In May 2021, ageless Kent all-rounder Darren Stevens was having a regular round of golf with Sussex import Travis Head. The Australian batsman told his friend about some genial warning messages he had received on a WhatsApp group of his countrymen ahead of Kent’s County Championship trip to Sussex the following week. Stevens was already aware of the group.
It first emerged a few years earlier after Stevens, with his notorious brand of 70mph nagging seamers, twice dismissed Australian opener Cameron Bancroft cheaply in a championship match. The following year, it took Stevens just five balls to snare Bancroft again.
Stationed on the opposite side of the world to home, the Australian contingent operating in county cricket soon developed their own form of support network via WhatsApp. The chosen name of the group was “Stevo’s gonna get ya”.
Now, with Stevens’s Kent due at Hove in a few days, Head – who would go on to be man of the match in the first Ashes Test after scoring 152 – was adamant the same fate would not befall him.
“He said he’d been getting a lot of stick on the group, but that I definitely wasn’t going to get him,” Stevens says now, with a laugh. What happened next was inevitable.
“I nicked him off and he was dropped at slip,” Stevens recalls. “Then two balls later he chopped one on and was bowled. We went out for dinner that night and there was quite a bit of banter.”
To many, Stevens, who turns 46 in April and has no plans to retire, is the ultimate cult hero. Over the past three seasons, he has taken 120 first-class wickets at an average of 17.43 and scored 1,324 runs at 33.95.
He is on a run of three successive Kent player-of-the-year awards, and last May became the oldest Wisden cricketer of the year for 88 years.
Destined never to be picked for his country, he is realising a dream held by middle-aged amateur cricketers up and down the land.
Yet to others he is emblematic of everything that is wrong with a county cricket structure weighted too far in favour of seamers with its green pitches and Dukes ball. To them, the theory goes that trundling, slow-medium pacers such as Stevens are terrorising domestic batsmen and leaving them ill-equipped for the rigours of international cricket. Inadvertently, England’s dismal Ashes performance has become Stevens’s fault.
“I suppose I could get annoyed because my name’s at the front of it when you’ve got people saying, ‘You’ve got to change county cricket because Stevo gets wickets every week’,” he says. “I try and ignore it. If I really think about it, I suppose it is a little unfair. I had a bit of a run-in with our director of cricket a couple of years ago because he said I should finish at the end of the year as he didn’t think I could get wickets in Division One on Test match grounds. Well, I got a five-for on all of them, seven wickets at the Oval, and at Trent Bridge I got 10 wickets when they had prepared a turning pitch for Ravi Ashwin.
“So it’s frustrating when people say I only get wickets on green seamers in early or late season. But anyway… it’s a load of bulls—. My job is to win games for Kent.”
For Stevens, the issues behind England’s quickfire Ashes defeat are twofold: a lack of preparation and an over-emphasis on short-form cricket domestically that has prompted an erosion of batting techniques.
“There is the odd player who grinds it out like Dom Sibley, but it’s changed so much,” Stevens says. “Rather than seeing off the new ball, it’s about trying to hit it against the advertising board to get the shine off. That massively affects Test batting. Look at how Scott Boland [who took six wickets for seven runs on debut in the third Ashes Test] bowled in Melbourne – he asked questions every ball and they couldn’t keep him out.
“I feel like Twenty20 has decreased batsmen’s defences. They are all thinking about scoring a run a ball. Actually, four-day cricket is about batting time and wearing the opposition down.”
The suggestion of many notable observers, including former England captains Michael Atherton and Michael Vaughan, is that ditching the Dukes ball – with its prominent seam – in favour of the Kookaburra used in Australia would tilt the balance away from dibbly-dobbly bowlers such as Stevens and promote more of the type of fast bowling seen in the international game.
As someone accustomed to using the Kookaburra ball for the past 16 years playing club cricket winters in South Africa, Stevens’s argument against switching away from the Dukes is less about personal preference and more about retaining the advantage it provides when England play home Tests.
“Play to your strengths,” he says. “If we use a Kookaburra ball, it plays to Australia’s strengths and they have the bowlers for it. If they thump us in England, then what happens?”
Watching Boland destroy England with his low-80mph seamers on a Melbourne pitch he describes as “a bowler’s dream”, there was one other thought that popped into Stevens’s head: how would he fare if given that opportunity? The question was hypothetical, but is there any part of him that believes an England call-up might happen?
“No, it’ll never happen,” he says, laughing again. “Imagine if I was playing club cricket in Australia over the winter, they dragged me into the Ashes squad because of injuries, and I took five wickets on that Melbourne pitch. Imagine. It would throw Test cricket completely!”