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George Dobell at Edgbaston
May 11, 2013
Warwickshire 374 for 8 (Clarke 66*, Trott 65, Bell 62, Evans 59, Ambrose 55, Murtagh 5-85) drew with Middlesex 428 for 5 dec (Robson 215*)
There was a time when Rikki Clarke was more interested in the next night out than the next training session. There was a time when he was known more for his unfulfilled talent than his match-defining contributions. There was a time when he was seen as something of a waster.
Those days have gone, but the reputation lingers. Since joining Warwickshire towards the end of the 2008 season, he has at last started to fulfil the undoubted potential. He has developed into a reliable seamer of sharp pace and substantial skill, a stylish and consistent batsman and arguably the best fielder in the domestic game. Recalled to the outer fingers of the England set-up with a Lions tour to Australia this winter, he returned with an exemplary report for his attitude and commitment. It has taken a while, but Clarke has grown up.
"It would harsh if anyone judged me on how I was 10 years ago," Clarke said. "They call me 'the enforcer' at Edgbaston now because, when the wicket is flat, I have the job of doing most of the bowling. I enjoy bowling now. I have confidence in it and I've just had three good seasons in a row. I'd hope that my old reputation has been forgotten."
Certainly Warwickshire were, once again, grateful for Clarke's contribution on the final day of their Championship match against Middlesex. Not only did he ensure Warwickshire averted the danger of the follow-on, but he accelerated smoothly to ensure they gained a fourth batting bonus point. It was not a bad effort for a man who failed a fitness test on the morning of the game but played anyway to help his side cope with the loss of players to injury and England Lions duty.
It was no easy task, either. While Laurie Evans would, if necessary, have come out to bat despite a broken hand that is expected to keep him out of action for around a month, by the time that Tim Murtagh had taken three wickets - including two with successive deliveries - Warwickshire were still 12 runs short of the bonus point and only had 15 deliveries left of the qualifying period.
But Clarke, who pulled Steve Finn for six from the third delivery of the day, farmed the strike until, in the 100th over, Boyd Rankin edged the deserving Murtagh for four through vacant third slip to pass 350. The match was abandoned as a draw due to persistent rain shortly afterwards.
While Murtagh, whose five-wicket haul included that of Tom Allin, edging his first ball in first-class cricket to the slips, bowled nicely, Finn continued to strive for rhythm. Currently operating off a long run-up - in the previous game he utilised a short one - he at present looks like a young man with a great deal of potential rather than a regular Test bowler.
Clarke, in comparison, is a player comfortable with his game. While he said he was "hopeful" of being picked in the Champions Trophy squad, he also admitted he "never really expected to be in it" as "13 or 14 of those places were nailed down." Aged 31, time is running out for him to make an England recall, but his hopes are burning as brightly as ever.
"I definitely think I have a chance of playing for England again," he said. "And my passion to play is as great as it ever has been. Maybe more as, once you've had a taste, you know how sweet it is.
"But the reason I am being considered is on the back of my performances for Warwickshire. So I have to keep doing the things I have been and keep performing for the club. I'm very comfortable with my game these days. I feel I know my role in the side and I'm back and supported to do it. I feel settled and happy."
Maybe success had come too easily. After a century on first-class debut, he was fast-tracked into the England side aged just 21, claimed a wicket with his first ball in international cricket - he was the first Englishman to do so in 31 years - and was soon promoted to the Test side for the tour of Bangladesh.
But his progress stalled. The 2006 season - when he was dropped by England for the last time aged only 25 - remains the only summer he has reached 1,000 first-class runs and, until his move to Warwickshire, he never took more than 22 first-class wickets in a season. He lost his Surrey place in 2007 and, reasoning that a new challenge was required, moved to Derbyshire as captain in 2008. It ended in tears in August.
"I think I was a bit complacent," Clarke said. "I was a bit lazy. Things hit home a bit late. It probably did take me a long time to mature. And yes, it's true, I probably did have a reputation for not always working the hardest or concentrating on the game.
"In retrospect, I was picked for England far too early. I had played nine first-class games and I was averaging 57 with the bat. It seemed easy. But I didn't really know my game and. There were times when I was with the England squad when I would travel around the country with them but, because I wasn't in the XI, I wouldn't play a game for weeks on end. You just lose form and confidence when that happens and, when your chance comes, you're not in a position to take it. Things are much better now and, if you're not in the team, they get you playing for your county.
"I suppose I matured a bit later than some players and it has taken a long time to prove to people that the reputation I had is no longer relevant. I can't be judged on how I was 10 years ago and the fact that I was selected for the Lions shows how the England management know that. We've all moved on and I know, having spoken to Andy Flower and Ashley Giles, that they are not worried about the past any more."
He credits the turn-around in his career to coming to Warwickshire and being proscribed a regime of tough-love by Giles and the club's bowling coach, Graeme Welch.
"Coming to Warwickshire changed everything for me," he said. "I'd lost my way a bit before that. What Ashley Giles and Graeme Welch were so good at doing was showing a lot of belief in me, while also getting me to work harder than ever before. They pushed me to become as good a player as I can be and that has made a huge difference. The truth is pretty simple: the harder you work, the better you play. It is a bit embarrassing that it took me so long to realise that, but it's true and it's the reason I'm producing the best cricket of my career now."
He is, too. Since the start of 2009 he has claimed 126 first-class wickets at an average of 27.52 and scored 2,963 first-class runs at an average of 36.13. Those are the figures of a true allrounder.
"I don't think I realised how good I could be," Clarke continued. "It was only when I came to Warwickshire that Ashley and Graeme helped me realise what a good bowler I could be. They basically said to me 'This is what you need to do if you want to be successful' and then worked with me to help me achieve it. They've both played massive parts in my career."
If England don't want him, Warwickshire will remain grateful.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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