Exit of stalwarts Stevens and Hildreth reminds English cricket what it is losing

The announcements have fallen like raindrops in the last few days. Jonny Bairstow has joined the Abu Dhabi Knight Riders, Jos Buttler has signed for the Paarl Royals, Samit Patel, Will Smeed and Jordan Thompson have all been picked up by Mumbai Indians’ Emirates team, Sam Curran and Liam Livingstone by their side based in Cape Town. Each one is a sign of changing times. It felt like two smaller, but more significant, press releases out of county cricket got lost among the rush. Darren Stevens has been released by Kent, after 26 seasons on the circuit, and James Hildreth has retired from Somerset, after 19.

Stevens hasn’t given up on cricket yet. He told the BBC: “I still feel like I can do a job with bat and ball,” and you can imagine him saying much the same thing to the nurse leaning over him on his deathbed. Stevens, who has the indefatigable optimism of a man who has spent his 40s bowling medium pace against the best batsmen in England, was never going to leave the game of his own volition. Hildreth, though, really has finished. He was going to play out the rest of the season, but he brought his retirement forward after he injured a hamstring in a one-day game against Durham last week. It’s a quietly understated exit for a quiet and understated player.

You’ll find the two of them right near each other in the list of the County Championship’s leading run-scorers. Stevens is 222nd, with 15,740, Hildreth is two places behind him, 224th, with 15,698. There isn’t another player around now in the top 250, or even anywhere close. Of course, the two had more opportunity to do it, because neither ever played international cricket, although both came close. You could argue into the night about which of them you might describe as the best player of their generation never to be picked by England.

Hildreth played for England through the age groups, from the under‑15s through to the under-19s and on into the Lions team, which he ended up captaining. He scored plenty of centuries along the way: 116 in an under‑19 Test against South Africa, 210 in another against Bangladesh, 206 for the England Performance team against Queensland, 149 against the Leeward Islands and 100 more against the Windwards for the Lions. But he only ever made it into the full England side as a sub-fielder in the 2005 Ashes, when he caught Ricky Ponting at Lord’s. That was the same year he hit 38 off 24 balls against Australia, when Somerset scored 343 to beat them in a one-day game.

Everyone knew then that Hildreth was going to make his Test debut sooner or later. They had been talking about it since he was a student, when he took 101 off a Durham attack led by Shoaib Akhtar in his second championship match. Akhtar didn’t take kindly to being hit for four by a student, and bowled faster, and faster, at him. It didn’t make any difference. Hildreth might have been called up in 2007, when he averaged 53, or 2010, when he averaged 65, or 2012, when he averaged 52, or 2015, when he averaged 55. But he wasn’t. And as the seasons went by the talk turned, so that it wasn’t about when he would be picked but whether he ever would and then why he never was.

Hildreth said himself he had never been consistent enough. “I’ve not had a poor career, but I’ve been inconsistent,” he said, when he’d been left out again. “I’m around the 1,000-run mark most years but I don’t kick on. That’s the story of my career.” In his early days his elegant strokeplay meant he was often compared to Mark Lathwell, the lavishly talented Somerset opener who played two Tests and was never picked again and, as with Lathwell, there was a lingering suspicion that Hildreth wasn’t tough enough to make it in Test cricket. I was once told, off the record, that he had scored poorly in the personality tests England use to evaluate future players.

Why that mattered more than the fact that Hildreth once scored 135 in a crucial championship match against Nottinghamshire batting on one leg after Jake Ball fractured his ankle with a yorker, I’m not sure. That was in 2016, the year Somerset finished runners-up, again, thwarted this time by Yorkshire’s late collapse at Lord’s. You guess the selectors were wrong, too, about Stevens, who should have played white-ball cricket for England. He never had Hildreth’s problem. It wasn’t for a want of wanting it that he was never selected. He got five games for the Lions in 2010, and did well, with three half-centuries in four innings against India A, but not so well that he persuaded the men who mattered that his bits and pieces were enough for international cricket.

Instead, the two of them have spent their lives playing for the crowds around the counties, where tens of thousands have enjoyed happy hours watching Hildreth drill fours through the covers with his handsome drive, elbow high, and Stevens heave sixes over midwicket. And, of course, there’s something bittersweet about that, too, now. They are champions of a competition which has underpinned English cricket for more than 130 years but which, in the current era, has been poorly treated by administrators who prefer to invest in popcorn cricket between teams whose histories were invented by the marketing department.

Hildreth spent his entire career at Somerset and he never played for a franchise team, in England or anywhere else. Back in his early years, plenty of people had that career. Twenty years later, it seems unlikely any will ever have it again.