Darren Stevens was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the 2021 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. The Kent all-rounder – the oldest man to receive the accolade since 1933 – spoke to Mark Pennell about how last year’s Bob Willis Trophy served as a welcome distraction after the death of his father.
The dismissal itself was typical enough, yet for Darren Stevens it was unforgettable. In early August, against Sussex at Canterbury, he skidded one down the Nackington Road slope to the left-handed George Garton; it pitched on middle, hit the seam, and clattered off stump. Stevens wheeled away to celebrate his 27th first-class five-for. Business as usual? Not quite. He was holding the ball aloft, not to acknowledge the crowd, since there was none, but in dedication to his father, Bob, who had recently died at a Leicester care home from Covid-related illnesses.
“My dad loved cricket, loved watching me play, loved walking round at Canterbury,” he says. “I knew he’d be up there, watching me bowl, with a pint at his right hand. When dad died, there was some talk about a few county games being played, but I wasn’t bothered about cricket going ahead or not. My priority was the family, my mum especially: she was self-isolating for a fortnight after dad passed.
“I spent that time living in a tiny caravan on my cousin’s driveway in Leicester to try and be near her. That way, I could visit mum, speak to her through the window and show her she wasn’t alone. I so wanted to give her a hug, but we couldn’t – it was horrible. Then we had the funeral, which was dreadful too, because we had to restrict the numbers.
“So when the cricket did finally come, it was a welcome distraction. I considered not playing, but then I thought again of my dad, who’d have been telling me to get on with it. If ever I’d had an injury niggle, he used to say: ‘Your grandad would play with a broken leg.’ Dad would have wanted me to play on. So I did.”
The Sussex game provided the first of Stevens’s three five-wicket returns as Kent came second in the South Group of the Bob Willis Trophy. He finished the competition with 29 wickets at 15; only Essex off-spinner Simon Harmer and Somerset’s Craig Overton took more. For the second year running, Stevens convinced the club to extend his contract, and was set to play into his 46th year – his 17th with Kent, and 25th in all. There were no plans to call time on a career that, across three formats, has reaped 27,323 runs and 820 wickets.
Wisden hasn’t chosen an older Cricketer of the Year since Leicestershire’s Ewart Astill in 1933. Among players in their forties, only W. G. Grace had previously taken ten wickets in a match and scored a double-hundred in the same English season, as Stevens did in 2019. He is now the oldest bowler to regularly open Kent’s attack since Edgar Willsher in the 1870s. And he is the county’s first non-international to be recognised by the Almanack since Jack Bryan in 1922. Not bad for a colour-blind cricketer who struggles to differentiate between browns, reds and greens.
DARREN IAN STEVENS was born in Leicester on April 30, 1976. Both his father, who ran a cleaning company, and his grandfather Reg played club cricket, while his mother, Maddy, worked as a seamstress for hosiery firms, and helped make the teas. At school, Stevens loved football and even dabbled with baseball but, thanks to his father’s persistence, he went for cricket.
He joined Leicestershire in 1997, scoring the first of his four Championship centuries for them against Sussex at Arundel, as an opener; to mark the occasion, Colin Cowdrey presented him with an oil painting of the ground. But after eight seasons he was struggling to keep his place, having gained a reputation for “pretty thirties”. He hit 105 and 70 in his penultimate home game, in 2004, against a Hampshire attack including Chris Tremlett and Shane Warne, but was released a fortnight later. He joined Kent, where he became an instant favourite for his aggressive but stylish batting, and sharp slip catching.
Yet not until surgery for a chronic ankle issue did he become a relentlessly accurate seamer. Stevens credits Rob Key, his former county captain, for his epiphany. During an early-season draw with Lancashire on a sluggish Old Trafford pitch in 2010, Key – keen to manage the workload of his frontline seamers – threw the second new ball to Stevens, who finished with four for 44. A year later came six for 60 (the first of 29 hauls of five or more) as Essex were beaten at Chelmsford. His best return is eight for 75, against his former county, at Canterbury in 2017 – a summer that produced a career-best first-class tally of 63.
His longevity as a seamer may owe something to the fact that he rarely bowled for Leicestershire: 105.3 overs produced six first-class wickets at 67, with a best of two for 50, in his final game. Though occasionally derided as a Division Two trundler, Stevens has two match hauls of ten or more: 11 for 70 as Kent drubbed Surrey at Canterbury in 2011, then ten for 92 at Trent Bridge in 2019. A week later, he took five for 20 against Yorkshire, having hit 237. That was one of 34 first-class hundreds – he has also made seven in one-day matches – that mark him out as a rare breed: a genuine all-rounder, good enough to hold his place as batsman or bowler. His ability to destroy an attack also made him a central figure in Kent’s white-ball teams until early 2019. The high point came in 2007, when he clattered the winning boundary against Gloucestershire in a tight Twenty20 Cup final at Edgbaston – Kent’s first trophy in six years.
During the close season, Stevens has played club cricket in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, and starred for T20 franchises in Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Bangladesh, where his team, Dhaka Gladiators, won back-to-back titles. After the second of those triumphs, in 2012-13, he became embroiled in match-fixing allegations; charged with failing to report a corrupt approach, he was later exonerated. The next two Bangladesh Premier Leagues were cancelled, but he returned in 2015-16 to play for Comilla Victorians: three tidy overs in the final helped clinch his third BPL title out of three.
But Kent is where the heart is, and his enthusiastic description of the wicket that had him acknowledging his dad that afternoon at Canterbury tells of a passion that hasn’t waned. “It was a good ball. We spoke about trying to hit Garton on the pads, because he gets across with his front foot. I swung everything into him and, once he started staying leg side, I ran one down the slope. The plan worked.” It often has.
This piece was first published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021.