Joe Clarke: The Spectre At The Feast?

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.

Rob Stephenson


  • Walter Reginald Hammond was fond of the ladies, too, and was unlucky enough to contract an STD. It didn’t seem to affect his selection, but he was probably a better player than Clarke! Mike Gatting, on the other hand, was given his cards after a birthday fling with a barmaid in Nottingham (was it?).

    I saw Clarke make almost a hundred in each innings, against Yorkshire, at the start of the season (2018 or19), but then he scarcely made another f-c run for months. In the last couple of seasons I have seen Kohler-Cadmore progress from a slightly crude hitter to becoming a polished player. My judgment, of course, no more than that, a former amateur batsman, but it does illustrate how many players there are, all of similar ability. I’ve gone on about this before, but the selectors, at one time or another, thought that Lyth, Robson, Stoneman, Vince, Duckett, Malan, Ballance, Westley, Jennings, Habeeb….were all good enough to play for England.

    Then they weren’t. Others, like Hildreth or Gubbins, never got a chance. Gubbins’ turn may yet come, of course, but I’m not holding my breath.

    I hope the call on Clarke is a judgment on his ability, his lack of consistency, or whatever, rather on his choice of bedtime entertainment. But who knows?

  • This is an incredibly difficult one. I’m not familiar with the exact findings in court, however there seems to be a double standard in that Tom Kohler Cadmore has been selected for The Lions whereas Clarke continues to get ignored. Form might have something to do with this, of course, but I’d expect Clarke to score a lot of runs this year now that he’s spent some time playing overseas and the controversy was some time ago.

    From what I’ve seen of him as a Worcs fan, Clarke is an extremely talented lad. I was gutted when he left for Notts. I also think that he’s probably paid his dues now. Two years of his career have been effectively wasted and I imagine he’s done a lot of growing up. He was, after all, just 21 I think at the time of the WhatsApp group controversy.

    Perhaps there’s an opportunity for Joe to get involved in campaigns that promote equality and condemn sexism? He might then change the narrative from arrogant youngster to reformed character trying to do good. It might take something like this for him to be rehabilitated into the England set up.

    Whilst I totally condemn his behaviour in the past, I also wonder how common his behaviour is / was amongst young professional sportsmen? I’m sure many have been guilty of similar boasting, or games promoting sexual conquests, but Clarke was unlucky enough to be exposed due to the deplorable and criminal behaviour of Hepburn. This does not excuse him, of course, but it might provide some context. On the other hand, however, twe can’t ignore the fact that in this particular incident the culture of the WhatsApp group probably contributed to an awful crime.

    I guess it all comes down to whether one believes in second chances. It’s worth remembering, for example, that George W Bush became president of the US despite admitting to drink driving. It seems strange that a man can become the most influential person in the world despite criminal behaviour, and yet a cricketer cannot play for his country for technically non-criminal behaviour.

  • Clarke averaged 37 in f/c cricket last season and 31 the season before that. They aren’t exactly numbers that demand inclusion. If he makes big runs and isn’t selected, then maybe there’s a story here.

    I wouldn’t have any time for the ECB not selecting someone for off-field reasons and would suspect they were motivated by fear of alienating sponsors and not any loftier goals.

    • I think this is the nub of it. He doesn’t score quite enough runs that his talents and his individual performances suggest he should. I have admired him for years and he would be a test cricketer today if I was a selector. From the information available in the media he might be a bit of a – how can I put it without sending people to the report button….let’s say not son-in-law-material …. but he has been convicted of no crime and I don’t think he should be beyond selection. The trouble is his performances make no compelling case for it. I am not qualified to say whether this amounts to a character weakness whereby a lack of mental strength detract from the obvious talent but there is a danger that this talent goes unfulfilled

  • In the modern media obsessed world where public image is so high profile it is inevitable that sportsmen are targeted for their off field antics. It’s part of the price of fame and authorities do not want to be tarnished by association, hence the continued absence of Hales, though you feel it’s not the crime so much as the attitude with him. Pieterson had the same problem, with captains feeling he could be a disruptive influence. However there’s no reason to put Clarke in this category. I know rape is a different animal from assault, but Stokes has served his time and appears to have been fully rehabilitated and there were plenty of calls for him to be banned for longer. Clarke hasn’t even been accused of anything. If you read Fred Truman’s autobiography ‘Ball of Fire’ drinking and womanising, particularly on tour, where players were away for months at a time without wives and girlfriends, was a pretty common occurrence with players being offered women in their rooms as part of the hospitality and with the tabloid press in its infancy, most of it went unreported.
    It’s not going to get any better in the present era so Clarke may have to bite the bullet awhile yet.

