Joe Clarke was used to being in the spotlight. Since his debut for Worcestershire at the age of 18 in 2015, his story had encompassed only success and the promise of more. This time it was different.
This time the headlines were not about Joe Clarke the England batsman in waiting, as they had tended to be during his rapid rise as the golden boy of New Road. They were about Clarke as a central figure in a grubby tale of sexist, misogynistic behaviour that many had imagined to belong to distant, less enlightened times, and which had profound consequences for one of those involved.
Sitting in an office overlooking his new home ground at Trent Bridge, Clarke confides that the dark shadow cast by the episode is still there. "If I could go back and change what happened, I would," he said. "For all the parties involved. That thought runs through my mind every day."
He is referring to the shocking consequences of a night out in Worcester almost three years ago that were thrust brutally into the public domain in January of last year, when his former Worcestershire team-mate, Alex Hepburn, now serving a prison sentence, stood trial on a charge that he had raped a woman in an apartment in the city centre. Clarke, who had gone to the bathroom to be sick and subsequently passed out there while the alleged offence was taking place, having previously had consensual sex with the same woman, appeared in court as a key witness.
The trial concluded with the jury failing to reach a verdict but a retrial was scheduled for April, when Hepburn would be found guilty and sentenced to five years in custody. In the meantime, the emergence in the first trial of sordid messages exchanged between Hepburn, Clarke and another former New Road colleague, Tom Kohler-Cadmore, via WhatsApp, had led to Clarke and Kohler-Cadmore being withdrawn from an England Lions squad preparing to go to India, pending likely disciplinary action.
By the time of the retrial, Clarke was two weeks into his debut season for Nottinghamshire, to whom he had moved at the end of the 2018 season. He did not need to miss any cricket in order to appear but when Hepburn's guilty verdict was announced on April 12, Nottinghamshire were playing Somerset at Trent Bridge.
"If I could take back everything that happened, in terms of the whole situation for all the parties involved, then I would. It runs through my mind every day" Joe Clarke
At the end of the match, in which Clarke scored just two runs in each innings after making 112 and 97 not out on his Championship debut for the county the week before, Nottinghamshire head coach Peter Moores was reluctant to be drawn into discussing Clarke's state of mind but admitted he had found it difficult to concentrate.
His new employers hoped it would be a short-term distraction but it proved not to be the case. Clarke had been signed as one of the hottest young prospects around, a batsman who by 22 years old had scored more first-class hundreds than any English batsman at the equivalent age in the modern era apart from Alastair Cook. Yet his form for the remainder of the season, apart from an unexpected flourish in the final round of the Championship, betrayed only fleeting glimpses of the player Nottinghamshire thought they had signed.
Subsequently, Clarke and Kohler-Cadmore were charged with bringing cricket into disrepute over their part in the unsavoury WhatsApp group and the crude game of sexual conquests it revealed. They were ultimately fined £2,000 each and banned for four matches, the suspension deemed to have already been served by the matches they missed by being dropped from the Lions tour.
The punishment imposed by the ECB struck some as rather light, although it has to be remembered that however deplorable their behaviour might have been, neither Clarke nor Kohler-Cadmore had committed a criminal offence. There were punishments of another kind, though. Self-inflicted, psychological ones for which neither player seeks sympathy, but real nonetheless.
"It was difficult last season to go out there and focus on my game," Clarke said. "It was the first time in my career that I'd walked out to the middle with something in my mind other than my batting.
"Lots of players have things going on in their personal lives but after the court case mine were in the public domain, for everyone to see. I couldn't leave them behind. I might try to but, in the early weeks of the season at least, I'd hear things said, sometimes in the crowd, sometimes by opposition players. Then it was at the front of my mind again.
"Looking back now, the way I am now, I don't think it would affect me as much as it did. But at the time it was very raw. There were so many emotions going through my mind."
Some related to the damage done to how he was portrayed. "I had previously been associated only with positive things," he said. "I'd been on four Lions tours in a career of only five or six years. If there was a story about Joe Clarke, it was about being one of the batters with a chance of playing for England. All positive.
