Rikki Clarke: more than a journeyman

cricket-one-day-cricket-rikki-clarke-warwickshire2_3196942

When George Dobell wrote his profile of Warwickshire’s Rikki Clarke for ESPNCricinfo, he probably felt quite justified in penning the line “Promoted too early and written off too soon”.

On the surface it seems a fair assumption. Selected for England the year after his First Class debut, Clarke was then discarded after two Tests and 12 months in the ODI side. He’d certainly been brought in young; he was a very raw talent.

Post those two Tests and 17 ODIs, Clarke has played just three matches for England – a one-day series against Pakistan in 2006.

It was a strange composite side: Andrew Strauss had been dabbling in the English captaincy for about three months, Andrew Flintoff and Michael Vaughan (among others) were absent, Jamie Dalrymple, Stuart Broad and Sajid Mahmood were being given a shot, and Darren Gough was being wheeled out for the final time.

Clarke performed admirably in the first two games of that series: in the first match, with England 166/5 when he entered and very quickly 173/7, he attempted an uppercut off Shoaib Akhtar, only to be caught on the boundary.

In the second ODI, his 39 was the top score and helped guide the team from 78/5 to a borderline-respectable 166. He then bowled seven tidy overs amongst the carnage of a seven wicket defeat.

In the third and final match, Clarke came in with a handful of overs remaining and with a solid platform set – unfortunately, his advance to Abdul Razzaq merely forged a yorker which bowled him first ball. He then got given two overs – the 17th and 19th. The first saw him bowl several wides, but still go at just a run-a-ball.

The second over was brilliant; his first ball was combated only by a very smart piece of cricket, the second the same. The third ball was a proper peach, just smooching over the top of off-stump. The over went for just five. His figures stood at 2-0-11-0, no crime there surely?

Yet he was taken off, and not bowled until the very death. There, his 11 balls before the target was reached were ragged, and leaked runs at an alarming rate.

Wrote Martin Williamson, the Cricinfo online commentator, “…Rikki Clarke simply doesn’t look any more likely to be good enough than he did in his previous time in the squad…”

***

Tall, lean, athletic. The bowler jogs in – briskly, not Akhtar-esque, but certainly briskly – and puts the ball on a length to supremely in-form Lancashire all-rounder Tom Smith.

It’s outside off-stump and on a good length. In a Championship match, it’s let through to the keeper. Dot ball. Next ball boys. Couple of claps, a ‘Well bowled, Rikki’.

But this isn’t a First Class match…

Smith lays into the delivery and heaves it into the crowd beyond wide long on.

This is the NatWest T20 Blast final. Birmingham against Lancashire.

The Bears versus the Lightning.

***

The 2012 County Championship victory was one of Warwickshire’s greatest moments. With Varun Chopra, William Porterfield, Ian Westwood, Ian Blackwell, Tim Ambrose, Chris Wright, Boyd Rankin, Keith Barker and Jeetan Patel all combining to glorious effect, Rikki Clarke was somewhat marginalised.

When Warwicks beat Worcestershire in their penultimate match of the Championship season, it secured the title.

Chris Wright and Keith Barker took five apiece in the first innings – Worcester’s all-out 60 required just the opening spells from those two.

Warwickshire’s knock was built on Chopra’s 195, with all other contributions paling into insignificance.

Worcester’s second toppling saw skipper Jim Troughton thrust into the limelight, with his henchmen Barker and Wright as his left-and-right arm men.

That so few accolades rested on Clarke’s shoulders was a disappointing result for a man who gave the 2012 season his all.

But it’s never been Clarke’s place to be front-and-centre in the big moments. His play is built around dependency, the platform that allows the team to get to the public-eye moments. And when those times roll around, he again sets the basis for success.

In the public eye, however, that’s not enough. Ben Stokes’ flashing blade and sworded brilliance was far more exciting than Alastair Cook’s dour gathering of runs at the other end.

Which was more crucial to the English cause?

That’s debatable – Stokes was the proverbial straw to Cook’s overbearing cargo.

