Worcestershire 469 for 6 ( Clarke 157, Fell 88, Mitchell 81) lead Surrey 434 by 35 runs
When Joe Clarke slapped a filthy long hop from Dom Bess into the hands of Sam Curran at the Kensington Oval in the second match of the North v South series in March to be dismissed for a glorious 58-ball 71, Andy Flower on commentary pursed his already thin lips and produced a stare harder than any animated English-speaking Peruvian bear could muster.
Disappointment was not the emotion. Barely concealed fury would be closer to the mark. England rate Clarke, you see, and they want him to score big runs. The big runs that have been missing from the Test team pretty much since the middle-order of Trott, Pietersen and Bell broke up.
After a challenging start to the season which has yielded a mere 88 runs in six innings, Clarke delivered the sort of knock that will have had Flower purring in appreciation over his tea time marmalade sandwiches.
The cynics will point out that The Oval does not provide the most testing of conditions for batsmen. The wiser heads will counter that most Test match surfaces are pretty good to bat on. The problem England have encountered is that their batsmen don’t seem minded to bat on them for any great length of time.
On pitches in the winter that produced nine centuries for Australia, England managed just three. Their best batsman, Joe Root failed to convert any of his fifties into a three figure score. What they would have given for the sort of application and hunger that Clarke displayed against Surrey in compiling a near perfect 157 from 280 balls. It took a ball of considerable pace from the promising Conor McKerr, making his first appearance for Surrey this season after recovery from injury, to trap him in front after nearly six hours at the crease.
Clarke’s most eye catching strokes tend to be his off side drives, but England fans have grown wary of the eye-catching. A winter listening to James Vince whisper sweet-nothings into sleep-deprived ears before nicking off to second slip has taught a nation to harden its heart to the frivolous blandishments of aesthetic beauty. What impressed most was Clarke’s determination to cash in while he had the chance. After all, he could be back on a green top at Worcester by Friday, facing up to Jamie Porter, Peter Siddle et al.
Surrey’s captain Rory Burns, much like Root when confronted with Steve Smith in the winter, tried any number of fancy tricks; leg-slips, multiple mid-wickets, short-bowling with the old ball, but much like Smith, Clarke could not be drawn from his impressive bubble.
As a spectacle this game is dying a death. As a potent tonic for Worcestershire’s early season despondency it’s doing just the job. Batsmen who have barely made a run are starting to feel the unfamiliar comfort of bat on ball. Daryl Mitchell, Tom Fell and Travis Head have all got half centuries and Ed Barnard, Worcestershire’s one bright spark in a sepulchral April is unbeaten on 42, eyeing up perhaps a dart at the stiff Surrey bowlers in the morning with a view to applying some pressure in the afternoon.
That, though, is the tallest of orders. The pitch offered the bowlers nothing and although the crowd was twice treated to Amar Virdi’s ersatz rendition of Imran Tahir’s wicket celebration, this match will in all likelihood be completed with a shake of the hands in the late afternoon tomorrow.
If Surrey are to be genuine title contenders they cannot afford to play matches on pitches like this; least of all matches against the division’s bottom side. There are extenuating circumstances. The weather has made preparation unusually difficult, but this is a repeating theme. High scoring draws may keep you in this division, but it won’t get you the title.
As for Clarke and indeed the England selectors, an innings of substance in a high-scoring draw might be just what the doctor ordered.