Having made his First-class debut in 1997, Darren Stevens has donned multiple roles ranging from - opening the batting to opening the bowling - in the span of just 24 years. But every time his career looked on the verge of being over, he emerged as a shark, coming out unscathed from the deep end.
On Sunday 28 May 2017, a 40-year-old Francesco Totti had an announcement to make - in front of the Roma faithfuls - it was a day that the fans had dreaded, some even didn’t want it to be true; The legend, the man who had made 786 appearances for the club was just about to play out the sad tune - his retirement.
At the same time, elsewhere, far away from the city of Roma, in the city of Canterbury, a 41-year-old Darren Stevens was still playing cricket, for Kent, rather successfully. Albeit it being Division Two, Stevens had reinvented himself, to a level, where his presence was no more ignorable.
However, for most parts of his career, he was another Evens-Stevens in the pond of the Championship. Until he was 35, he hadn’t troubled any batsmen significantly to earn a true all-rounder tag. Everything was against him, his age, his near-English chances and of course, his bowling. But in 2015, everything changed with the exception of his English chances.
“It’s every player’s dream to play for their country. I’d have loved to do it. I’d like to think I was good enough, but it seems obviously I wasn’t. I suppose because I didn’t get in there must have been better players ahead of me. I don’t know… there are a lot of people that haven’t played for England because they played in the wrong era,” Stevens admitted to Wisden.
Since then, Ben Stokes had emerged as England’s No.1 all-rounder, for all the bigger reasons but somehow, in the dark, just like how Stevens felt, he should have gotten a chance, especially considering how many series were played without context.
Against New Zealand, England would play two Tests, which would bear not an iota of its weight on the World Test Championship, not one yet, with no true all-rounder in the squad, England move on. To add to the misery, they are playing at home, in conditions where Darren Stevens, now has made a status-quo for himself, not just a name.
In Leicestershire, the place he first called home, he picked up just eight wickets. But it was only after his move to Kent, he found the right pool for his tank, he developed an appetite for wickets. An appetite for wickets that had only one five-wicket haul till he turned 35, at an age where many move away from the game.
But he wasn’t a mover, he wasn’t a quitter, in fact, he wasn’t anyone till he decided to prolong his career, and become this age-less man in the qualm of timed-world. Since 2013, at least twice was Stevens on the verge of quitting or being not offered a contract. In 2017, though, things changed, Stevens was longer another duck in the pond, he was the big-shot shark, having picked up 62 wickets in 12 games while still scoring 707 runs with the bat.
Kent never made it to the First Division that year, Stevens was still there, trying to make ends meet. That was also one of Stevens’ average seasons in the county, having just scored 310 runs, at an average of 19.37 and picked 42 wickets, at an average of 19.02. In fact, his bowling, something that he had considered his weaker link in the initial phase of his life turned out to be the life-saver. He wasn’t dealing in part-times anymore, he was a full-blown owner of the new ball and he donned that shine with a sheen.
The dibbly-dobbly action suddenly started becoming more and more threatening, the man slowly started becoming more and more household. He was 42, he was still going, some even asked, how many more years before he breaks a bricky-back? The back broke but not in a manner that everyone expected, Stevens was out there, slowly establishing himself as a real threat in the Championship.
But then came the brake, the ones that are painful, the ones that make you almost deaf, the screeching ones. The year was 2019, the month was July and somehow, Kent, out of nowhere (not actually) announced that their old man, Stevens won’t be offered a new contract. It was almost like an end of an era, literally and figuratively, the man who had seen the rise of Kent was on the cusp of exit, the door was still locked from the inside.
There was still a season to enjoy before that latch would be put on and Stevens would be out there, in the wander. 0/48, 6 in the first innings against Somerset, surely this was the end, right? 3/34 and 43 in the second, could we go wrong? In the entirety of the months leading up to September, Stevens had piled 213 runs with the bat, with five single digit-scores, including two ducks.
With the ball, barring the back-to-back fifer against Surrey and Hampshire, there was nothing over the cloud, seemingly suggesting a plain end to a rather dramatic career. But as Green Day sang, Wake Me When September Ends, the Kent man was already wide-awake, poaching on the chances that he got. The game against Nottinghamshire started it all, a brilliant 88 followed by a scintillating 5/39, the age was never in question during both times.
Then he stepped up, with another fifer in the second innings, were the critics, was the club wrong? It was that game, the Yorkshire one, which sealed the deal or rather secured the new deal for Stevens, a gob-smacking 237, out of nowhere in just 225 deliveries against a Yorkshire attack at home, he walked off to a real standing ovation, all at the age of 43.
