Rikki Clarke bowled with masterful precision and subtlety from the Vauxhall End to claim career-best figures of 7 for 55

Rikki Clarke claimed career-best figures of 7 for 55  •  Getty Images

Surrey 42 for 0 trail Somerset 269 (Davies 86, Trescothick 65, Clarke 7-55) by 227 runs

As The Oval clock ticked over to 5 o’clock, Rikki Clarke raised the ball aloft and led Surrey off, saluting the home crowd as they lauded his career-best figures. It was a moment that both the player and spectators had long thought would never come.

Many members at this hallowed ground have memories of Clarke emerging from Surrey’s academy, spotty but brimming with an effervescent talent. His third County Championship match, 15 years ago, brought a sublime 153 not out against Somerset at Taunton. Add in the nonchalant catches in the slips and the pace and bounce he generated from his 6ft 4in frame, and Clarke was immediately marked out as a player of supreme promise. It took only 10 first-class matches for England to be persuaded to select him in an international squad.

Over the following years, the alluring prospect of Clarke providing England with runs, wickets and catches – as he did in two accomplished Tests in Bangladesh in 2003 – gave way to frustration at why such a talent was stagnating. And so Clarke left his home county in 2007, taking up the Derbyshire captaincy in an attempt to reinvigorate his career. The move failed, spectacularly. By the summer’s end Clarke had given up the job and then quit the county for good. But then came a move to Warwickshire, where Clarke became a cricketer of the calibre and consistency that those who had watched the promise of those early performances for Surrey expected, even if an England recall never quite came.

After a decade of trophies and fulfilment at Edgbaston, notwithstanding this summer’s struggles, Clarke returned home. First, he signed a two-year contract beginning next year. Then, after Dominic Sibley moved to Warwickshire, the two were involved in a mid-season loan swap, and Clarke was thrust back into Surrey’s team.

He returned to find a completely new role. It was not merely that Clarke had aged. Where once he was a wayward cricketer, now he was recruited to bring solidity. And while he had spent his first Surrey career in the top six, Clarke has returned to a spot of No.8, and even nine, which rather seems to belittle his 16 first-class centuries.

But while Clarke was away, he developed into a highly skilled bowler, adept at cutting the ball from an awkward height. Where he had once sprayed the ball in pursuit of wickets, he returned with the patience to locate a probing line and length remorselessly.

Over 16 fulfilling seasons in professional cricket, never have those qualities been as persuasive as today. On a pitch on which Somerset had lost only one wicket in the morning session, and even that on the brink of lunch, Clarke jagged the ball spitefully both ways at an awkward length.

The Oval is not the sort of ground on which many bowlers produce a spell of 5 for 32 in ten overs, never mind doing so immediately after lunch on the first day. But Clarke bowled with masterful precision and subtlety from the Vauxhall End, eliciting edges from George Bartlett and Edward Byrom with away movement in between locating in-swing to trap James Hildreth lbw, uprooting Tom Abell’s off stump and then, most emphatically of all, finding a full length to Peter Trego. A rash drive ensued; it missed the ball, which instead dismantled the off and middle stumps. Remarkably, it was Clarke’s first Surrey five-fer.

Nor was he done yet. If a ten-over spell had revealed admirable durability in a man who turns 36 by the end of the month, the impression was confirmed when, after tea, he plucked out Dom Bess’s drive in his followthrough and then produced a menacing spell of bouncers to Steven Davies as early evening shadows extended onto the outfield, which eventually culminated in Davies picking out fine leg. In decimating Somerset’s top order, Clarke had topped 400 first-class wickets, and 100 for Surrey, and encapsulated why he has been among the most valuable players in the shires in the last decade. On this evidence, he could yet remain so for several years to come.

Not that Clarke was the only player to enjoy being back at The Oval. Davies played sumptuously on his first-class return, after his winter move to Taunton, marrying the finesse and fluency of his dreamy late cuts and drives with fortitude to withstand Clarke, and stabilise Somerset from the debris of 138 for 6. If their eventual 269 remains far below the recent norm at The Oval, the pitch offered Somerset’s seamers abundant movement during their 14 overs at Surrey. Somerset may yet have a working total.

The morning had brought no indication of what Clarke would unleash. Instead, Marcus Trescothick unfurled all his trademarks – the crunching drives, the cuts scythed between point and deep extra cover, and the nonchalant pulls – reserving particular wrath for Sam Curran. The unusually warm applause that greeted an opponents’ half-century reflected the stead in which Trescothick is held in the shires and gratitude that, 14 years after pillaging 219 against South Africa on this ground, he has signed up to another year in county cricket.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

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