This month we’re delighted to be speaking to one of the most popular all-rounders in the domestic game. A player, who has represented England in over 20 ODIs, 2 Tests, has won 3 county championships, numerous one-day titles and who has appeared in a remarkable seven T20 finals days, Surrey all-rounder Rikki Clarke.
When Rikki made his county championship debut back in 2000, he did so playing against someone else who was making his championship debut, one Jimmy Anderson, and at the end of this summer he’ll hit the magic 40 – life begins at 40, right? And just like our record-breaking bowler, Rikki is enjoying his cricket as much as ever…
“To celebrate my 40th I’m hoping to win every domestic trophy this summer, be named Wisden cricketer of the year and get a Test call up!!! I know it sounds a bit of a cliché, but I know my time is coming when I’m going to have to hang my boots up so I’m just going to continue to enjoy every moment.”
Trust me from speaking to Rikki, he most definitely is enjoying every moment and let’s not rule out just yet of him becoming the next Darren Stevens!
All that said, Rikki is preparing for life after cricket and has recently launched the Rikki Clarke Cricket Academy, a brand-new academy which offers a range of professional cricket coaching for players age 5 years and upwards. “To be honest I just want to give something back to the next generation, I remember being that young kid growing up and going through the system. But I know there is a lot of talent that slips through the net, and I hope those players can come our way and I can pass on to them my knowledge and experience of what I’ve been through over the years. But it’s not just the younger generation, we support the older generation as well, basically anyone who just wants to improve their game. Hopefully it’ll be a good business. We’ve got a lot of good coaches on board we just need Coronavirus to pass!”
Hopefully by the end of this piece, you’ll agree from the stories Rikki shares, there’s a lot of experiences these kids can learn from.
So, let’s rewind the clock and where did the Rikki Clarke journey begin?
“I suppose it was the usual introduction. From the age of four I was always at my local cricket club. My mum used to do the teas my Dad would be playing on a Saturday and Sunday. So pretty much seven days a week I was always in and around a cricket field with a bat or ball in my hand.”
And with a bat and ball always in hand, was he always keen to become an all-rounder?
“To be honest, when I was younger, I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t really understand the batting, the bowling or the all-rounder side of it. I was just like I’ve got a bat, brilliant I’ll use it, I’ve got a ball in my hand, great I’ll bowl with it. It was only when I was nine playing for my local club, Godalming, that I was recommended to attend a 10-week course in Surrey and things took off. The course was called the Nescafe course. Nescafe used to do a lot of sponsored work with Surrey. I ended up getting the player of the course and if you won the player of the course you then got the opportunity to go up to the Oval to receive your little pennant with a signed cricket bat from all the Surrey players. Also, part of the reward was a trial for Surrey’s under 9s. I had a solid trial, and it all went from there. I then played Surrey youth cricket all the way up until I signed a professional contract.”
An interesting story here is Rikki received his pennant from Alec Stewart, and Rikki shared this great photo with him receiving that pennant from Alec and then years later a second photo of Rikki and Alec holding the county championship together in 2018. See, dreams do come true…
I asked Rikki if he played much representative cricket in those formative years. “Not too much really. I played in the Bunbury festival and I was in around the English schools’ stuff. I was due to go on a European colts’ tour when I was 17 or 18 with England but I had a bit of a back problem so didn’t end up going. But I did all of the training camps at Lilleshall in the lead up to it, which was brilliant. So, it was mainly just Surrey stuff.”
He may not have received the representative recognition, but his development through the Surrey ranks was rapid, making his one-day debut for the brown caps in 2000, at the age of just 18.
“It was a bit of shock really because the team we had was just star-studded, there were internationals everywhere.”
I asked him what it was like going into that star-studded dressing room for the first time?
“The dressing room was brilliant. I remember them telling me what it was like for many of them when they were at my age and it sounded terrible. Things that in today’s society you would be looking at lawsuits left right and centre! But for me it was a great dressing room to go into. Everyone was willing to help and wanted me to do my best. I’ve always been a cheeky sort of chappie and they accepted that and what I was like. I think in that squad we had something like 16 or 17 internationals, it was crazy. So, our second XI was incredibly strong and you knew if you were doing well in 2s cricket you would put your name in the hat for the first team because it was such a strong standard. I remember I was taking a few wickets and scoring a few runs, but it was definitely a surprise when Keith Medlycott gave me a little nod and Adam Hollioake followed it up by saying ‘right come on, you’re coming to play with us.’”
And how did the debut go?!
