WHEN Warwickshire signed Rikki Clarke late in the 2008 season the move had plenty of doubters.
The all-rounder arrived with abundant natural ability, no-one disputed that, but also plenty of baggage.
Clarke had burst on to the scene at Surrey in such impressive fashion that he made his Test debut for England at 22. His rise was rapid and spectacular.
But he came through at Surrey just as the dressing-room was disintegrating into internecine discord which saw them relegated in the championship.
It was not a happy place and Clarke, like many, was affected.
A surprise move to Derbyshire, where he was made captain for the 2008 season, then backfired completely. His relationship with coach John Morris broke down and by midsummer he was searching for form in the Second XI.
His two Tests for England, against Bangladesh late in 2003, appeared an eternity away.
Clarke’s critics – quick to wield the wasted-talent tag – looked smug. But Ashley Giles, director of cricket at Warwickshire, was confident that this player had time to get his talent back on track. Giles reckoned he could extract the best from the enigma that was Rikki Clarke.
He was right. Under the guidance of Giles and bowling coach Graeme Welch, Clarke forced his way back into the England set-up. Last year he was player-of-the-season for the county champions.
Having recently signed a four-year deal binding him to Edgbaston effectively for the rest of his career, the all-rounder admits he owes plenty to Giles, Welch and Warwickshire for the revival of a career which was impeded, early on, by that heaviest of labels “the new Botham.”
“Having the Ian Botham tag and the Andrew Flintoff tag when I started out was tricky,” Clarke admits said. “In my first season with Surrey I averaged 50-plus and it was a case of ‘who’s this kid?’ It was a classic burst-on-to-the-scene.
“I was young and didn’t have any expectations so if it didn’t workout I’d just go back to the seconds. But it went so well I found myself as a regular and then on a Champions Trophy tour with England having played only nine first-class games.
“It was a case of ‘wow, this is all happening a bit quickly.’ I suppose all the reports from Graham Thorpe, Alex Stewart and Mark Butcher, who were in the England set-up, were that they rated me. But it came too soon.
“In an ideal world I would have played for Surrey for a couple more years, learned my game a little bit more and been in a better position to go into the England side and be comfortable.”
Clarke did well enough during his two Tests in Bangladesh, scoring a half-century and taking four wickets at 15 runs apiece. But then “Freddie” returned and Clarke was back with a Surrey side in turmoil.
In an under-performing team at a club living on its history, he had, by his own admission, “gone stale.”
Beckoning him was the road to Birmingham. Via Derby.
“I turned down an extension at Surrey because I felt I had to move to keep my England career alive,” he said. “I met Darren Maddy and Mark Greatbatch in a pub in Stratford-on-Avon but then Greatbatch was sacked and I didn’t hear anything for a while, during which time Derbyshire offered me the captaincy.
“I strongly believed I could go to Derbyshire as an England player and change their fortunes around. I felt if I did the right things and performed well then people would follow. But after a couple of months my relationship with John Morris broke down.
“Going into May, things were not what I was sold in October. I didn’t like that and it all totally broke down so it was in everyone’s interests that I was released from my contract as soon as possible.
“Luckily, Ash was still interested and hopefully my performances for Warwickshire over the years have proved the doubters wrong. I didn’t have the best first season with the bat and that’s where Gilo came into play.
“He really helped me work out what my strengths are and get the preparation right so I could say ‘right, I’ve done the preparation, I’ve done all the work I needed to do – if I get nought, at least I know I’ve prepared and done my best.’
“With the bowling, Pop and I have had a brilliant relationship ever since he returned to the club. He keeps it incredibly simple and I work incredibly hard. And the harder you work at the game the better you get. Maybe it’s taken me a little while to realise that.”
The penny having dropped now, Clarke has become linchpin rather than luxury for his county and is back on his national team’s radar.
At 31, his return to Test cricket is unlikely, though one senses that, if it came along, England would not regret it. It is likely, however, that Clarke, like Nick Knight a few years ago, will play his best cricket, with his game right and his head right, on the county circuit.
“I think I’ve got more chance now than I had a couple of years ago, having been selected for the Lions during the winter squad,” he said. “But I am realistic. Time’s not on my side, though I feel strong and fit and ready as ever.
“If it happens, then brilliant. If it doesn’t, I’ll just keep trying to put in performances for Warwickshire.”