As the last county championship season faded out into autumn, I went to the Ageas Bowl to watch Hampshire play Kent. Hampshire were as good as promoted, Kent weren't, and Hampshire's ebulliance and effort was evident, despite a marvellous, gimlet-eyed 80-odd from Sam Billings, who was walking down the wicket to some short stuff from a biblically-bearded James Tomlinson. But when Kent went into the field the physical hardship of the nature of their work was clear.
Darren Stevens took the new ball. Powerfully built, a few steely-grey bristles clinging to the sides of his shaven head, he looked the part but the stiff-legged and weary jog to the crease told its story. The ball seemed to loop to the other end and Billings was soon standing up. All of the weight of a long, hard season that had given little and had no more to offer was upon him. He was 38 years old and he'd been doing this for seventeen years. The first whispers of winter in the chill breeze must have felt welcome.
Cut forward to this year, Surrey versus Kent in the T20 Blast at the Oval. A dreamy, soft-lit summer's evening and the ground is rammed. For some reason, Kent have decided that they'll play T20 cricket in a team kit that looks like some kind of demented acid-house outfit that the likes of Billings and Bell-Drummond can just about get away with but which, on the fuller frame of Darren Stevens, paints him as a grandad at a rave.
He came out to bat at number five in the tenth over when Kent already had 94 on the board. Whatever had been drained from him by the previous year's work was back: he faced 39 deliveries, hit ten of them for four and another five for six, some struck so cleanly and so high that they seemed to fly up level with us in the upper tier of the Bedser stand. It was all done with a terrific sullen power. Stevens was an old pro - 39 now, don't forget - schooling the young blades Surrey had picked. Among them were the Curren brothers, the youngest, Sam, just 17. Stevens was already playing county cricket when Sam was born.
He was way too good, and knew way too much for them. Kent went from 111 to 220 in just under eight overs. Stevens got 90 and a raucous, affectionate standing ovation as he walked off. It was deserved, not just for that night, but for all of the effort over all of the years.
It's an overlooked gift of the T20 Blast. Darren Stevens will never play for England, but he knows what it feels like to light up a full house at a Test match ground.
He opened the bowling soon afterwards, took a wicket in his first over and finished with 4-39 to go with the runs. Earlier in the season he'd been dropped to the seconds to find some form. I saw him again on TV the other day, creaming a sweet hundred off Glamorgan, one checked drive sailing out of the ground and into the Taff. It's some gift that Darren Stevens has, and some kind of life he has lived.
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