“Let’s just say it didn’t go very well!! I got nought on my debut and then seven in the next game against Gloucester and all I remember from that game against Gloucestershire when I got 7 was Jack Russell stood up to stumps and just constantly scratching behind me with his studs and making loads of noise; he kept putting his gloves in front of my ears and clapping and just I kept thinking what is going on here! But it was good because stuff like that just toughened you up and gets you ready for professional sport and made you realise this is now proper serious stuff. At this level nobody was going to give me any easy runs just because I was a youngster.”
In 2001, Rikki made his first-class debut, scoring 107 not out against Cambridge University, and in his first championship game for Surrey scored 153 not out against Somerset. It was a breakthrough season as Rikki ended it with a batting average in excess of 50.
“Cambridge University was one of those build-up games you play but I then played against Somerset a few games later and batted well with Ramps and got 153 not out. We then went to Middlesex for a one-day game on the Sunday and I scored 60 odd. It was just one of those starts you dream about.”
I asked Rikki how important is it for young players to get those runs early?
“100% important. When I look at my career and I don’t know if others do the same, but at the start when I was young, there were no expectations or pressure on me. You didn’t know any consequences to the shots you played or the balls you bowled. You’re young. You’re naïve. You would just go out and enjoy your cricket. When I signed as a professional, I just thought this is brilliant I’m just going to do everything that I’ve done growing up. Then you get to a certain stage in your career when you’re a little bit older and people look at you as a bit more senior and suddenly coaches and people will talk to you more about your dismissals or if you’re not taking wickets. You start thinking about the consequences more. Suddenly that fun has become a job. You realise you have certain things like a mortgage to pay for it and all of this stuff comes into your thinking and the pressures inevitably builds in different ways. Now I know the end is near, you start really enjoying it again and you come full circle. So, if I could give advice to anyone it would be to try and stay exactly the same and enjoy it the whole way through if you can, because that’s the best way.”
Rikki’s confidence in those early years shone through on the pitch and boy did he get the rewards; he won his first County Championship medal in 2002, a Benson & Hedges Cup and the inaugural T20 Blast in 2003, as well as being awarded the Cricket Writer’s Club Young Cricketer of the Year and the Dennis Compton medal.
“We had such a strong side. Even when we were missing guys to England, we had some serious fringe players like Jason Ratcliffe and Nadeem shahid. We also had two overseas players back then and we had Saqlain Mushtaq as our spinner and Azhar Mahmood as a seamer. Ramps had come across from Middlesex, Jimmy Ormand came down from Leicester, Ed Giddins joined. Then we had the star-studded Surrey guys such as Butch, Bickers (Martin Bicknell) and Ally Brown. We just had great talent coming through the ranks at Surrey and the best players from other sides came in to join us. It’s fair to say competition was very healthy!”
Which just goes to show the potential that people like Adam Hollioake saw in Rikki that he was given his opportunities, despite all the star names around that dressing room.
And it wasn’t just Hollioake that saw the talent early, as at the end of the 2002 season, Rikki was named in England’s Champions Trophy squad for the competition that was being held in Sri Lanka.
“I’d only played about 9 first-class games and a handful of one-day games when I received that call up. I hadn’t set the world alight in one-day cricket to that point and suddenly I found myself on an ODI tour for the Champions Trophy.”
I asked him if he had any inkling that his name was in the frame. “Not at all. There was a situation where Freddie was injured and also, Craig White was injured. I’d scored 98 not out in a one-day game that was live on Sky and it was a couple of days after that, that I received a call to tell me that I’d been picked for the England ODI side and that’d I’d be flying off to Sri Lanka.”
And what was the experience like for a first timer?
“It was great, but if I’m honest I just thought I was a little bit out of my depth. I was suddenly on a plane with Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Andy Caddick, Nick Knight, all of these established internationals. It was also one of those tournaments where all the squads were staying in the same hotels, so I remember in Colombo we stayed at the Taj Hotel and I’d be walking through reception and they’d be Ponting, Sehwag, Tendulkar etc, and I’m just thinking what is going on here, this is all a bit weird, brilliant, but weird!”
One recognisable face in the squad was his Surrey ‘gaffer’ Alec Stewart. “I’d known Stewie since the age of 9 so that definitely helped me, just to keep me calm and to say do this, do that and to just help me be the best I could be.”
Rikki didn’t play a game in the tournament, but his debut did come the following summer against Pakistan at Old Trafford. It’s fair to say a game of lows and highs!
