The danger of Joe Clarke's redemptive arc

GEOFFREY BUNTING: As the public discourse has swirled around the Clarke issue, many have had their say, but the voices of one group remain absent from mainstream media: women who have been affected by the story, and more specifically women in cricket

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As England's international schedule continues to grow unsustainable, the need for multiple squads and player rotation becomes more apparent. With that comes the reasonable chance that Joe Clarke will be selected for England.

Clarke's personal history, and the impact of that history on many within the cricket community and beyond, make his selection contentious beyond the usually simple question of performance.

Misogynistic WhatsApp messages shared between Clarke, Alex Hepburn and Tom Kohler-Cadmore revealed a degrading sex game in which the three teammates competed to sleep with as many women as possible. The game was made public as part of a 2019 rape trial of Hepburn but it is still relevant today.

"Always me dragging the birds back. You raping them," Hepburn messaged Clarke. In another, he says, "Get them blind and back to ours." To Hepburn, Clarke wrote: "I reckon I'm about 75 [women]. I want 20 more this summer."

As reported by The Mail on Sunday, they rated women based on "looks, age, colour, and performance”, referring to them as "freshies" or "reheats" while joking about getting tested for STIs in the summer.

Neither Clarke nor Kohler-Cadmore has been accused of criminal wrongdoing relating to the trial of Hepburn. 

However, as the public discourse has swirled around the Clarke issue, many have had their say: former players, administrators, and journalists. It wasn't until an interview this summer with The Telegraph that Clarke began to address the messages, but the voices of one group remain absent from mainstream media: women who have been affected by the actions of those involved, and more specifically women in cricket.

The Cricketer set out to ask these women how they feel about Clarke's position within the game, what international recognition would mean to them, and what cricket should be doing to address sexism and misogyny in the game.

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Joe Clarke in action for Welsh Fire during The Hundred [Getty Images]

"His behaviour was appalling," – a 33-year-old from Cumbria, who wished to remain anonymous, said. "The way these men talked about women was violently misogynistic."

"As things stand," Liz, 38, from London, said. "I feel ill seeing Clarke get to play any cricket."

Another woman from Birmingham, who chose to remain anonymous, echoed the sentiment: "I don't love the idea of Clarke playing representative cricket at all."

Despite the emergence of those WhatsApp messages, Clarke has picked up contracts in the Pakistan Super League and Big Bash; he was drafted in the top pay bracket by Welsh Fire for the 2022 edition of The Hundred - at a salary that represents half of what women's teams are allocated for their whole squad.

There is some acceptance among the women spoken to by The Cricketer that Clarke will keep getting selected on these stages, but they maintain that England honours are a different matter.

"Him getting to play for England would make me sick," the 33-year-old from Cumbria said. "It would make me feel uncomfortable, sad, and ignored… it would make me feel less safe as a fan."

"I want our international team to represent the best of what England and Wales has to offer, both on and off the pitch," another woman, 37, said. "Women, myself included, don't feel comfortable with him being included at an international level. It legitimises his position in the cricket sphere, and with it the culture of misogyny that permeates men's cricket but is so ingrained and normalised it isn't taken seriously."

Clarke was placed on standby for England's Test tour of the Caribbean in March, leading to many women voicing their objections on social media. That criticism would almost certainly return should he be included in a future squad.

There is a weight of opinion within the game which says it is time for fans, players and administrators to move on from the messages sent by Clarke five years ago but, for many, the stain of what happened in that WhatsApp group does not wash off with time passed, and a handful of interviews.

"Men like to say, 'it's in the past, he had his suspension, move on'," one woman said. "But the harm caused by his behaviour doesn't have an expiry date."

Sarah Lee is a psychotherapist specialising in trauma. In her practice, she deals with depression, sexual abuse, and trauma. Lee thinks the old cliche that times heals all wounds is a misconception.

"When we are traumatised by something, we don't know that it's finished," she said. "It's literally impossible to 'move on' because with the wrong trigger, the brain will replay the incident… for the survivor, unless they can somehow re-learn that the trauma is finished time doesn't exist and it's like the event is still happening now."

It is important, too, to engage in this conversation - and to listen to women - when a prominent case such as the Hepburn trial, and the subsequent fallout from his WhatsApp chat with Clarke, comes into the public light.

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Clarke played for Melbourne Stars in last season's Big Bash [Getty Images]

According to Rape Crisis, "five in six women who are raped don't report [to the police] – and the same is true for four in five men." Of those who do report an assault, just one per cent result in a charge. There is a danger that writing the incident off as men being young and stupid represents the tip of a devastatingly large iceberg otherwise treated with a systematic apathy?

"I think it's a vanishingly small likelihood that there are no other instances that have occurred in professional cricket," Lee said.

In a statement to The Cricketer, the Survivor's Trust – a provider and supporter of specialist trauma services in the UK – said: "In the UK one in four women and one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence or abuse in their lifetime.

