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Kent director Paul Downton hasn't had it easy

Kent director Paul Downton hasn't had it easy
Kent director Paul Downton hasn't had it easy

So far in 2021, Kent’s director of cricket Paul Downton has had to cope with more crises in four months than some county administrators experience in an entire career.

His challenges have included the loss of 14 first-team players overnight, the filleting of his top order by call-ups to The Hundred, the loss of his head coach Matt Walker to the same competition and also irate fans at Canterbury, who he mollifies through sheer niceness of personality. “It’s been an extraordinary season,” Downton admits, with some understatement.

In a wide-ranging interview, Downton does his best to catalogue events while also trying to make sense of what has already been a rollercoaster ride of a season – with two months still to go.

“Firstly, the new championship structure didn’t work out for us in the sense we got off to a very slow start. With injuries compounding things, it made it difficult to really get the season going,” he said.

“The complications around pre-season, the inability to get outside, the inability to travel and then problems with overseas players and Covid restrictions, plus a variety of other things, has made it a very challenging summer for all of us. But then, you know, we’re living in a world pandemic so it’s challenging for a lot of people in a lot of different spheres.”

One significant example of those challenges came on Friday July 9 after Kent had crushed Surrey by nine wickets in the Vitality Blast at the Kia Oval, following one of the most complete short-form performances the county has produced in years.

Walker’s pre-season assessment that this was “the finest group of players” he’d worked with in a long time seemed to have been vindicated and there was a tangible belief that Kent were on the brink of winning a first trophy since 2007. Indeed, they have qualified impressively for the Blast quarter-final stage in late August.

Back on July 10, though, an unnamed player tested positive for Covid and all 14 members of that Oval match squad went into isolation, leaving Walker and Downton with less than 24 hours to scramble together a side to take on Sussex in a LV= Insurance County Championship fixture starting on July 11.

“We were putting together a side overnight, six short for an 11 o’clock start,” said Downton. “It was 8pm on a Saturday night. It probably happens a lot to club third XIs when various people get taken from you late, but from a professional cricket point of view it was extraordinary really.”

Did the thought occur that it might have been easier to go down the route Derbyshire took when they experienced a similar situation and just call the game off?

“Yes,” conceded Downton, “but we tried to go about it rationally. It was Canterbury Cricket Week, we had a commitment to play Sussex and so we wanted to get the game on the road. We had six staff players unaffected – or actually five staff players left who were fit – so we had to find six other players.

“Fortunately, through a huge amount of work by lots of different people, we found Kent Academy guys, ex-academy guys, players from the second team and actually everyone reacted remarkably. They said they’d love to play and so very quickly we put a side together which then competed well and did themselves proud.”

The home crowd at Canterbury can be critical, but when the improvised XI did take the field against Sussex, a game they ultimately drew after a tense finish, it was to a generous round of applause from sympathetic members.

“I think we’re living in some very strange times, without doubt, and when it became clear what had happened there was never any blame on anyone in particular,” Downton added. “It was just how do we make the most of it and luckily we found six players willing and able and wanting to play and actually excited about playing and making their debut for Kent.”

The players left in isolation, however, were affected in different ways. “We have three or four guys in flats at the ground who weren’t able to get out of their room. It was really like being in a prison cell,” Downton said.

“For a few living with their families and with gardens it maybe wasn’t quite so bad but from a fitness point of view we’ve now been quite specific about trying to rotate players and make sure that we weren’t suddenly overloading players again, having had enforced rest for 10 days.”

Kent, meanwhile, are now on their sixth-choice captain of the summer and the club’s fans are less forgiving about what The Hundred has done to the squad. Sam Billings, Daniel Bell-Drummond, Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Jordan Cox, Qais Ahmad, Adam Milne, Fred Klaassen and coach Walker have all been drafted, initially forcing Kent to appoint Jack Leaning as captain for the Royal London Cup competition.

But, within a day, Leaning had gone down with Covid and Ollie Robinson became captain number six. Leaning was then back for the 14.5 overs played in the rain-ruined game with Lancashire at Beckenham, spoke to reporters afterwards about how he was looking forward to skippering the side for the rest of the tournament and was then drafted “as cover” by the Trent Rockets the following morning. Kent’s supporters, it hardly needs saying, were unamused.