“When I went into bat, I got bowled second ball trying to play a nice little paddle sweep to Shoaib Malik! The weird thing is the summer before that was my trademark shot to get off the mark. I always felt it allowed me to move a fielder and then rotate the strike and stuff. It was never a problem. Then I try it on my international debut, and I get bowled around my legs second ball. I trudged off knowing my Dad had come up to watch. It was an awful feeling. But then I got a wicket, Imran Nazir, with my first ball in international cricket so it’s fair to say I experienced the lows and then the highs of international cricket straight away!”
And an interesting snippet here, the player who took the catch to give Rikki his first wicket is now his current head coach at Surrey, Vikram Solanki! Another Surrey connection is his former bowling coach at Surrey, Geoff Arnold, was one (alongside Rikki) of only seven players to have taken a wicket with their first ball in international cricket for England.
Throughout the next two years Rikki was a regular in England’s ODI squads. “I was involved pretty much the whole time. There was the odd time they would opt to play an extra spinner, and it’d be me that missed out, but on the whole I played a lot of that period in 2003 and 2004. I missed 2005, but then played a few in 2006. We played some strong sides, Pakistan, South Africa, the West Indies were still strong. I remember playing Sri Lanka and Jayasuria just went ballistic – that was certainly an eye opener.”
In total, Rikki played 20 ODIs for his country, with a high score of 39 and 11 wickets to his name. “The experience was brilliant, and no one can take any of that away from me.”
He also made his Test debut in 2003 away in Bangladesh. “It’s probably developed a lot more now, but I remember in Dhaka we stayed in a really nice hotel, but Chittagong was definitely an eye opener. Cockroaches everywhere, the bedroom lights would go on and off, having a shower was certainly interesting! But I got my first Test 50 there so can’t complain on the cricket front so that helped my stats… for the two Tests that I played!”
Now, of course Rikki is still available for Test selection, but was it disappointing to have only played in two Tests, particularly when he performed well in the two Tests that he had played?
“I averaged 32 with the bat, 15 with the ball at an economy rate of 2.06, not that I ever take any notice of my stats!!!! Obviously, I would love to have played more but the way I look at it is I played those Tests in Bangladesh because they were giving Freddie a rest. We went to Sri Lanka after that which they understandably brought Freddie back for. They also went with Paul Collingwood during that Sri Lanka series because he was a really good player of spin, as well of course being a fine player. So, I missed out in that Sri Lanka series and never got back in. I did go on a tour to the West Indies in 2004 but I didn’t play out there either.”
And this I guess is where luck plays a part in so many careers. It was just unfortunate for Rikki that during that period England had arguably one of their best ever squads and best ever all-rounders.
“I remember at the start of that West Indies tour we were netting in Jamaica and you always have like a little board that you look down at to see who you’ve got to face in the nets, and it would normally be one of the main seamers, a net bowler and someone else. I looked down and there was my name against Harmison, Jones and Flintoff – this was going to be a great net! I didn’t know if it was Fletch trying to tell me something. That was the Test Harmy got his 7 for 12! But the group of players on that tour were unbelievable. Pretty much all of them featured heavily in the 2005 Ashes, so despite not playing, it was good to be around them, seeing how they went about their business and it definitely helped me develop as a player.”
Back home at Surrey and Rikki’s leadership qualities were coming to the fore and he was named vice-captain in 2006. “It was interesting really, everyone always said that I had leadership qualities, but I never really saw it to be honest. I’ll openly admit I was not the greatest role model in my early years, but it was applied they I was a big influence in the dressing room and people always listened to what I had to say. To this day I still don’t really see it, but there must be something there as they said similar at Warwickshire and again now, I’m back at Surrey. Maybe I’m now the model citizen… having turned 39!”
His spell as vice-captain wasn’t a long one as in October 2007, Rikki left the Oval and joined Derbyshire as their captain for the 2008 season. “I won’t go into too much detail as its water under the bridge now, but Surrey at the time wanted me to take a pay cut and be on more of a performance-based contract. The year before I’d smashed a thousand runs and just got back in the England ODI side. I’d originally signed a 5-year contract so this was the end of that contract. I thought I deserved better. I’m thinking since signing my last deal I’ve pretty much been in the England setup for two or three years; I’d been a mainstay of the Surrey side and I didn’t really understand it. Sadly, for me it was a take it or leave it deal. So, I said I’ll leave it and move on. They didn’t try and stop me, which I was kind of hoping they would, but I dusted myself down and thought okay this is the situation, let’s prepare and move on. Interestingly my original destination was actually going to be Warwickshire. I’d met Mark Greatbatch and Darren Maddy for a meeting in Stratford upon Avon, which went really well. I left that meeting thinking ‘brilliant I’m going to Warwickshire’ then a few days later Mark Greatbatch got the sack. I contacted the club to find out what that meant for me and they said they don’t know, and a decision couldn’t be made until a new coach was appointed. That obviously wasn’t great for me, but then John Morris got in touch from Derbyshire and offered me not only the move but also the captaincy. I thought it would be a a good move and hopefully I could take Derbyshire to bigger and better things. Ashley Giles was then appointed coach at Warwickshire and got in touch with me while I was on holiday and they still wanted me at Warwickshire. I hadn’t signed my Derbyshire contract at that point, but I said to him I’d agreed to sign for Derbyshire, and I’d given them my word and I couldn’t break my word. I wish I had!!”
