In 1978, Kent sealed their third County Championship title in eight years to cap a golden era in the club’s history. Notably, the team achieved their success with a core of players that had grown up together and shared a common cricketing education. The likes of Alan Ealham, Graham Johnson, Derek Underwood and Bob Woolmer had all emerged in the mid-1960s and blossomed in the 1970’s to provide Kent with a formidable nucleus for more than a decade.
Almost forty years on, Kent are again building around an exceptional set of players who have come through the ranks at Canterbury and are entering what should be their best years. In Daniel Bell-Drummond, Sam Billings and Sam Northeast, Kent possess three of the finest batsmen in the county game and are hoping that their prodigious talents can power a successful promotion bid in 2017.
After being denied a return to Division One on a technicality last season, Kent have begun the new campaign in determined fashion and are already established in the upper reaches of the Second Division table. A commanding 334-run win over Gloucestershire in the opening round was followed by a 226-run victory over Sussex, a match memorable for Sam Northeast’s primal 173 not out in the second innings.
Arguably the best current county batsman not to have played for England, the 27-year-old Northeast has developed into an astute leader since being handed the Kent captaincy last season. Born in Ashford and now leading his home county by example, Northeast made five Championship hundreds in 2016 as he racked up 1,337 runs at an average of 83.56.
Northeast’s form over the last twelve months – which included an unbeaten 118 in game two of the ECB’s North-South series in the UAE this winter – has led to increased talk of a possible England selection. Kent fans may shudder at the thought of losing their premier batsman, but the England selectors do not appear to be in a huge rush to bring him into the fold. The national team’s loss is most certainly Canterbury’s gain.
Northeast wasn’t the only Kent player represented in the North-South series in March. Joining him was Daniel Bell-Drummond, a fluent middle-order batsman who has played for Kent since under-10 level and been selected for England at every stage from under-15 through to the Lions.
Having made his first-class debut in 2011, the 23-year-old Bell-Drummond now had over 8,000 Championship runs to his name. A return of 747 runs in Division Two last season made him Kent’s third highest run scorer, but it was in white-ball cricket that he really shone, averaging a spectacular 54.14 in nine T20 Blast innings. Looking increasingly comfortably in elite company, Bell-Drummond carried that form over into the winter, scoring 100 for the Lions against Sri Lanka A in Colombo before making 173 runs in three innings to guide the South to a series victory in the UAE.
Once described by former Kent captain Rob Key as having “the potential, talent and temperament to do whatever he wants in the game”, Bell-Drummond is showing signs of developing into one of the county game’s most exciting batsmen. Having signed a contract extension at Canterbury in 2015, if Bell-Drummond can maintain consistency across all three formats then his expressive batting style looks set to become a cornerstone of the Kent order for years to come.
As Northeast and Bell-Drummond compete for places on the fringes of the international picture, their county teammate Sam Billings is already a regular feature of England’s limited overs set-up. Born in Pembury and following in his county’s glorious tradition of talented wicketkeeper-batsmen, Billings encapsulates the very best Kentish cricket has to offer.
Currently in India playing for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL, Billings first broke into the Kent side in 2011 before his innovative and energetic batting – perfectly suited to modern limited overs cricket – brought him to the attention of the England selectors. As a result of his international commitments, Billings is likely to be absent from Canterbury at least until the conclusion of the ICC Champions Trophy in June, but his return later in the summer should provide a boost to Kent’s hopes in all three formats.
It remains to be seen how potential international call-ups effect Bell-Drummond, Billings and Northeast’s future availability, but Kent have a fantastic and rare opportunity to build their future around a highly talented home-grown trio. If they can stay together and guide Kent back to Division One, there’s no reason why Canterbury’s blossoming generation can’t restore the team to its place as one of the marquee teams in English cricket.
Many summers have passed since 1978, but Kent’s latest group of home-grown stars continue to improve and are ushering in an exciting new era at the St Lawrence Ground.