Moving and maturing
Here's a good quiz question. Name the two England bowlers to take wickets with their first ball in one-day internationals. The unlikely duo is Geoff Arnold and Rikki Clarke. Arnold enjoyed a fairly fulfilling international career (115 wickets from 34 Tests, plus 14 ODIs when they were in their infancy), the same can't yet be said of Clarke.
The wicket that put Clarke in the small club was Imran Nazir's, caught by Vikram Solanki, at Old Trafford in 2003. Clarke has only played 19 further ODIs, adding ten more wickets, while making a meagre 144 runs at an average of 11. His Test career has been even more limited: two matches against Bangladesh in Dhaka and Chittagong as cover for Andrew Flintoff. When Clarke made his Test debut, he played alongside the likes of Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe. That was start of a special period for England, but Clarke stalled and soon went into a steady decline.
One of Duncan Fletcher's dreams was to have two powerful allrounders, especially in limited-overs cricket. There were early glimpses in both forms of the game from Clarke; 55 in his second Test to rescue England from a rocky 134 for 4, the ability to pick up useful wickets with lively medium-pace bowling, and a certain improvement he brought to England's fielding. But it soon became apparent that he'd been brought in far too raw. There was naïvete to his strokeplay and an inconsistency that came from not having honed his game. It's something he is happy to admit now, but that hasn't always been the case.
"Early on I had a lot of success as a 19-20-year-old. I'd played a handful of first-class games and done well and suddenly I was going to Sri Lanka for the Champions Trophy [the winter before his debut]," Clarke said. "I'd barely played ten games. It all happened a bit too soon, everyone knows that. It was one of those things where you have to take it on the chin. One thing I'd say I didn't react well to was being dropped. I didn't feel I did a lot wrong, but the way I went about it was wrong. That was my immaturity."
The good thing, though, about making mistakes when you are young is that there is time to put them right. Clarke is still only 26 and has made the winter move north and down a division from Surrey to Derbyshire where he will captain a young team. It is a vastly different position than the one he found himself in at The Oval, where he was one of a host of international names in the dressing room.
Towards the end of his time with Surrey, Clarke cut a disconsolate figure. He played only ten Championship games in 2007 for the poor return of 301 runs and 15 wickets. A run of injury and illness didn't help, but it was the low point of a decline where the motivation had disappeared and a career was being wasted.
"I knew I was going to leave Surrey in the middle of last season," he said. "It was one of those things where I felt maybe I'd got into the comfort zone a little. A fresh start and new challenge was what I needed. It's always difficult, I was at Surrey from the Under-9 level and it's always hard to leave somewhere you've been at so long, but not once have I sat down and thought I've made the wrong decision.
"You have to look at it as though you are going to work and ask yourself, 'Are you enjoying it?' I got to the stage where I wasn't enjoying going to The Oval any more, wasn't enjoying the hour-and-a-half car journey or the prices of houses in London. They're the little things that all come together, which meant I wasn't enjoying my cricket. You have to be comfortable with your surroundings to enjoy your cricket."
|You have to look at it as though you are going to work and ask yourself, 'Are you enjoying it'? I got to the stage where I wasn't enjoying going to The Oval anymore|
But even though Clarke's form dipped dramatically last year, there were "bigger" clubs than Derbyshire trying to secure his services. Although he has moved up the career ladder with the captaincy, and all the responsibility that entails, he will now be performing in the second division of both the Championship and Pro40. Clarke, however, believes that won't make any difference if he shines in the middle.
"It's the one thing I looked at. If you look at how many players are, or have been, with England from the second division, there have been a lot. It basically means it comes down to how you perform. I left Surrey to progress my England career. I didn't feel I'd be able to play for England again if I stayed.
"I'm confident that with the move my cricket will go upwards, and obviously, being captain I can be a leader as well. If I do things well and do it right, the players will follow and I'll put myself in the shop window to play for England. If the rest of the squad are following me then Derbyshire are doing well."
It's difficult to say which of Clarke's ambitions - county or country - is the more challenging, but both he and Derbyshire have hit the bottom and are starting the climb back up.
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo