Somewhere among Rikki Clarke’s old kit and other bits he has a fat scrapbook, full of dog-eared clippings from the summer of 2002. He was 20 and on a run of form that took him from Surrey’s second XI into the England squad in the space of three months.
“Clarke in Like Flynn” was the Guardian headline when he hit 153 against Somerset, “Clarke’s Flash of Lightning” when he smacked three sixes in an innings against Yorkshire and “Rikki’s a Rare Talent” was above a full-page profile in the Observer when he won his first England call-up for the Champions Trophy that September. “England have found ‘the one’,” ran the report. “A swashbuckling bat who bowls too, and throws and catches with the energy and sweat of the modern game.” He was, his captain, Adam Hollioake, said: “The best young player around.”
Clarke was one of a group of young players England brought into their one-day team as they started to plan for the 2007 World Cup. The rest – Kabir Ali, Chris Read, Will Jefferson, Jim Troughton, Vikram Solanki – quit years ago. Only Clarke is still at it. He took two for 62 against Essex last Sunday, went in No 6 and made 12 on Monday.
These are his last days on the circuit. He hopes he will get one more game (“if I’m fit and get selected”) against Glamorgan next Tuesday. Next there is his testimonial match, for an all-star Surrey team at the Tidworth ground in Shrewton on 26 September.
Then Clarke will start as director of cricket at King Edward’s, Witley, where he is also running a cricket academy. Right now he is working with his “elite group”, a lot of them kids knocking around the fringes of the game, county triallists looking for an edge. Clarke has a lot to pass on.
When Clarke was about that age, he went from playing second XI cricket at Banstead in May, to warm-up games for England in Colombo in September. He made his international debut against Pakistan at Old Trafford in 2003 and took a wicket (Imran Nazir c Solanki b Clarke 33) with his first ball. It was a long hop.
He was picked for the tour of Bangladesh that winter, played two Tests, scored a fifty and took four wickets for 60. And that was it. There were a handful more one-day games, some he batted No 8 and did not bowl, others No 4 and got through a full 10 overs. By the time of the 2007 World Cup Clarke had been dropped.
He still says those first caps are his proudest achievement. “I always said I was going to play for England. I used to get in trouble at school because I would practise my signature in the back of my books and the teacher would tell me: ‘Look, you’re never going to do it’. Then the next thing I knew I was on an England tour, thinking: ‘What am I doing here?’”
Watching him from a distance all these years, I guess Clarke made his peace with this a long time ago but there is clearly still something there, niggling at him. He chews it over. “I wouldn’t say the selection stopped my development but it was a setback.”
Clarke has won a lot: three Championships, two one-day titles, two T20 finals. He has taken 800 wickets and scored the best part of 18,000 runs. But he will never quite know what he could have done in international cricket. “The only thing is, I wish I was given more of a chance to cement my place. I played two Tests and I look at them and I did well, averaged 15 with the ball, 32 with the bat, and I never got another opportunity.”
In the one-day team the way he was shuffled around meant he never understood his role in the side. “Some people say that you have to take your chance wherever you bat and I didn’t. I understand that.” He never stopped waiting for that second chance, through his years at Warwickshire and Surrey, when he was averaging in the 40s with the bat, and the 20s with the ball. “There’s always that hope. Michael Hussey, Chris Rogers both won call-ups at late ages, Joe Denly did it recently.”
England called him up to a 30-man squad in 2013 but that was it. Then, somewhere along the way, “I accepted that I was chasing something that actually might be out of my control.” He has played some of his best cricket since, as a senior pro, passing on what he has learned. “You need to fail, you can’t fear failure, but you have to learn from it. That’s how you become a better player and a better person. Believe me, I’ve failed plenty.”
Regrets? He doesn’t like the word. “But there’s one thing – I wish I had done it my own way. When I went into that England side, I had all these different coaches telling me different things and I changed my bowling action too much instead of sticking to what I had and working to make it better. If I’d trusted what got me there in the first place, you never know, maybe it would have been different.”
At 39, he says, Clarke has gone full circle and his action is pretty much the same as it was when he was 19. “But the wickets I’ve taken, the runs I’ve scored, the people I’ve played with and against, the trophies I’ve won, I could only have dreamed of it all. Could it have been better? Of course it could. But sometimes that’s how it goes with careers and that’s how mine panned out. This is the way it was meant to be.”