"I'd wanted to be seen here as Joe Clarke, the successful Nottinghamshire batsman. I felt all that was being taken away from me because now I had this other tag, and it stayed with me all season."
As soon as the extent of Clarke's involvement in the WhatsApp group and the behaviour linked to it became apparent, Nottinghamshire made it clear to him that there was a level of conduct of which they expected none of their players to fall below.
Yet, as with Alex Hales after the drug test failures that saw him cast out by England in a World Cup year, they wanted to help their player find a path forward and arranged for him to see a psychologist, which Clarke says helped him.
Nonetheless, as match followed match with no sustainable improvement in his form, the county's patience wore thin. Eventually he was dropped, from the Vitality Blast quarter-final against Middlesex and the subsequent Championship fixture. "It was the first time I had been dropped in my career and it was a hard thing to hear," Clarke said.
Inevitably, too, there were feelings of regret, even remorse about what he had allowed himself to become involved with.
"It was a long time ago and it feels now like I was young and naive and probably immature in a way," he said. "At the time, it felt like it was just three mates talking in a private chat but seeing it in the light that I see it now…
"You look back and of course I regret it. Obviously I do. If I could take back everything that happened, in terms of the whole situation for all the parties involved, then I would. It runs through my mind every day.
"But I am a lot older now. People might have judged me for what happened but I've learned a hell of a lot from my experiences and I think I'm going to be better for it. I've made some changes in my own way of life and in the way I train."
There is clearly regret, too, that he was not able to deliver the performances for Nottinghamshire that were expected of him in a season that ended in the most ignominious of relegations, without a single win to their name. "I was a new player with big expectations on me," he said. "I wanted to be someone who was consistently performing and that did not happen."
If there was a benefit to be obtained from being dropped it was the chance for he and Moores to have one-to-one conversations purely about his cricket. As he grappled with his psychological problems, Clarke had neglected his technique but Moores was able to identify issues that were making him vulnerable.
"We looked at some clips of Marnus Labuschagne," Clarke said. "We thought that this was a batsman with similar movements and a similar game to mine. I came in on a day off and did some work, went back into the team for the last home game of the season and scored two hundreds."
It still was not enough to provide even a late-season glint of brightness in Nottinghamshire's Championship season. Already relegated during the round that Clarke missed, they piled up a season-high 498 in the first innings but still managed to lose against opponents Warwickshire by eight wickets.
A draw against Surrey in the final round completed a full summer without a Championship win in a campaign in which the travails of the team did little to improve Clarke's state of mind. His own struggle for form was mirrored by several others, fellow new signings Ben Duckett and Ben Slater among them.
"The dressing room was a tough place to be in terms with how we dealt with being relegated," he said. "There were some very upset people, about individual form and the way our team had performed. The way we were relegated, in a year where only one team went down after we'd started among the favourites to win the title, was a really hard pill to swallow."
A winter of reflection, plus more new faces, has yielded renewed optimism. Clarke, confidence buoyed by those runs against Warwickshire and the bonus of a contract with Manchester Originals he knew nothing about until a congratulatory text arrived from a friend, is trying to see this year as his real debut season for Nottinghamshire and the last one as a false start. Kohler-Cadmore's recall to the Lions squad is further encouragement.
"I loved my time at Worcestershire but coming here seemed like the right next step and it was such a shame when there was so much expectation on me last year that I couldn't perform the way I wanted," he said.
"I've not heard from anyone in the England set-up but I was led to believe that after the [disciplinary] hearing the selection criteria would be the same for me as anyone else. If I can score some runs and help Notts go straight back up we'll see where it leads.
"I can't change what has been done, much as I'd like to. The only thing I can control is the future so I want to look forward now, rather than back.
"All I can do is work as hard as I can and put in consistent performances for Nottinghamshire. If I'm doing that then I'm sure I'm knocking on the right door."