Today Rob Stephenson asks what’s next for one of England’s brightest but most controversial young batsmen …
English batting at the moment seems in reasonable health. Since the retirement of the colossus that was Alistair Cook two and a half years ago, a number of young batsmen have come into the team – Rory Burns (yes, young in terms of experience), and Messrs Sibley, Crawley, Pope and now Lawrence.
The first four have all scored maiden test hundreds and Dan Lawrence may join them shortly. While being an England fan teaches one to believe not everything in the garden is rosy, we have more competition for places among young batsmen than has been the case for a number of years.
A broader impression of the selectors current and future thinking was shown in May 2020 when a training squad of 55 players was announced – although inevitably discussion in some articles focused on those excluded. Alex Hales, for one, incited comment, as did another notable absentee – Joe Clarke, now of Nottinghamshire.
Looking at the current England squad, Clarke has 17 first class hundreds – more than Sibley, Crawley, Pope, and Lawrence – as well as Jos Buttler. And his white ball cricket is non too shabby either. However, the selectors seem not to want him, even when naming such a large group. Consequently, perhaps it is time to address the very ugly elephant in the room?
Joe Clarke is a brilliant young batsman, perhaps the most promising uncapped player across all formats. He represented England Lions on several tours, and was in contention for a test place in 2018 before the selectors plumped for Ollie Pope, prematurely as it transpired, against India. It was in 2019, however, that his career came off the rails in a big way.
Clarke was a friend and teammate of Alex Hepburn, who was convicted of rape and jailed for 5 years. The Hepburn trial was atrocious, as any crime of rape is for the victim and family.
Hepburn was convicted and jailed for five years, and it was established that before the attack Joe Clarke had consensual sex with the victim and then passed out in the bathroom, having drunk heavily during the evening.
Clarke was never charged with any criminal offence, but it transpired that he, Hepburn and Tom Kohler-Cadmore of Yorkshire had been part of a WhatsApp group in which they boasted to each other about their sexual conquests. Clarke and Kohler-Cadmore were both charged with bringing the game into disrepute, fined and banned, but were then free to resume their county careers. Kohler-Cadmore has been selected again for the Lions. But Joe Clarke has not.
This leaves us, one and a half years later, with a difficult question: will the selectors ever consider Clarke for an England place again? The omission of his name from the 55 man training squad suggests this is not imminent.
If one looks at the list of young English batsmen, it is not difficult to imagine Clarke following in their footsteps and performing at international level. He is a formidable talent and his power and range of stroke would give further options to the England test side at 5 and 6, as well as a middle order option in the white ball squads to supplement Eoin Morgan and Sam Billings.
But do the selectors want someone with this baggage? Society is much more sensitive to accusations of misogyny and sexism than it has been in previous eras, and the #metoo movement has led to a much greater awareness of these issues. Authorities and governing bodies are acutely sensitive to criticism (rightly so in many cases), and are desperate to be seen acting in a socially acceptable fashion.
It seems likely that the selection of Clarke in a national squad would attract considerable press attention, which would doubtless focus on his WhatsApp transgressions. This could cause serious embarrassment for the ECB, who would be accused of being “tone-deaf” on very important issues. That said, Kohler-Cadmore’s rehabilitation strikes an uneven note. Clarke’s conduct is viewed as more serious but it’s not clear why.
There seems to be a modern expectation that high profile figures in the public eye lead virtuous lives, and any breach of what is regarded as a socially acceptable standard makes such a figure ripe for condemnation. The argument that a player representing their country is a role model has a strong resonance, and Clarke is now damaged goods in this regard.
The counter argument is that Joe Clarke was young, and that many young men boast to their friends about their success with the opposite (or presumably in some cases the same) sex. Such behaviour is puerile, pathetic and sexist – but is it sufficiently serious to bar a player from selection permanently?
One can imagine previous generations of press and selectors taking a more sympathetic view of the player, considering his age and evident immaturity. But whether such an attitude would wash in 2021 is highly questionable. Clarke has apologised for his conduct on a number of occasions, it must be added.
Where does the above leave the selectors and Joe Clarke? He is 24 and his recent stint in the Big Bash attracted some comment in the Australian press – a foretaste, perhaps, of what his selection for England could elicit. Although a blazing hundred off 44 balls in the Vitality Blast showed the quality he could bring to the team, the ECB must worry that picking him, whenever this might be, could produce a storm of condemnation and damage the board from a PR point of view.
For many years Joe Clarke was considered one of the brightest batting talents of his generation and it seemed only a matter of time until full international honours came his way. Yet his peak years may now be spent in comparative obscurity in county cricket and T20 and T10 leagues around the world.
One wonders whether the powers that be will eventually think he has served a long enough penance and let him try to perform against the world’s best, presuming his form justifies it. Only time will tell if a redemption story is completely out of the question.