      • ‘Served his time’ in this case is a metaphor. As far as the selectors go he has, as he’s been welcomed back into the fold and made up to vice captain. I should have put it in inverted commas to make that clear.

  • Whilst the England set-up clearly has the potential to hold moralistic grudges for a long time (if Clarke has broken the fabled “trust” then heaven help him!…:-) and to be inconsistent about morality, I’d be surprised if your premise is right, Rob. Since Clarke was reinstated in terms of England selection, the ECB have been quite happy to select a man who’s been suspended for racially abusing a fellow player (and have another one coaching one of the teams in their flagship tournament and yet another coaching a county team), one who was threatened with prison by a bench of magistrates at around the same time as Clarke’s messages for his contemptuous attitude towards the driving laws, and another who’s been banned for drink-driving more than once–plus, as you say, Kohler-Cadmore, whose offence was exactly the same as Clarke’s.

    Clarke’s “offence” is just as likely to be his inconsistency–which is why he only averages 37 despite scoring a hundred less than every five games. And it always has been–although of course the two might be related: his misogyny rather suggests an arrogant, immature young man who struggles with self-discipline, which might also account for inconsistency.

    If he was close to the test team in 2018, he really shouldn’t have been: he was inconsistent then too and was coming off the back of a Lions tour where the might of Cornwall and Warrican had made England’s wannabe internationals look like amateurs (Clarke averaged 19). Since then, he couldn’t buy a run in 2019 bar the first and last games (he averaged 11 between them), and in 2020 he had a typical Clarke season: a hundred in five games but not a really high average. If the selectors want to pick him for the test team, they should be looking for evidence that he’s overcome that lack of consistency–and it isn’t there. If they want to pick a young, promising Notts player on the basis of the 2020 season, they’d be better off going for Duckett, who averaged almost twenty runs more.

    Sure, everyone knows that Clarke can look dreamy and that he’s great on his day, but test cricket requires more than that: if it didn’t, James Vince would have played 100 tests by now! Realistically, Clarke has more hope in white-ball cricket at the moment–but competition is quite fierce for the batting slots there, and that’s even before they’ve considered the white-ball merits of players like Pope and Lawrence….and only being selected for three games out of 17 in the recent BBL didn’t really help his case.

    In passing, I disagree about the competition for batting slots in the test side. I can’t see that there’s really any beyond Dan Lawrence–who’s also being selected almost entirely on potential rather than performance at the moment. Who, precisely? They seem to see something in Bracey despite his modest county record; maybe Duckett and Livingstone–and Hameed if (and it’s a big if) he gets his old form back. But the cup hardly overfloweth.

    • I think Clarke’s first class average of 37 reflects the fact that he’s not played well since the controversy. It was bound to have some impact on his performances. I think he averaged over 40 beforehand. I sense that this year could be make or break for him.

      • I think the averages point is rather overdone as well. One only had to look back to zak crawley with his average of 37, and Paul collingwood, marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan before that, to think of batsmen who were picked on talent rather than pure statistics. Some batsmen exude class. That is of course no guarantee of success but equally messers Hick and Ramprakash prove success at county level doesn’t of success at test level either.

      • That I think is to not look at them closely enough. Collingwood, Trescothick and Vaughan were all playing in days when the standard of bowling in the Championship was some way better than it is now–and also when every team played the best teams every year, unlike in Div 2 now.

        In any case, Vaughan had averaged around 40 for two of the four seasons before he was picked; Trescothick had averaged around 40 the previous season and was in the middle of a season where he would average over 40 when he was picked.

        The point about Clarke–and also, as was pointed out before he made his test debut, about Vince–is that their averages go down when they go up a level. That’s in contrast to Crawley–notwithstanding the fact that Crawley’s a pretty poor example of that kind of selection so far: if you take away his one highest innings out of 20, he averages less than 24 in tests–who averages more in Div 1 than Div 2.

        So sure, it’s theoretically possible that Clarke could be a good test batsman–but if he hasn’t made the step up so far (including having a poor Lions record) then why on earth would anyone assume that…including a selector? It’s much more likely that he would end up with the test record of Vince.

