Darren Stevens 'ecstatic' after late-season stardust forces Kent into contract U-turn
If you're looking for a sure-fire way to change the mind of someone who has all but written you off, Darren Stevens has the answer: spend a good few hours right under their nose showing them the very best you have to offer.
Stevens did just that last week when he shared a record 346-run partnership with captain Sam Billings to rescue Kent from 39 for 5 before claiming 5 for 20 in Yorkshire's second innings to seal a mammoth 433-run victory in the penultimate round of the Championship.
That stand with Billings included a career-best 237 for Stevens (off 225 balls, no less) and resulted in Kent immediately issuing a statement saying they were keen to talk to 'Stevo' about a new contract. It also came opposite one of the men who had been party to a decision a few weeks earlier not to offer 43-year-old allrounder Stevens a deal for 2020.
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On Tuesday, with the ink barely dry on a one-year contract renewal and Billings singing his praises, Stevens was looking forward to playing his 16th season with Kent next year. The club announced the deal as day two of their final-round match was washed out at Canterbury with Hampshire 80 for 3 in reply the hosts' first-innings 147.
It was an announcement that illustrated the beauty of sport. For all its brutality when bodies are broken by injury and minds shot by a loss of form, futures can turn on one or two passages of play which rejuvenate confidence and regenerate performance.
Of course, Stevens' story is not quite that simple, but almost. He also scored 88 and took 10 wickets against Nottinghamshire the week before his star turn at Headingley. In his past five Championship matches, Stevens has scored 445 runs at an average of 55.63 and has taken 34 wickets at 12.65.
And Billings - who incidentally made 138 and 122 not out in that match against Yorkshire to become the first man to score two hundreds in a Championship game at Headingley - was only one element of the Kent hierarchy who had decided they wanted to "go in a different direction" to his friend, whom he credits with helping him rise through the county's ranks.
"The club as a whole, and I was included in this process, [along with] Darren, wanted to make a decision, and at the time I think everyone would say 'fair enough' that a deal wasn't on the table and we were going to go in a different direction," said Billings.
"But since then you can't argue with his performances. We are in the performance business and performances regardless of age and circumstances, should be rewarded.""I got better as the summer went on so I sort of put [the ball] back in their court"
In Billings' words, "there's performances, and then there's just blowing everything out of the water and showing everyone up actually".
"There's not many times someone gets two hundreds in a game and doesn't get spoken about at all," Billings added with a laugh. "He gets 200 and five-for and steals the limelight.
"I'm chuffed for him. He really wanted to keep on playing and keep on playing here. So a message for players moving forward is that circumstances can change - it's up to you as a player to go out and do it. Full credit to Darren: he's gone and done that and more.
"Everyone's won in this situation. His performances have been absolutely outstanding. It's great to have him for one more year. I definitely wouldn't have liked to face him next year."
Stevens, who turns 44 in April, is "ecstatic" at being able to stay at Kent.
"I've known for a few years that it's going to come to an end, and it will come to an end," Stevens said. "Playing-wise, out on the pitch I just felt like I still had another year in me. It does help a lot that my body's still in one piece - surprisingly, but it is.
"It was a little bit disappointing, thinking it was all going to come to an end. That's made me relax a little bit more as the season's gone on and I suppose that's got quite a big part to play in how I've played over the last four or five weeks. I got better as the summer went on so I sort of put [the ball] back in their court."
Over the past six years, Stevens has been on rolling contracts at Kent with fresh negotiations in the middle of the year about the following season.
"Then at the start of this year, it was the same thing, we had a chat in June-July, but it was more on the club wanting to go in a different direction and I still felt that I had a lot to give," he said.
Despite enjoying a T20 loan spell close to his Leicester-based parents at Derbyshire - he was not selected for their Finals Day side which lost their semi-final to Essex - not having to uproot his young family was an attractive proposition, as was being able to continue doing coaching work at Kent with a view to his post-playing career.
But he was prepared to do it, such was his desire to play on.
"I spoke to Jonathan Trott yesterday about a few things, even he said, 'you're a long time retired so the way you're playing at the minute why retire?' It will be the same next year. It might be harder mentally, physically, but then I find that more of a challenge," Stevens said.
"It will be me fighting me rather than anything else and it will be up to me then if I get runs or wickets. Then I suppose the conversation will come again in July sometime about what happens."
While he feels he still has a year left in him, Stevens is not yet prepared to limit himself to that. But one thing is certain. His vast experience was a major asset during that sliding doors moment last week in Leeds.
"If I look back at my career, there's been a few situations where I've had to go in when we're in trouble and sometimes got us out of it, quite a few times not got us out of it, but I reckon I used everything I had in the think tank to get us out of that situation," he said.
As for that conversation in the middle of next year: "I think I'll be seeing how I feel."