It’s fair to say the move to Derbyshire didn’t work out and less than 12 months later Rikki finally did make the move to Edgbaston.
“Derbyshire just didn’t work out for me and in the end, I was only there for 8 months. I resigned the captaincy, spoke to Gilo and he said he still wanted me, and I made the switch.”
It was to be a great move for Rikki as the Bears enjoyed some incredible success.
“I owe Gilo and ‘Pop’ Welch a massive amount. They turned me into a very consistent cricketer. We had 4 Lords finals in seven years – winning two of them, we won the County Championship and the T20 Blast. It was an incredible time.”
I asked Rikki what he put that success down to? “We sort of had the same mould as that early Surrey side I grew up with. We had a nice mix of internationals and ex-internationals, players like Chris Woakes, Tim Ambrose, Jim Troughton, Boyd Rankin, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Varun Chopra’s who was on the cusp of potentially playing for England and in my opinion should have – he was a fantastic opener, and then we had good County pros in Chris Wright and Keith Barker, a wizard of a spinner in Jeetan Patel, Shivnarine Chanderpaul was also an overseas for a while. The team spirit was so strong, and everyone knew their roles. I’ve always found that it’s sides who truly understand their individual roles that are the most successful, take the Essex side right now, they have pretty much had the same side for most weeks and they each know their roles. At Warwickshire we knew we had to bowl dots and create pressure. If it took all day so be it. In some sides you can have two bowlers building pressure but then a third who chases wickets, goes for runs and that destroys the plan. You then take that player out of the side, a new player comes in, but they then chase the wickets to stay in the side. The key really is playing to a plan. Our plan was to bat big in the first innings and bowl the opposition out twice.”
Now, away from four-day cricket Rikki has been fortunate to have been involved in an incredible SEVEN T20 Blast Final Days. What are they like to be involved in as a player?
“Fantastic. I probably shouldn’t say this but even if you lose in the semis you stay up there, have a few drinks and enjoy the final. It’s such a great atmosphere to be caught up in. And even if you lose in the semis you should be allowed to treat the day as a reward for getting there and being involved in it.”
I asked Rikki having been involved in the very first tournament did he think the format would grow so big? “So, my second game of T20 was that first Final. I’d missed all of the games up to the semis as I was away with England for one-day series against Pakistan and Zimbabwe back in 2003. I remember I didn’t think I was going to play as I just thought they would stick to the same side that got them to the semis. But that first year was weird, because so many people were asking ‘why is this happening?’ and ‘why this won’t work’ but look at it now. It’s gone from strength to strength. The crowds love it and it’s just brilliant to play in.”
I asked Rikki how he thinks the tournament compares to others around the world?
“What you get with the Blast is each county can have an identity and their own brand of white ball cricket. Certain counties, because of their grounds will play certain styles, which can make them hard to beat. The IPL and the Big Bash are all franchises but what we get with the Counties is an identity and it brings each of the counties to a similar level. One week you could be a Surrey side with lots of internationals, but you could go away and play someone with no internationals, but you know they will really compete and unless you’re at your very best they’ll beat you.”
Now, talking of Surrey, Rikki returned to his home county in 2016. “Warwickshire were going through a transitional period. I was 35 and they decided not to renew my contract and wanted to go down a different path with the youth, which I totally understood. I would love to have stayed but it wasn’t to be. I spoke to Stewie and when Surrey turnaround and say they want you back, it was like Christmas had come early. Back in 2007 I never wanted to leave and had always wanted to be a one county man. But sometimes life takes you in different directions and without sounding cliché I went on a great journey. Warwickshire grabbed me and turned me into a better cricketer, so I can never thank them enough.”
His return to Surrey coincided with the development of a conveyor belt of talent coming through at the Oval: Jason Roy, the Curran twins, Ollie Pope, Amir Virdi, the list goes on and on. “It was like going back again to my early years with experienced players, exciting youngsters and strong talent coming in from other counties. I went back to an environment that wanted to win. Similar to Warwickshire, everyone knew their roles. Everyone knew how to play certain situations and scenarios, which has always given us the best opportunity of winning games.”