        As you imply, Hick and Ramprakash exuded class too but couldn’t make the step up. Now we’re lucky enough to have a system where that factor is already being tested before you get near the England side if you play for a club which is sometimes in Div 1 and soemtimes Div 2. I can’t remember the last time a batsman (if one ever has) who had only flourished in Div 2 did consistently well for England–but I can think of some who churned out runs in Div 2 but struggled when they played for England.

        • The standard of bowling was higher during the period when Tresco and Vaughan and Colly were batting? I find that a little difficult to give credence to tbh. Sure in the 90s there were still some pretty decen ttest players around who played some couny cricket around for some years but as someone who followed county cricket pretty closely in those days, I think overall the levels of fitness and skill in seam bowling is substantially higher now.

          One only has to look at bowlers around now- the likes of Jake Ball, Toby Roland-Jones, and the Overtons would have got into the England test team 20 years ago with no problem, as would Chris Woakes, and would have played alot more tests.

          OK we had Gough and Caddick from 99 when Hussain finally paired them together but what else was there? Alan Mullally was mediocre, Dean Headley ok for a few games, Cork when it swung in England could be a fine bowler. Hardly a gamut of high quality seam and swing merchants to suggest county cricket was producing vast quantities of test quality bowlers to merit selection.

          Martin Bicknell should probably have played more games. Who else was there- Simon Brown and Mike Smith? Pull the other one. And as for all-rounders: Mark Alleyne, Vince Wells and Ronnie Irani playing for England? Not really Ben Stokes calibre or indeed Ian Botham….

          And as for spinners- Andy Afford and MA=artyn Ball? Hardly budding Lakes and Locks. I remember England almost picking Richard Stemp in 94- he was in the squad- and Paul Grayson at OD level for a single cap, as well as Neil Smith in 96. Real world beaters I must say. Phil Tufnell was “mercurial” as one might say.

          Crawley was picked on the basis of 3 first class hundreds. If you look at his progress across his test career upto the India series, I think that was a pretty clear example of a player making a gradual step up at the highest level despite being moved around the order and was ironically establishing himself at 3 before picking up an injury and then being moved to open in alien conditions with very little warm up.

          There does however seem to be something of a contradiction in your position, namely you do not acknowledge Clarke has made far more substantial contributions than other already selected batsmen (in the form of f/c hundreds) instead fixating on averages to substantiate your argument. So if statistical analysis really is of vast importance, surely the value of a player to go on when he is in and make a potentially match winning contribution, rather than a pretty 30 or 40 (one of the criticisms levelled at James Vince) should be acknowledged?

          Vince by the way has scored 25 fc hundreds in 162 fc games, whereas Clarke has made 17 in 80 by point of comparison. I don’t need to make the obvious point about conversion rate do I? Think of the criticism Joe Root has had to deal with before he started scoring double hundreds this winter….

          Conversion at f/c level a la Graeme Hick again does not guarantee success as we agree. But Graeme Hick I presume you would suggest by your rationale a higher standard of first class bowling (or did it improve during the formative years of Messers Collingwood, Vaughan and Tresco only to fall of the cliff edge again?)

        • Let’s try and move these comments leftwards again a bit…:-)

          Come off it Rob–are you honestly trying to suggest that there’s anyone playing county cricket these days who’s a patch on Ambrose, Walsh, Warne, Waqar, Wasim, Donald, Muralitharan, Kumble, McGrath or Pollock? All the sarcasm in the world about Vince Wells (I assume you know that he wasn’t picked for the test team…) won’t hide that–or the fact that county cricket also featured Jacques Kallis, who was a somewhat better all-rounder.

          You’ve missed the point about averages completely. The main thrust of the comparison with Vince was that his average went down when he went into division 1.

          The point you’re arguing with isn’t a contradiction at all–it points to the fact that Clarke’s median score is lower than a batsman who has a poorer conversion rate (I think even someone of my poor maths can work out the difference in conversion rate between 17/80 and 25/160…:-) but the same average. Sure, you can argue that one both ways, but as a selector of an elite team are you really going to be happy with a player who gets out for less than 20 a lot of the time and relatively frequent hundreds and ends up with a middling average over someone who makes pretty 40s and ends up with a middling average? Wouldn’t you want someone…well, better?

