The Royal London One-Day Cup has a new early-season slot this year – and Kent Spitfires have come up with the most imaginative response in their bid to reach a first Lord’s final since 2008.
With each county playing their eight group matches in a three-week period between April 27 and May 17, there will be a fresh focus on 50-over white-ball cricket in pre-season preparations – in contrast to the last couple of years, when the competition hasn’t started until June or July.
Kent will be starting their Royal London countdown in the Caribbean in late January, having accepted an invitation to compete in the West Indies domestic 50-over competition, the Regional Super50
“It should be ideal preparation,” says Sam Northeast, who will be starting his second season as Kent’s club captain having succeeded Rob Key midway through the 2015 campaign.
“Come the end of January everyone is keen to play some cricket but obviously it’s hard to get outside in England at that time of year.
“We’re very fortunate to have received the invitation to play in this competition in the West Indies. Our former head coach Jimmy Adams played a big part I think, and it sounds like it’s going to be a good standard of competition.
“We’ve got Trinidad and Tobago, Windward Islands, Leeward Islands and West Indies Under-19s in our group, and it will be interesting to see how we go.”
The Spitfires have been impressively consistent in the first three years of the Royal London One-Day Cup, qualifying from their group on each occasion. But after defeats by Warwickshire in the semi finals in 2014, and against Surrey and Yorkshire in the quarters in the last two years, Northeast reckons a final appearance is overdue.
“We’ve developed nicely as a team over the last few years and we’re still pretty young, but now is the time to kick on and start winning things,” added the 27-year-old.
Kent were regulars at Lord’s finals for a decade from the late 1960s, winning the Gillette Cup twice and the Benson and Hedges Cup three times.
The Royal London’s new position in the first half of the season, with a final on July 1, will inevitably stir memories of the B&H – as Northeast confirms.
“I went watching Kent in a final with my dad when I was very young,” he recalls. “I think it was the one when Aravinda de Silva played a brilliant innings but we still lost to Lancashire. As Kent captain, to win silverware for Kent cricket is my main goal. That’s the case in all the competitions, but the Royal London is the first one up for grabs this year.”
Matt Coles, who played the leading role in Kent’s successful qualifying campaign last season, will have an extra opportunity to hone his 50-over skills having earned one of the first places in the South squad to face the North in a three-match series in the UAE in March.
Several other Spitfires players such as Daniel Bell-Drummond, who is currently in Dubai with the Lions, and perhaps Northeast himself could yet join him when the full North and South squads are named in December.
“Colesy was the stand-out bowler and he really deserves to go on that North-South tour, and have the chance to put his name in the shop window,” added Northeast.
Andrew Strauss, the director of England cricket, has identified the North-South series as an important addition to preparations for next summer’s ICC Champions Trophy – which follows the Royal London group stages – and in the longer-term, for the 2019 World Cup which will also be hosted by England and Wales.
Kent will launch their Royal London campaign against Hampshire at the Spitfire Ground, St Lawrence on Thursday April 27 – one of six games on the opening day which include the holders, Warwickshire, making the short trip to Northampton to face the NatWest T20 Blast champions in a showdown of 2016’s white-ball specialists.
The Spitfires have two more home games against Sussex on Friday May 5 and Middlesex two days later, with away fixtures at Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Surrey before they conclude their qualifying campaign in Canterbury against Essex on Wednesday May 17.
The knockout stages have changed this season, with only the top three from each group qualifying. The winners will progress straight to the semi finals on June 16 and 17, in which they will enjoy home advantage. Their opposition will be determined by two play-offs on June 13 between the teams finishing second and third in each group – second in the North Group at home to third in the South, and vice versa.
Then all roads lead to Lord’s on Saturday July 1 – where the Spitfires will hope to gain the rewards of their enterprising off-season Caribbean adventure.