And in 2018 Rikki lifted his third County Championship. “Winning a championship is such a long gruelling process. At Surrey we had the same template as Warwickshire, bat big first and then bowl sides out twice. In 2018 Rory Burns scored runs for fun as did Ollie Pope. We were putting on big totals and then we had Mornie Morkel who was just brilliant with the ball. So, we were bowling sides out cheaply. You’d then look over at Rory Burns and you could see his eyes would burn the back of your head and you knew he didn’t want to go out and bat, he wanted us to go back out and bowl them out again. As a bowler it’s tiring. You bowl a side out and then hope you can put your feet up, but ten minutes later you’ve got the ball back in your hand again. But that’s how you win championships. And you get your energy back by winning the game in three days rather than four. That was a massive part of us winning the title. By being aggressive and going bold.”
I was also interested in Rikki’s views on the county schedule with the County Championship typically at the start and end of seasons, how difficult was it to switch between formats?
“From my point of view I’ve never really looked at formats. At the start of the season, I know the season runs from the 1st April through to the end of September. That’s my end date. In between, it’s my work it doesn’t matter for me what the format is. A lot of people call it the County grind or the treadmill but basically I just look at my schedule every week and it can be ‘four-day game, brilliant, then a day off, then a day of training, a day of travel, a one-day game, great and so on. Once I get to the end of September, I can put my feet up. It is tough the amount we have to play but you know what, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
And how challenging was the Covid season of 2020? “It wasn’t too bad. I didn’t feature too much last year so it wasn’t bad on my body, but in general it was just very difficult without crowds. Finals day was weird with no crowds and for me crowds are what make any form of cricket. Early in the season we had a two-day friendly against Middlesex for one of those pilot events and just with 2,000 supporters in, it made the world of difference. Hopefully sooner rather than later we can get a bit of normality back.”
Heading into the 2021 season, Rikki does so with some outstanding career stats. Over 11,000 first class runs at an average of 32, including 17 tons and a first-class wicket haul in excess of 500. Couple that with 6,000+ runs in other formats and another 275 wickets, it’s been an impressive career thus far.
Having played for over 2 decades, there has been some serious talent he has played alongside, so who does he rank number one?
“I’d probably have to say KP. He was just ridiculous. Such natural ability. He worked so, so hard at his game. I’ve always found that KP could be a bit misunderstood, but I never had a problem with him, and he was brilliant in the dressing room at Surrey. I loved watching how he went about his business. He made the game look so easy and in my opinion was one of the world’s best players. I’d then say Jimmy Anderson. Jimmy and I played on a number of England academy trips together. He’s developed in to one of the world’s best bowlers of all time and he continues to do it. Not forgetting Ian Bell who was class and Jonathan Trott. Then looking today at Ollie Pope he has got the world at his feet. In terms of players playing against, there’s been Murali and Shane Warne who were terrific players.”
And what about the most difficult bowler you’ve faced?
“Ben Stokes. He’s quick but it’s the angle he bowls and obviously he’s an amazing competitor. I never had a clue what Murali & Warnie were bowling to me. They say if you haven’t got a clue, sweep. I wasn’t much of a sweeper, so I always used to make myself look silly by getting bowled through the gate!”
And what about the most difficult batsman to bowl to?
“Marcus Trescothick. He had this ability to always score off your good balls, where most other batters would block it. He was always a difficult challenge and you always knew that you had to be on it when you were bowling to him.”
And having played under a number of the game’s best captains, Rikki’s choice was probably not who you’d have thought first up…
“Michael Vaughan was fantastic. It was just the way he spoke to me and the way he helped me. He was brilliant in the short period I played under him. Adam Hollioake was fantastic. You knew it could be the biggest brick wall ever and he’d fill you with confidence that you could run through it. But, for me it has to be Jim Troughton at Warwickshire. He just totally understood me. He knew that I could be a fiery character, but he knew how to calm me down and get the best out of me. Even when he became my head coach, he never changed in the way he managed me. Hands down he was the best captain ever.”
Although Rikki never quite got the international recognition he probably deserved, it’s fair to say that with his trophy haul and career stats it’s a career to be very, very proud of. I just suspect there might still be another fairy tale to come…
And for youngsters attending his academy, which incidentally you can find out more at www.rikkiclarkecricketacademy.co.uk, I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s a lot they can learn from the experiences and stories he has shared.
Rikki – thank you!