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Treble-chasing Notts offer Clarke test of mettle

Joe Clarke leans into a drive Getty Images

For most of Joe Clarke's professional career, his name has featured in prospective XIs for future Ashes and World Cup squads. Now talk is of higher honours here and now, in a period where England's Test side has as much continuity as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

Worcestershire's visit to Trent Bridge to face a Nottinghamshire side chasing the treble, as they seek to add the Division Two title to victories in the NatWest T20 Blast and Royal London Cup, is an ideal opportunity for Clarke to restate his potential.

Notts have prospered on seaming pitches all season. Worcestershire, lying second, are the side most likely to trip them up at the last, and the presence of R Ashwin, the Indian spinner, in their line-up guarantees extra spice.

But Clarke is warier and wiser for letting that sort of chatter get into his head. He has been burned before.

"I've been guilty of getting ahead of myself in the past. I suppose I was fast-tracked in terms of England Lions and I read something a while ago about how 'Joe Root was fast-tracked and so was Clarke… He's the next Joe Root!'"

Being likened to his favourite player got his mind working overtime.

"At times while talking about Duckett's winter, he struggles to hide his annoyance"

"I thought, 'Oh yeah, this could be it. If I have a good Lions tour, I could be in!' It became about 'if I get three hundreds in a row, I could get picked'. Then I'd get nought and think 'I'm further away from it now'. This year, I've said to myself, 'Don't even think about it. Just score the runs.'"

He also has seen, through the experiences of his good friend Ben Duckett, that life at the top, in the international spotlight, can take more than it gives. Duckett's story of three fifties in the first portion of his international career in Bangladesh, followed by a rough ride in India and a disappointing 2017, is one with which Clarke sympathises. At times while talking about Duckett's winter, he struggles to hide his annoyance.

"He came to Dubai with a lot of the England boys, taking a break from the India tour during the Test series. We met up there and had dinner. He just said there's nothing that can prepare you for it. The way the media and everyone start digging into your technique.

"The other night, he got bowled by Jeetan Patel. And the first thing the commentators said was, 'Oh yeah, he's got an issue against off-spin'. To a ball that pitches middle and leg and takes the top of off! And you just think, he had an unbelievable season last year, in all three formats. Then in India he got dropped down to four when I thought he did very well in Bangladesh."

As for now, Clarke's future at Worcestershire is as much a talking point as a prospective England career. He has a year left on his deal, but 2017 has shown just how brittle county contracts can be. His former team-mate, Tom Kohler-Cadmore, beat a hasty exit to Yorkshire mid-season.

The crux of the issue seems to be his desire to keep wicket; a fear that he needs something extra to his bow so as to be not labelled a one-dimensional cricketer. In that regard, being stuck behind Ben Cox, the best keeper in the county, doesn't help. Underpinning all of this is Clarke wanting to show that he is more than just a glint in the eye of selectors, a man to bat at four in a Procrastinator's XI.

Clarke is a walking advertisement for cricket on Free-To-Air television. More young eyes on the sport leads to more exposed to and inspired by a game they may have never thought twice about. At the very least, it produces a casual fan. At the most, in Clarke's case, a potential future star. For now, let's focus on the latter.

The scene is a house in the market town of Oswestry, Shropshire, not too far from the Welsh border. The year? 2005.

A usually football mad household, a family friend who had spent most of the summer coming around to kick a ball, asked if they could put the cricket on.

"It was the Ashes," says Clarke. He was 10 at the time and admits he "literally didn't have a clue what cricket was."

Football was his sole focus as he moved from club to club across the Midlands. Good enough to get a trial but not good enough to stay put.

"We'd usually play football when my mate's brother would come around. Then one day he came in - it must have been during the second Test - and asked to put the Ashes on. My first reaction was, 'what is that?' Later, he'd come around and we'd start to play cricket as well. For Christmas that year, my brother got the DVD boxset. I reckon I've watched it about 50 times."

A year after Ashes fever, an honest conversation with his dad, who played football at a semi-professional level, centred around changing his focus. "Maybe try cricket. You seem to enjoy that more." And how.

Clarke's story has only just started, but the early chapters should excite you: a wristy middle-order batsmen who makes all the right shapes to play memorable drives and whips from outside off-stump. A first-class record that boasts an average of 44.36 from 67 innings - nine centuries in there, too - was set-up by early dashes of style and is now being reinforced by some proper substance.

"I know I'm labelled as someone 'with potential'... I'd rather put performances out there and be seen as someone who is doing it all. Right now."

Last summer, he was entrusted as Worcestershire's No. 4 and responded by leading the club charts with 1,206 runs. So far in 2017, he has 759, with three games and potentially six innings still to go. Yet, somehow, despite the obvious disparity - he'll need a heck of a finish, even by his standards, to better 2016's tally - he has more trust in his game and his approach right now.

He explains: "Even though last year I scored a thousand runs, I was either sort of none or I'd get a hundred. There weren't consistent scores. This season, I started with a lot of twenties and thirties, which in the grand scheme of things, doesn't look too bad now that I've put together a couple of hundreds and a few scores past fifty."

"Before I got two hundreds in the game against Kent here [one to hand Worcestershire a first innings lead, the second to chase down 399] I was averaging mid-twenties, but I always knew a score was around the corner."

The change, he says, is a technical one. Clarke's dominant bottom-hand, a strength when playing through the leg side (his coach Steve Rhodes likens that element of his play to Mohammad Azharuddin) got him into tangles and opened him up to a wide array of dismissals.

He spent the winter with the England Lions and, while he didn't play much, he was able to spend his time ironing out those kinks with Graham Thorpe.

To many of an English persuasion, Thorpe was a hero: responsible for some of the most tough-minded England innings ever played. To Clarke, he has been a mentor - albeit one he had to Google after he first met him three years ago. In a conversation with his dad about an upcoming Lions tour, Clarke mentioned that Thorpe would be travelling as the team's batting coach.

"My old man isn't really a cricket fan, but he was like, 'Thorpe's an England legend'! I had to search and see what he had done for England. He played 100 Tests!"

Clarke admits that he's now more up to speed, largely thanks to the throwback highlights often aired during the rain delays of a Test match.

"Karachi in the dark", a Thorpe classic, was proposed as one Clarke might have watched. Not so. It was a clip of a particular bit of "fielding" from the 1994-95 Ashes series. "The funniest thing is that clip of Thorpey dropping one at slip and booting it past cover! I brought that up with him a few times this winter."

He would love to set off on a similar path.

"I know I'm labelled as someone 'with potential'. But it's always like, 'ah, maybe he's not ready because he's young and it's just potential.' I'd rather put performances out there and be seen as someone who is doing it all. Right now."