By Peter Hayter
On the face of it, Joe Clarke’s way of playing himself in at the start of his first innings against Essex at New Road last week could hardly be described as conventional.
Coming in when Jamie Porter had bowled Tom Fell with the first ball of the 20th over, with Worcestershire 56 for two on a tricky pitch under cloudy skies, the 21-year-old would have been well within his rights to put away all of his many shots for an over or two, especially because Ed Smith’s England selectors, alerted not least by his 157 in the previous four-day match against Surrey, were reported to be on the lookout for him.
Few on the pitch would have expected to see the England Lions middle-order player advance two paces down the track at the man who helped bowl Essex to the title last season and the gasp from the home supporters in a healthy crowd as he played and missed by a distance suggested they hadn’t seen it coming either.
Up in the dressing room, Worcestershire coach Kevin Sharp might have winced momentarily but, by the end of Clarke’s excellent 105 from 168 deliveries, the highest score in a low-scoring match in which Alastair Cook had to work hard for his 66, all was forgiven.
And though Clarke missed out on a wildcard selection in Smith’s first squad, for the first Test against Pakistan at Lord’s next week, Sharp’s view of the rest of the innings, against an excellent attack boasting not only Porter and former South Africa spinner Simon Harmer but also the Aussie Test star Peter Siddle, is that it underlined once again what a player he has on his hands for now, and that it may not be too long before England do take him off Worcestershire’s hands.
According to Sharp, England skipper Joe Root’s former batting mentor and still a close confidant: “I had a conversation with Joe (Root) three years ago and I said to him: ‘One day you will bat with a guy called Joe Clarke.’ And I firmly believe he will in the not-too-distant future.
“Going down the track to the first ball against Essex wasn’t the first time he’s done that this season.
“He did it against (young fast bowler) Lewis Gregory in our match against Somerset at Taunton, and he was out lbw first ball.
“He has that same business at the crease and desire to be proactive that Rooty has. He doesn’t like the bowler to settle.
“After getting out first ball at Taunton some players might say ‘Right. I’m not trying that again’. Not him.
“But he is determined to put the pressure on the bowler rather than the other way round and is prepared to back himself to do it, even in bowler-friendly conditions and against a high-quality attack.
“That confidence and that belief. Those are things you look for in a player.”
Sharp says that he saw a lot more in Clarke too, when he first came across him as a junior while coaching at Shropshire, which made him think he had found one.
“He was enormously talented even then,” Sharp says. “He had the package: he had the skills, the focus, the desire and the single-mindedness, the intrinsic motivation to want to do it and the work ethic.
“One of the things I’ve always prided myself on is identifying talent, even with Joe Root as a boy, and I had the same feeling with Clarke.”
And, among all the other shots that he unfurled at New Road, what I also saw was a perfectly balanced and exquisitely timed tuck off the hips against Siddle, with a high left elbow that recalled the technique of Graham Gooch at his best.
Clearly not textbook orthodox, one of Clarke’s obvious strengths is the regularity with which the bat comes down straight at the point of impact.
So he has the game, but what makes Sharp so sure that his latest protege also possesses the mentality to be able to follow his first to England honours and glory?
“I know he was a long shot for selection for the England side this time, but I do feel he would have been ready now. For me, age is not too much of an issue and, with someone like Joe you just let him fly.
“Sure, when you go up a level, it’s more intense, there is more pressure and there are fewer bad balls to hit.
“But if you want to talk about making runs when it counts, in tough conditions, against top-quality bowlers, the hundred against Essex was high class.
“Facing a Test bowler like Siddle is exactly what he wants to do.
“He’s one of those characters who rises to the occasion.
“Just like Joe Root, the bigger the occasion the better he responds. Not all players have that and there are some who might freeze.
“But he wants to challenge himself against the best bowlers in the world. He’s sat there thinking: ‘bring on Peter Siddle, Bring on Stuart Broad. I can’t wait to bat against you’.”
And Sharp believes that Worcestershire’s star number four knows exactly what must be done to earn the chance that he is sure will come sooner rather than later. “My style is to keep pushing him, to keep saying:” is that enough?” Sharp says.
“He’s made back-to-back hundreds against Surrey and Essex. Is that enough?
“Now he needs to keep doing it, ram it down the selectors throats so that they say ‘bloody hell, that Clarke’s done it again, and again, and again’.”
Frustratingly for batsman and coach, Clarke is going to have to wait his chance to keep himself in the frame with first-class runs because, with 50-over cricket about to take over the calendar, Worcestershire do not have a championship match for five weeks.
But Sharp is convinced Clarke’s opportunity will come early, as it did for Root before him and that, when it does, like Root before him, Clarke will grab it too.
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