Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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When Joe Clarke is unveiled as a top-bracket £125,000 signing by Welsh Fire on Tuesday - the first domestic player picked in this year's Hundred draft - it will reassert his status as one of the most talented young all-format batters in English cricket.
Clarke turns 26 next month and there is a sense at Trent Bridge that this could be his long-awaited breakthrough season. He has become one of the most destructive short-form batters in the world - nobody can match both his run tally and his strike rate of 160 across the last two years - and while his first-class record has dipped since his move from Worcestershire to Nottinghamshire, a phone call in February in which he was told he had been named as a reserve for England's Test tour to the Caribbean confirmed that he is still considered to be a red-ball player of high potential.
But that call, from performance director Mo Bobat, represented his first contact with the ECB in nearly three years. Having been an England Lions regular, Clarke was omitted from their tour of India in early 2019 when it emerged during the trial of his ex-Worcestershire team-mate Alex Hepburn that he had been involved in a WhatsApp group chat later described by a judge as "pathetic sexist game to collect as many sexual encounters as possible". He was fined and handed a retrospective ban for bringing the game into disrepute, and told he would not be considered for selection for an indefinite period of time.
Unsurprisingly, Clarke would rather leave that stage of his life in the past. The judge in Hepburn's trial clarified that Clarke had done "nothing wrong" on the night and there was no suggestion that he had committed a crime. He addressed his remorse in an interview with ESPNcricinfo two years ago - "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," he said at the time - and feels as though he has moved into a new stage in his career and his life.
"I hadn't heard from anyone to do with the ECB for a long time," he says, looking out on a snowy Trent Bridge at Nottinghamshire's pre-season press day. "I guess I went from someone who was consistently in touch with people from the ECB to not having any communication for a long time.
"It was a nice phone call, just to know that my name is back in the frame. I don't know whether it was held against me, or for how long. I'm trying not to think too much about that and just try and perform out there for Notts and in the competitions that I have the opportunities in."
With a new England managing director and coach due to be appointed before the start of the home summer, Clarke has the opportunity to impress. "When those changes were made and then that phone call came, it's given me clear guidance on where I sit going into the summer," he adds. "I've always wanted to play Test cricket. That's always been my main focus. It's clear guidance: if I score runs for Notts, hopefully I can put my name in the hat."
But the reaction to the news that Clarke had been removed from England's blacklist was not overwhelmingly positive. The misogynistic messages revealed in court three years ago did not reveal criminal wrongdoing but exposed an attitude that seemed to encapsulate wider problems with dressing-room culture throughout the English game. Has he said enough to prove he has learned from his mistakes?
"I don't know," Clarke says after a pause. "Maybe that's for other people to think. I don't go out there to say stuff on that. I feel like I just want to concentrate on the now and what can happen in the future. I feel like that was a long time ago and I don't want to keep going back to that. I feel like I've moved on from that.
"I don't tend to read or listen to those sorts of comments. Social media is social media. I know that basically, if I score runs then I'll put myself in the hat and that's all that I can control. I can't control what people say on social media."
Peter Moores, his head coach at Notts, is firm in his belief that Clarke has "moved a long way, both as a player and a bloke" in the last three years. "At times, the outside view which gets portrayed isn't the one you are inside," Moores says. "You get portrayed in the media through things that happen but you want to see all sides of somebody.
"We've seen a lot of really top players go through different journeys, even the greats. It doesn't mean they're not good people. I do think there's a maturity coming over him. As you get a little bit older, you look at your life in a slightly different way and think about being a role model to other people and that sort of thing, which I think is great for him to do.
"Hopefully, that will make him a good advert for the club and for himself moving forward. I see a bloke who is passionate about cricket and wants to play for his country. It's an exciting season for him - it's great to get some recognition by England to say they see him being close, and I think that's just fuelled him a bit more to keep driving forwards."
Clarke enhanced his on-field reputation over the winter, particularly in Australia. He started the Big Bash season with scores of 1, 13, 0 and 0 for Melbourne Stars but finished it as the leading run-scorer among overseas players, hitting 419 runs at a strike rate of 151.26. His stint at Karachi Kings was less successful and they finished rock-bottom of the PSL, but he hopes to hit the ground running in the Championship after a proper red-ball pre-season.
"I was very pleased," he reflects on the BBL. "I feel like it's quite a good stage to perform and lads before me who have gone on to push their names for England in the short-format stuff, most of them have performed in that competition. I felt like it was a good competition to go and do well in.
"If you didn't think like that, you're in the wrong game. Everything that I do is always to push for higher honours. It's something I haven't achieved yet and I'm desperate to do so. The opportunities at the moment are in T20 cricket, to play away in the winter and make the most of that opportunity."
His challenge this summer will be to balance his ultra-attacking short-form game with his ambitions to play Test cricket, which he insists is his priority. "I felt like it got to a stage where I was starting to get on this franchise circuit and I didn't want to get pigeon-holed as a franchise player. That's the reason why I didn't put myself in for the IPL auction: because I want to play Test cricket," he says.
"From my personal point of view, my main thing is to play for England. I feel like in white-ball cricket, playing franchise competitions will enhance that. But ultimately, hopefully, ideally, I'd be playing less and less in franchise competitions by playing the longer format of the game and hopefully playing Test cricket.
"Last winter, when I spent the whole winter away playing white-ball cricket, it took me longer to get back in and find my rhythm in Championship cricket. I didn't have much of a pre-season and sort of got thrown out into playing red-ball cricket and I was still in a white-ball T20 mindset, and kept thinking I wanted to hit the bowler back over his head when he was coming in with a red ball. Now, when I'm away playing white-ball competitions, I still do stuff in my training that allows me to make that jump easier."
Clarke has been discussed as a future England player since he was a teenager, growing accustomed to comparisons with Joe Root before those infamous WhatsApps had entered the public domain. If his long-awaited call-up finally arrives this summer, he will feel the full glare of the spotlight on him again.