Clarke played 17 First Class games that summer – he scored 826 runs, averaging over 45, and took 26 wickets at under 22. But he never made knocks or took hauls which grabbed headlines; he made just three centuries, and took no five-fors. It was a telling tribute to Clarke’s cricket.

At the risk of using a pitiful cliché, Clarke was the spine of the Bears’ line up. The reason it’s so applicable is that, much like your archetypal vertebrae, Clarke’s presence was only felt when he was missing, or not firing. Clarke to Warwickshire was Trescothick to England of a few years before.

***

The role of a fifth, sixth or even seventh bowler in a Twenty20 game isn’t to be spectacular. If you can bowl a few overs of reasonably tidy stuff, you offer your captain options. If you have four top-line bowlers, getting through half a dozen part-time overs means your big pack can tear the batsmen to shreds.

Rikki Clarke only needed two overs to perform his role in the 2014 NatWest T20 Blast final. In front of a home crowd at Edgbaston, he and Ateeq Javid did exactly what was asked. Defending 180-odd, your part-timers can happily offer somewhere from ten to a dozen in an over.

So when Rikki Clarke was brought back for his second over, with the required run rate over 11 and with seven overs to go, his task was clear. One boundary in the over is a success.

It meant Karl Brown was under pressure facing Clarke’s last ball – another boundary, to add to his six a few balls prior, would put the pressure back on Birmingham, any other result kept it entirely on Lancashire. A slower ball was poorly countered by a cross-batted swipe, and the resulting dot ball made a big difference.

Well bowled, Rikki.

***

Amazing to think, then, how exceptional, extraordinary and exciting he’d been as a new kid on the block. Averaging over 50 in his debut season, he was surely the find of the season. Just what English cricket needed in 2002 – a bit of razzmatazz.

It would be unfair to say he was brought in too early. Too immature, certainly, he needed more development mentally. But technically and as a raw cricketer, he was ready for the step up.

It would also be unfair to say England discarded him too soon; he was given a chance – albeit brief – and failed to show the mental aptitude required for the top flight.

Should he have been given opportunities later? Almost certainly. He was the middle order team man who, pairing up with Paul Collingwood, could have made England great.

It’s simply a twist of fate that Clarke never got another chance. It’s disappointing, but it’s been Warwickshire’s gain. Since joining the club, seven years ago, he’s discarded the mythical ‘baggage’ it was said he carried and instead helped carry the team.

History will postulate on how Clarke could have gone as a Test cricketer. The answer to that is simple – once he’d matured as a man and as a cricketer, he could have been outstanding.

***

A four run victory – the garishly titled Birmingham Bears are the victors.

Funny that; a boundary on the last ball of Clarke’s second over could have made all the difference.

“Small margins,” a former South African spinner, Clive Eksteen, said of cricket, “it is what it is.”

Well bowled indeed, Rikki.

***

The recent game at Hove, which finished a day early on May 26th, was an agonising one wicket victory for Sussex.

Agonising for Warwickshire, that is.

It was a proper low-scorer. The kind of game only County cricket can offer up in the way it does.

Warwickshire batted first – 180 all out. Two medium-quicks of very differing levels of experience – Steve Magoffin and Oliver Robinson – did the damage.

Clarke was second-top scorer with 24, grafted out in more than an hour.

A handy three-for bowling first change helped keep the first innings deficit to 11.

Warwickshire’s second innings totalled 200, and again Clarke was the man who stepped forward, making the highest score of 34. Not exceptional, but the kind of cricket which County legends are made of.

At 38 for three, captain Ed Joyce held the key with the bat. So when Clarke caught him in front, LBW, the game swung dramatically in Warwickshire’s favour.

It would never have been on the Bearsman’s mind, but that was also First Class wicket 299. One to go, Rikki.

While the hurt of the one-wicket loss will hurt more than any success can compensate for, the wicket Clarke picked up just 20-odd minutes later was the one which will etch him into the County record books.

A triple century of wickets, a mid-30s batting average. A great career by a great man. He’s adopted, but he’s certainly one of Warwickshire’s finest sons. Hopefully he’s still got years to come.

Well bowled, Rikki, and carry on strong.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s