But more interestingly, he walked on the first morning of a mid-September fixture against Yorkshire, at 39/5. Doubts would have definitely crept in, not because of the age alone but because of how the season had gone by, terribly. But time and again, he not just looked at the wall, he broke it apart and scored 237 of those runs, with 28 boundaries and nine sixes, including a sixth-wicket stand with Sam Billings, for 346 runs, a record for the club.
That was not the only record he broke, his 5/20 in the second innings, made him the oldest player since WG Grace in 1895 to score a double hundred and claim a five-wicket haul in a first-class match.
"Darren has put together some match-winning performances for Kent in recent matches and we would be foolish to ignore his recent form," Kent’s Director of Cricket, Paul Downton said.
"Obviously, such performances cannot go unnoticed and we'll be sitting down with 'Stevo' after this match to discuss his future. It has been great to see his return to form."
That was the start of it all, the man, who seemingly had hit the wrong part of his 40s, was seemingly starting his career all over again, with a new dream in a realistic world, this time around. His 2019 season for Kent read 597 runs, at an average of 33.16 and a bowling record - 52 wickets @17.57. The talks were on, his contract was sealed in the month of September, the month that people usually associate with Green Day.
2020 - A New Day in the same ol’ office
“I don’t want to finish. It’s not just my mind that doesn’t want to finish – neither does my body. I’m not ready. With this time off it’s given me a lot of time to work on my fitness. I’m as fit and as light as I’ve been in 10 years. The weight is flying off me. I feel like I’m at the start of my career again but with all this knowledge, and my body and mind are fresh. Whenever it might be, whether that is this summer or next year, I’m 100 per cent ready to get going. There’s still plenty left in the tank,” he said in May 2020.
As 2020 and the COVID-19 happened, there was no County Championship, instead came a rebranded version of it, where each team would get five games to prove their worth, in groups of Central, North and South. At the end of it all, the two teams with the most points - would go on to play in the final.
Five games weren’t enough for Kent to show their worth in the championship but for Stevens, five games meant 29 wickets. On a list where all his closest competitors had played an extra Championship game, there he was, with 29 wickets, at an average of 15.58, third-best in the top-six bowlers of the competition that season. With the bat, he hardly got the muscle to flex and the time at the crease, with 77 runs in six innings. But even then, there was a precarious sign around with him, Steven always wanted to get better and better, push the boundaries to a limit, where it was draining but yet it gave him the ultimate kick.
In the ongoing season of the County Championship, he leads the bowling and batting charts for Kent, at an age where most of them would talk about post-retirement plans. Even if we remove the age part from the entire narrative, Stevens’ performance is as good as any in the country, in fact, as good as some of the best. With the ball, this season, he has already picked up 19 wickets, including a fifer in eight innings and all of it at an average of 20.15 but it is his batting, which has brought us all back to 1999, having scored 420 runs, at an average of 46.66.
He walked in to find his side reeling at 128/8, against Glamorgan not a sight new to him in his Kent career but as time and again he has proved himself, he was there yet again, slogging it out. Okay, perhaps, slugging it out, okay maybe, batting it out like a proper chap. Age never mattered, at least in this conversation, his run tally had seemingly dried in 2020, albeit it being in a shortened version of the tournament but the situation was very demanding.
"The lads said to me 'Oh, the crowds come in and you show up, don't you!' I've had six, eight innings where I've not really got any runs. To get 190 is just remarkable really and I'm just pleased I've got us into a good situation," Stevens said at the ground.
With 15 sixes and as many boundaries in his partnership with Miguel Cummins, Stevens was putting on a one-man show, scoring 160 off the 166 runs in the partnership with Cummins, who scored just a one, to give him back the strike. The all-rounder’s freak show was responsible for 96.39% of the side’s runs in that partnership. 190 off 149, he surely walked off yet again to mighty applause, seemingly now making a living and loving off it.
"We were in a tough situation. We got into a bit of a routine, a bit of a rhythm, it actually worked quite well for a few overs and I've probably got us into quite a good situation. I tried to use the wind as much as I could because it was tough out there. I tried to use it to our advantage,” he added.
24 years after his first century, Stevens turned back the clock, having been thrown in the deep end multiple times, emerged as not just a shark but the biggest one of it all. Just like that, he came out yet again, with the ball, dismissing World No.3 batsman, Marnus Labuschagne. He not just threw questions about his age out the window but also his age as well!!