Joe Clarke pauses when asked how he would feel if a group of young men described his female friend or relative as a “freshie” or “reheat”.
His head drops as he says “it would make me feel sick, it is terrible” but it is exactly the language, and worse, used in the tawdry WhatsApp group Clarke was involved in which ultimately led to the conviction for rape of his former team-mate at Worcestershire Alex Hepburn.
Clarke is at Trent Bridge having resettled at Nottinghamshire from Worcestershire and is speaking in depth for the first time about the 2017 incident, which left the victim suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was “humiliated” when she learned in court of a sexual conquest game set up by Hepburn and included Clarke and another team-mate, Tom Kohler-Cadmore.
Clarke apologises to the victim and admits he has not done enough to say sorry publicly for his behaviour. He understands the backlash against him recently when he was linked with an England call-up and insists “it is not the attitude I have towards women now”. He goes on to reveal for the first time that he has broken off his friendship with Hepburn who, at the trial in 2019, Clarke said was his “best mate” and tells how he has been called a “rapist” when walking out to bat.
Reading the messages now, five years later, is not easy. The misogynistic conversations between the three horribly objectify women and was described by the trial judge as a “pathetic, sexist game” as he sentenced Hepburn to five years imprisonment.
Hepburn wrote “Got to be freshies, names, age, black or white, your rating, their rating. The loser has to buy dinner and the second loser will have to buy drinks, the winner gets to enjoy a free night. Excited as f--- lads, Clarkey the shags have to be legit? [not prostitutes] may the best man win, P.S. We should probably get tested this summer.”
Clarke replied: “No re-heats allowed [having sex with the same person]. If we don’t chop (have sex with a woman) me and you in your bed and (other male friends) on my mattress. Probably will chop… so we’ll just have to both chop in your bed like the good old days.”
On the first night of the WhatsApp game, Clarke had consensual sex with the victim. When he left her in bed to be sick in the bathroom, and passed out, Hepburn raped her.
Clarke was not charged or accused of any crime. The judge said “That night, Joe Clarke did nothing wrong – nor did she”. But the incident will haunt the victim for life and has damaged Clarke’s career, which has only recently started to recover.
“I have done a lot of reflecting. It is a feeling of embarrassment really. Regretful for being part of it. It does not reflect the person I am now. It is embarrassment and shame that I was involved in what was a terrible thing,” he tells Telegraph Sport.
“It upsets me seeing it [the WhatsApp game] now so I completely understand why people get upset looking at it. It is terrible to look at. It was completely wrong.
“It is not something I have forgotten about at all. Although I’ve not talked about it publicly I have had a lot of conversations in private with the club here and my family, with women that I am friends with. I have tried to concentrate on my cricket but it is something I have talked about a lot and had conversations in private about learning from this and making sure I am a better person now.”
Clarke says he kept in touch with Hepburn, who has now been released from prison, at first but that they no longer “have a relationship” but he does discuss what happened whenever he sees Kohler-Cadmore, who now plays for Yorkshire. “It does come up if we see each other face to face. We will always reflect on it.”
He admits to feeling partly to blame for what happened to the victim that night. “I feel like I let her down. She was ultimately in my company and relied on me for her safety and I did not provide that. I feel like I let her down and I hope that she has found happiness that she deserves now and has managed to move on.”
Clarke was banned for four matches by the England & Wales Cricket Board after the case and was sent on sexual consent courses. “It was reminders about how we should behave towards women. Most of it was around consent, different situations you can find yourself in. Learning more about that. We went for two days and learnt the ins and outs of that aspect. With other conversations I have had with people at the club, psychologists, family… they have all been massive learnings.”
He is in talks with Nottinghamshire about working with charities in the city associated with domestic violence and female victims of abuse.
But the backlash on social media recently when he was linked with an England call-up show how far he will have to go to gain acceptance, and for some he should never represent England.
“It [backlash] has been there. It has been more prominent the last few months in terms of the media and social media. I understand that. I have been pretty quiet talking about this. Initially I was quite scared to talk about it. I tried to avoid it and let the cricket do the talking but of course to be sitting here talking about it is good. It needs to happen and I have wanted to do it for a while. I’m happy I have the chance now and say how sorry I am for the involvement in all of it.
“It does not reflect the person I am now. Those messages were when I was 19, and I am not that person sitting here now. It is not nice to see [the backlash] but I completely understand where people are coming from. If I was not involved myself and it was someone else, I would feel the same way.”
In his first press conference as managing director, Rob Key, opened the door to a return for Clarke saying “you can’t penalise people forever”. Clarke was placed on standby in March for the West Indies tour, his first contact with England since the trial, and enjoyed a fine winter in franchise cricket in Pakistan and Australia. He could receive a first call-up in white-ball cricket this summer when England take a second string squad to Holland for three ODIs next month, during the New Zealand Test series.
Does he worry this will always be held against him in selection meetings? “I would hope the cricket is the talking point,” he says. “This is not about playing for England. This is about owning what I did, that I made a mistake and what I did was wrong. If there is a message in there for the victim, and if she were to read this, she will see that I know I let her down. Hopefully she will read that and she would not feel anything towards me in a bad way.
“I have tried to educate the younger lads in our dressing room. Hopefully the dressing rooms I go into now, to educate them and stop it from happening. I feel like it’s changed the culture of some sides and made them stop and realise if they were doing the same thing to stop that. They could potentially think it could have been me. I can’t speak for other teams but if it has [changed them] then there is a slight positive.”