          You seem to be under the illusion that I’m arguing that Clarke is Chris Martin standard. I’m not. On his day he’s clearly pretty good. But your whole post rested on the idea that because Clarke isn’t being picked at the moment, that must be for reasons of discipline. Apart from the fact that you contradict that argument yourself by pointing out that the player who committed the same disciplinary infraction at the same time HAS been picked since, I’m simply pointing out that there are other reasons why he might not be being picked–despite his hundreds, his record isn’t that outstanding, and it gets worse recently and worse if you put him in a higher class of competition.

          I think you’re also ignoring that he’s not very far away from Lions selection, even in red-ball.

    • My gut feeling was that you were wrong James–but I found out something interesting in checking if you were that I didn’t expect.

      The controversy had some impact on his f-c average, but a fairly small one: it was 39.2 at the point he was withdrawn from the Lions squad and it’s 37.88 now.

      But what closer inspection turns up is that the parallels with Vince go beyond looking stylish and being frustratingly inconsistent. Like Vince, he essentially wilts once you put him in Division One for any length of time: in three seasons in Div 1 he’s averaged 35, 34 and 31, and in three outside it (worth remembering that in the BWT Notts only had one Division 1 opponent) he’s averaged 37, 48 and 44.

      That’s borne out by his performances for the Lions, at least outside England (I can’t remember who they’ve played at home in f-c games–not many teams, that’s for sure!): he averages 22 for them overseas despite (very Clarke, this) having a hundred in only five games.

      So his problem is consistency and possibly–like Vince; whisper it quietly in case people get offended!–that he might not actually be good enough. Maybe it’s simply Vince part 2–that the dreamy batting and being good on his day have seduced people into thinking that he’s rather better than he is.

      • I think he is a better all round batsman than Vince. I have never noticed a weakness outside off when he has played.

        Total speculation until if and when he plays at the highest level anyway.

      • I haven’t looked in detail at his stats but my recollection is that he averaged over 40 in first class cricket but then had a terrible year when he first moved to Notts, which obviously coincided with the Hepburn affair. This is where his stats took a hit.

        I’ve never thought that Clarke struggled with a step up in class. He’s only 24 now. When he was a 20-22 year old at Worcester (very young) he tended to score runs against all the teams irrespective of quality. He was certainly no flat track bully.

        I also think it’s harsh to look at his Lions record. He generally played pretty well for the Lions and scored a century as a 21 year old against Pakistan A. Where he struggled was on that disastrous tour of the West Indies where every single batsman struggled mightily against the spinners on some absolute bunsens. I don’t think anyone scored any runs from memory.

        Clarke was also netting with England quite a bit as a 21-22 year old and by all reports impressed everyone. He also thrived in Australian grade cricket as an 18 year old.

        Overall I think it’s too early to make generalisations re: Clarke. I certainly wouldn’t put him in the Vince category just yet. He may end up there one day though. Alternatively his career might blossom now that he’s (hopefully) put the hard times behind him. This year should tell us a lot.

      • Vince seemed incredibly consistent to me. He could be relied upon to get out In the 20’s, 30’s or 40’s most of the time. I remember watching him in a test against the Windies at Edgbaston grind out 40 odd in over 3 hours in an effort to prove he could build an innings, it was painful. It’s the mental side he had as much issue with as his off stump, which is for me the acid test of a test player. Technique can be worked on but judgement under pressure is difficult to practice, hence I feel averages and stats are not the benchmark of selection any more, unless they are outstanding.

  • Our current Prime Minister is a “high profile figure in the public eye” but has he led “a virtuous life”?

  • These, for want of a better phrase, ‘moral issues’ are far from straightforward. Horse racing for example has recently handled one – involving a trainer being photographed on a dead horse – very badly.
    I think as far as possible, those responsible for selection should pick purely on merit and it’s up to the ECB to determine – and hopefully liaise with the selectors in good time and make them aware of it – if someone is deemed unacceptable for non-cricketing reasons.
    That in itself can be a grey area – who decides if by including a player morale would suffer. With Hales, for example, that decision – bizarrely in my view -seems to have been taken by Morgan alone.
    In relation to Clarke, I don’t think he has made a compelling case for inclusion, but I hope that discussions have taken place about whether his history is now just that or not, and that it has been explained to him what he needs to do to be considered for selection. Geoff Miller was very good at handling that sort of thing. I’m not sure about Ed.


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