Sam Billings‘ appointment as Kent captain in January seemed symptomatic of a turbulence that the county would not escape easily.
After an underwhelming 2017, which saw group-stage exits in both white-ball competitions and a mid-table finish in the Championship, Kent’s relationship with captain Sam Northeast had broken down. One of county cricket’s most exciting batting line-ups had lost its talisman, and the man to fill the void was to miss the first six weeks of the season after signing an IPL deal.
The news was met with distaste by the members; how could the county’s decline be arrested by Billings when he was carrying drinks in Chennai, rather than scoring runs at Canterbury?
Four months later, Billings is lying on the St Lawrence Ground outfield, basking in the late afternoon sun after his first Championship game as captain. A record 342-run win against Middlesex has taken Kent top of Division Two, with a first Lord’s final in a decade to look forward to; not bad, for a club supposedly in turmoil.
Billings looks on it all with understandable pleasure. Absentee captains are quickly forgiven when things are going swimmingly. And to lead the side out at Lord’s against Hampshire on Saturday will be a cause for special pride.
“I’ve been here since the age of seven or eight, so it means a huge amount,” he said. “With all the different teams I’ve played for, you get a different buzz playing for each. But nothing beats coming home and playing for your home side: it means a hell of a lot.
“It’s now about channelling that emotion and putting it into a good performance. It’d be great to take Kent back to where we should really be as a side – and that means winning silverware.”
It would be wrong to cast Billings as the hero of the hour at Kent, aklthough who is to say he will not be come Saturday evening. For all his brilliance with the bat, and for all that matchwinning ability, he has only played six games for the county this season, with a top score of 29.
But Kent’s success has not been down to individual brilliance. Of course, it would be wrong to understate the impact of Heino Kuhn’s four white-ball hundreds, or Matt Henry’s 49 Championship wickets, but Billings’ task of slotting back into the side – purportedly his side – has been helped by the environment created by Matt Walker and the coaching staff, which includes Paul Downton as director of cricket and Allan Donald as assistant coach.
“When you get people in the right places, there’s no doubt that’s going to help,” Billings said. “A structure has been put in place…the place as a whole is really coming together.”
And the captain thinks that the ease with which the match-winners against Middlesex, Grant Stewart and Harry Podmore, stepped up in the absence of Henry and Darren Stevens was testament to the squad’s self-belief.
“I said to the lads before the game how glad I was to come back into the side. I was really excited. There’s no doubt confidence is high in the group at the moment, and the team spirit is as good as I’ve ever seen here.
Pitted against Kent are two players with obvious connections to Billings himself. James Vince remains a rival for Billings’ role of perpetual cover batsman in England’s one-day side and Sam Northeast was captain before him, only to leave the county when he was told he must commit to a new contract a year in advance or lose the job
“Hampshire have got some very good players: Vince is in fantastic form, and we know how good a player Sam Northeast is,” Billings observed. “But we’ve got some seriously good players here as well. And if we play to the best of our abilities, we’ll win the game of cricket.”
Source: ESPN Crickinfo