Joe Clarke played a game that trivialised rape: England cricket should demand better | cricket

Tthe rules of “Stat Chat” were simple enough. The game would begin the night after Joe Clarke returned from England Lions duty in the United Arab Emirates. “Got to be freshies,” Alex Hepburn wrote in their shared WhatsApp group, meaning women they had not slept with before. “Names, age, black or white, your rating, their rating.”

“No reheats allowed,” Clarke confirmed, meaning women they had slept with before.

“Always me dragging the birds back, you raping them,” Hepburn complained.

“Just bring a mattress,” Clarke later wrote. “So if we do chop, it will have to be in your bed. Probably will chop … so we’ll have to just both chop in your bed like the good old days!”

There is more: some of it graphic, some of it grotesque. But you get the idea. Seeing as Clarke himself described this conversation as “lighthearted chat” during the rape trial of his friend Hepburn in early 2019, we can assume he won’t mind us reproducing it here. And the reason for doing so is that with Clarke on the fringes of playing for England, there are still plenty out there who insist he was guilty of nothing but a little harmless matey banter.

Let’s not demean ourselves by debating Clarke’s merits as a cricketer as if they matter. All you need to know is that the Nottinghamshire batter was placed on the standby list for England’s recent tour of the West Indies, had a stellar winter with Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash and was snapped up for a top-price £125,000 by Welsh Fire in the Hundred draft this year. Had it not been for the events leading up to the night of 31 March 2017, he would almost certainly have played for England already.

Clarke was never charged with any crime. Hepburn, his Worcestershire teammate, was sentenced to five years in prison for rape and released last October. Handing down his verdict, the judge described the Stat Chat group as “foul sexism” that “demeaned women and trivialised rape”. As a willing participant, Clarke was banned for four county matches, fined £2,000 and given an “official reprimand” by the England and Wales Cricket Board after admitting to bringing the game into disrepute at a disciplinary hearing. He completed a workshop on sexual consent. And for many – including Clarke himself, who apologised “to everyone concerned for his involvement in the WhatsApp group” and spoke of “putting this chapter behind me” – that was the end of it.

Certainly the new director of England men’s cricket, Rob Key, was in a clement mood when asked about a potential call-up for Clarke last month. “I see no reason why not,” he said. “You can’t penalize people forever in life.” But of course you can, and as evidence you need only to read the victim statement read out at Hepburn’s sentencing, in which the woman in question set out the manifold ways in which her life had been ruined as a consequence of Hepburn and the squalid game he and Clarke had invented.

“I mourn who I used to be,” the victim wrote. She told how she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, blighted by recurring nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and violent outbursts. The attack had affected her relationship with her loved ones. All of which had been exacerbated by being forced to relive her ordeal in court, her rapist a short distance away, the defending barrister asking her questions such as: “Joe Clarke has a large penis. Did you not notice any difference in the penises?”

Before the right-wing press turn this into a cause célèbre, no one is getting canceled here. If Nottinghamshire and Welsh Fire and Melbourne Stars want to keep paying Clarke to score runs, then, well, whatever. But if Clarke ends up playing for England, then he is no longer simply earning a living or chasing a dream. These are our teams, our players. They represent all of us, the people who play cricket in this country and the people who watch. They are, or should be, the best of us.

Clarke can still live up to that ideal. He can take proactive steps to educate young male cricketers on rape culture. He can align himself with charities who deal with victims of sexual assault. Instead he has largely chosen to center his own suffering, deflected the issue in interviews, urged everyone to move on. To date he has not made sufficient public restitution for his actions. During the trial Clarke was asked whether he still considered Hepburn his best friend. “Yes,” he replied.

And of course there are manifold England players from the past who have been racists, sexists, criminals, perverts. It’s too late now for any of that to change. But this is one thing that still can. Is it unreasonable to expect the tiny, unfathomably privileged sliver of players who get to represent us to uphold the most basic standards of decency? Is it unreasonable to want proof that a man has changed, instead of taking his word for it?

The ECB’s recent diversity plan was entitled “Cricket Is A Game For Me”. Yet the moment Clarke steps on to the field in an England sweater will expose that statement as a bald lie. For in that moment cricket will no longer be a game for any woman who has ever felt objectified or exploited or abused by someone more powerful. For any woman who has been assaulted and not believed.

Clarke and Key are probably calculating that after an initial squall of protest, the controversy will eventually die down and the whole thing will simply be forgotten. The depressing part is they are probably right.

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