There is always a sense of interest surrounding an England Lions squad announcement. Who’s the next kid on the block? Who’s been left out of the main squad? Is there space for the old-stager having the season of his life?
So, when the lucky seventeen had their names announced on 2nd October – a chance to take in an Ashes series from close quarters, sampling the pressures of Test cricket’s oldest fixture – the list was studied with intrigue.
In a few days’ time, Ben Duckett, Tom Westley and Keaton Jennings will head a young England Lions side as they arrive in Brisbane, well aware that – given the injury problems that have already hit the senior squad – anything is possible.
One man hoping to impress as he joins the Lions for a third successive winter is Joe Clarke. Of the squad that toured the UAE in late 2015 – Clarke’s first involvement with the Lions – seven have since appeared in Test squads, while eleven have represented England in either red or white-ball cricket.
Still only 21, the expectation is that the Worcestershire man will be among the next to take that step.
“I really feel as though this is a big winter for myself personally,” he explains. “Just even being around the Ashes environment in Australia and seeing what that’s going to be like will be incredible to be a part of.
“To be around an England squad and being out there when that’s all going on will really motivate me to kick on through the winter for myself, just to lead into the Division One season. I think having a good winter and then a good start to a season in Division One and then you’re really knocking on the door.”
As a key part of the homegrown Worcestershire side that won the strongest Division Two season in recent memory, the emphasis that the Shropshire-born batsman places on the importance of Division One is no coincidence.
There has long been a suspicion – supported by an element of logic – that runs in the country’s top division were more valued by selectors than a stellar season in the second tier. It is a feeling that Clarke shares, at least in part.
“Being in Division One is massive, absolutely massive,” he says. “To go up this year was obviously huge for the club. But for me personally, it was something that I wanted to do for myself – to be with Worcester in Division One next year.
“If you can be consistently in Division One, you don’t have the teams where you can go and think: ‘we’ll sort of walk over these’, which I think you can do in Division Two as some sides are weaker. But I don’t think that’s the case in Division One and I get the impression that it’s far more watched and looked at by the selectors and all involved with England.”
That said, the 21-year-old harbours no resentment at being overlooked for further international honours. Instead, he focuses on his own displays for the Lions, admitting that he simply hasn’t done himself justice.
“I’ve been given opportunities in the Lions to perform and I haven’t done as well as I’d have liked and other lads have. I think it’s all about taking the opportunity when you get it. I’ve been quite consistent for Worcester but there have been some lads that have been just as consistent and even more consistent than me but they’ve been doing it in Division One.
“Obviously, I’ve got this opportunity to perform again with the Lions and I think it’s about taking it now and trying to do as well as I can. Then come next summer, try and have a season in Division One like I had in Division Two and then hopefully that’s when I’ll be knocking on the door more than I have been.”
Having made his debut aged just 19, Clarke is already a veteran of 44 first-class matches in a young team, and speaks with a maturity well beyond his years but entirely typical of the environment at New Road. Talking about the pressures of being a prized scalp on the county circuit, he is quick to emphasise the need to focus on his own side of the bargain.
“You see a little bit floating around social media but it is quite nice to be talked up in that way and to see that people think that you should be at that level,” he confesses, before reinforcing that only weight of runs can keep his name among the thoughts of those that matter.
“You have to put it to one side and really concentrate on scoring as many runs as you can. If you’re scoring runs, that’s when people will talk. If you’re not, then people won’t be talking about you. If you can be as consistent as you can and score as many runs as you can, then that talk will come with it. I’ve just tried to score as many runs as I can and see where it goes.”
And from Worcestershire’s point of view, Clarke’s attitude towards run-scoring has been crucial. Only former captain Daryl Mitchell scored more runs for the Pears as the New Road side secured a fourth promotion from Division Two inside the last decade – a record as frustrating as it is impressive.
This promotion, though, gave Clarke an extra satisfaction as Worcester beat off competition from a star-studded Nottinghamshire squad, while relying on a primarily homegrown group of friends.
“It almost doesn’t feel like a job. I know, obviously, it probably doesn’t feel like that to most of the guys who play professionally anyway. But it almost does feel like you’re spending most days with your mates, playing something that you grew up loving and wanting to do. So, there is a really good environment in the dressing room and the way that we play our cricket is definitely fun.
“There’s lots of lads that have come through the academy, being similar age groups and, obviously, going on to play in the first team. Because of that, the only real ‘outsiders’ in that respect – almost the only person that comes into the dressing room from outside is the overseas player who we get.”
And more than most counties, Worcestershire’s overseas players have tended to prove invaluable additions. Saeed Ajmal, Mitchell Santner, Nathan Lyon and Ravi Ashwin have all played alongside Clarke in the last three years – a learning tool that the England hopeful views as priceless to his development.
“Since I’ve been at the club, there have been some unbelievable signings, which you’d think only really the bigger clubs – Surrey, Middlesex and Yorkshire and those sorts of counties – would be able to pull off.”
However, for Clarke, far more than the famous names that have come through the New Road gates, it has been the commitment to the cause from the international stars that he believes has proven so central to their recent success.
“The main thing really is that they’ve just come into the dressing room and been such good people,” he says. “They’re international players and they’re very highly skilled in what they do and obviously they’re here for that reason, and they’re here to help us win games of cricket.
“They’ve been such good people that a lot of the lads that have come in are still in touch with a lot of the boys now, whilst they’re carrying on their international careers. Someone like Nathan Lyon – he speaks for himself. Obviously, having Ashwin for the last four or five games was massive for our season. His performances did really guide us through the last stretch of the season towards promotion and winning it as well.
“To face all these guys in the nets and to really pick their brains about all the best players they’ve bowled at and what they do and what I can do to be better than that or better at facing them, in the long run, to test yourself against the best is something that a lot of sportspeople want to do.
“For someone like myself, it inspires me to play at the standard they do at international level and to face them and speak with them as much as I can. It was massive for me.”
This essence of friendship and community is present whenever talk turns to Clarke’s county side. The optimism surrounding the club the result of an environment created by the closeness of the group.
“We’ll probably be one of the favourites to go down,” he admits as he looks towards next year. “But you still think – we won Division Two above Notts and we could really do what Essex did this year, going up from Division Two and then winning Division One.”
Of course, with an England Lions tour to negotiate first, all that is still months away. You wouldn’t write them off though.
Featured photograph: Joe Clarke