Past a touchstone for future

County focus Simon O'Hagan visits Kent, a club seeking inspiration from the 1970s
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most popular watering holes at the St Lawrence Ground, Canterbury, is Lucky's Bar, so named after the man who runs it, the former Kent and England batsman Brian Luckhurst.

"We've taken pounds 1,700 already today," Luckhurst reported last Tuesday afternoon after rain had delayed the start of Kent's Benson and Hedges semi-final with Somerset and swelled the numbers beating a muddy path to his door. "I've had to ring the brewers to ask them to bring in more barrels." Walk through to the back and you will find builders hurrying to complete work on an extension. With an unashamedly retrospective touch, Luckhurst is calling this The 70s Bar.

It's a decade which looms large in Kent's history. During it they won three County Championships and seven one-day titles, and their England men, Colin Cowdrey, Alan Knott, Derek Underwood, Mike Denness, Bob Woolmer and Luckhurst himself, not to mention Pakistan's Asif Iqbal, the West Indies' John Shepherd, and stalwarts like the brilliant fielder Alan Ealham, all-rounder Graham Johnson and gangling fast bowler Norman Graham, were the toast of the hop county. But since then, the beer has gone decidedly flat.

There is a comparison to be made with Manchester United and the 26 years they spent living in the shadow of a team of legends before finally emulating them in 1993. In Kent's case the wait is not quite as long. But in having to go back 17 years to the last time they won anything - the Benson and Hedges Cup and the County Championship of 1978 - they are in embarrassingly thin company. Leaving aside Durham, only Gloucestershire have been trophy- less for longer.

At a county where tradition has remained strong, it is no surprise that, down the years, Kent have had their share of internal disputes, exacerbated by the county's habit of getting rid of good players prematurely. For now, those days seem over; the factional split of the 1980s, when rival claims to the captaincy were made on behalf of Chris Cowdrey and Chris Tavare, is also receding in the memory. From being seriously in the red, finances are reasonably healthy. Under their secretary Stuart Anderson, the Australian coach Darryl Foster, and the captain Mark Benson, things have settled down.

On 15 July Kent have another chance to put the past behind them when, having seen off Somerset, they meet Lancashire in the B&H final. Their fifth one-day final since they beat Derbyshire for their last win in this or any competition, it provides another excuse for a wallow in the 1970s, when both counties were giants of English cricket and had a great rivalry going as a result of two meetings in the Gillette Cup final - the classic of 1971, won by Lancashire, and the less memorable, rain-affected match of 1974, when Kent gained revenge.

Nobody at Kent would pretend that the present side possess the glamour of their predecessors of 20 years ago. But they are tremendously hard- working. Their position of third in the County Championship is a little misleading, since they have played at least one and in some cases two more matches than the other counties, but they have looked very sharp in one-day cricket, lying second in the Sunday League.

"We've bowled well, and the middle order's been scoring runs," Benson says. "I think we're batting more responsibly this year. People know that if they get in, they've got to go on to get a decent score." Last year, Benson says, the side tended to look to Carl Hooper, although Kent have no less a stylist for an overseas replacement in the Sri Lankan, Aravinda de Silva. Benson's opening partnerships with Trevor Ward have been a feature, and the batting of Mark Ealham - son of Alan, who now runs the second XI - has been a revelation.

There is an ironic aspect to the story of Kent's bowling. For a while the joke was that Martin McCague and Alan Igglesden were actually the same person, so seldom did they appear together because of injuries to one or other or both. Now they are both fit, but Igglesden cannot get in the side. McCague, meanwhile, continues to have batsmen jumping about, and in the one-dayers the exploits of the left-arm seamer Tim Wren have been decisive. Min Patel, the left-arm spinner who was the country's leading wicket-taker last season with 90, has made a slowish start to the season but, at 24, is central to the county's future.

Kent, it has to be said, are not that young a side. They need their batsmen Matthew Walker, 21, and David Fulton, 23, to come good. Victory in the B & H would provide just the platform to build on.