"This means that it is unfortunately highly likely that many cricket players and fans will be survivors of sexual assault or sexual harassment."

This isn't about singling out Clarke, but – Middlesex fan Anna said – rather about highlighting a system in which "women are always second place to men… whether it's players who get less money, coverage and support."

"[The WhatsApp group involving Clarke] just felt like a horrible, painful reminder that to men in sport, women are not teammates, colleagues or respected fans of theirs or even valued partners, but sexual objects," she said.

The issue is not confined just to this case. Sexism within cricket manifests itself in a multitude of ways – from disrespectful comments on social media, to the lack of provision for women and girls in sections of the grassroots game, to the near total absence of women in positions of authority across the first-class counties.

The coverage afforded by those in the media who give voice to Clarke's right to a return, however, means his situation is, according to Anna, "the one in the national conversation right now, so it's an important moment to talk about it."

Is it really for men, too, to decide whether or not Clarke has done enough to earn forgiveness?

"His selection prompts men to fervently defend Clarke and perpetuate the cycle that women aren't welcome in cricket," Lily, 24, from Dunedin said.

"Many feel that cricket is not safe when people like Joe Clarke are allowed to get away with what he has done with no consequences," another woman, 37, said.

A 27-year-old cricketer from Manchester said: "He has shown little remorse for his actions. One small apology does not cut it." Nor does Clarke's continued inclusion give her "confidence that cricket is run in this country in a way that makes it safe for myself, my female and non-binary teammates."

So what does Clarke need to do to show he understands the severity of his actions – actions that contributed to a culture that led to the rape of a woman in 2017?

"Clarke's [initial] apology seemed to be more focused on the impact on his career than anything else. I'm sure he regrets ‌that a girl was raped, but there was no indication that he understands his role in that or how his actions might have impacted the women who were targets of this 'game'," one woman said.

"Bottom line is if you're arguing for someone to have a high-paying job in the public eye where the public are expected to cheer them on, they need to do their contrition in public too."

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Clarke is on the books at Nottinghamshire [Getty Images]

"I do believe people can change, but Clarke has shown no evidence of that and seems unwilling to do so," Lily told me.

"Time should not be what absolves his actions, his actions since the incident should be," said another woman - a 37-year-old from the north east - who wished to remain anonymous. "The women who have to surround him professionally, who have to support the teams he is part of, deserve sincere proof that they are safe."

As yet, that proof has not been forthcoming. But what about the rest of us? What can men in the community do to make women feel safer?

The answer was unanimous: listen.

"This affects my life every day. Stop debating it," the 33-year-old from Cumbria pleaded. "It is infuriating. These cries of pain deserve to be heard and not diminished because they are emotional."

"Stop accepting half-arsed apologies that are not meant for you," said Liz. "Know when apologies are yours to accept."

"Honestly, what I would rather have from him is a candid interview where he says what he really thinks. No thoughts about public image and pretence, just the truth for everyone to see," another woman, 22, from the north east, who chose to remain anonymous said.

The Survivor's Trust insists this is needed outside cricket, too.

"Continuing to develop an open dialogue and awareness surrounding all areas of sexual violence will help create the foundation to improve awareness of sexual violence and abuse," their statement read.

"In particular, there needs to be improved education around consent from a young age. As a society we must recognise that informed, enthusiastic consent is always needed. Everyone has the right to decide what they do or do not want to do sexually. Schools, sports clubs, and any other institutions in which young people are present can help to reinforce this education."

The Cricketer invited comment from Joe Clarke via his representatives, but did not receive a response.

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Clarke during The Hundred in 2021 [Getty Images]

So, what of Clarke's interview in The Telegraph, in which he appeared to hit a checklist of all the things that women have suggested they want from him?

"I, like a lot of people thought that the timing was far too coincidental to be sincere," said one woman, 37. Highlighting that the interview took place after an article by The Guardian's chief sports writer Jonathan Liew highlighted what made Clarke's prospective selection so dangerous. "In my view it was bullet pointed, every issue raised on social media against his inclusion was laid out in the article and almost checked off the list."

Others were more receptive, but understandably guarded. "I'm really reserving judgement until there's some evidence of positive action," one woman said.

Rob Key, the England men's managing director of cricket, joined the chorus of those calling for the game to move on when he spoke to the media in the early weeks of his tenure.

"I think sometimes you can do your time and you can come back," he said.

It's an interesting comment, when Clarke "doing his time" has amounted to multiple lucrative global T20 contracts.

Change in cricket has been glacial in recent years and the game globally is dominated by men: the media, punditry, the ECB, clubs, online spaces, even many women's teams are almost entirely presided over by men ill-equipped to assess Clarke and the system of misogyny into which his past actions fitted neatly.

"All of this negatively impacts women and makes many of us feel unsafe, basically… all the time," the 33-year-old from Cumbria said. "Men who behave like that are still a threat. Even if they don't do anything to you, they enable their friends to do so.

"They aren't safe."

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