonstrated. He works hard and has adapted this season not only to captaincy but to keeping to leg spin, in the shape of the Zimbabwean Paul Strang, for the first time.

He has not found it as difficult as he feared despite Strang's wide repertoire, suspecting that it is easier to read the ball from stump level than it is for the upright batsman.

Of course, it helps that he is also a splendid wicketkeeper. If he can lead Kent to victory at Lord's on Saturday and then to the Championship, which has eluded them since 1978, his elevated place in the county's keeping dynasty will be asssured, Tests or no Tests.

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