Worcestershire 94 and 140 for 4 (Clarke 74*) trail Essex 474 for 7 dec (Bopara 133, Vijay 85, Wheater 66, Harmer 57, Westley 55) by 240 runs
You never know what you've got until it's gone, so the saying goes. The problem for Worcestershire is that they are all too aware of Joe Clarke's talents, and his unbeaten 74 was only further proof of his unquestionable credentials.
Clarke's impending move to Nottinghamshire is yet to be confirmed by either club, and although reports last night may have jumped the gun somewhat, it is hard to see him playing his cricket at New Road next season.
His innings here was fluent and elegant. Coming in with Worcestershire 4 for 2 and still 376 in arrears, he signalled his intent with a checked cover drive for four off Simon Harmer, and began to unleash the full display of shots that have drawn so much attention his way in recent times. A nonchalant pair of straight drives down the ground off Jamie Porter stood out, and it was hard to question either the aesthetic value or the level-headedness of his chanceless innings.
Kevin Sharp, his head coach, regularly mentions Clarke's name alongside Joe Root's, and he remains an outside bet for the Test tours this winter if England decide they need another attacking middle-order batsman.
Worcestershire have it better than several of their Midlands neighbours, of course. While the clubs the other side of Birmingham have become talent factories that see their best and brightest depart at the end of every season, Tom Kohler-Cadmore is the only man in recent seasons to have thought the Test match grass might be greener than New Road's.
But it is hard to escape the sentiment now prevalent among smaller counties that they deserve better than to have players leave with no compensation. Clarke is not Worcester-born and bred - he played youth cricket for Shropshire - but has been at the club for five years, and come through their development pathways; and yet, with his contract up at the end of the season, Worcestershire would not receive a penny if he left.
The issue is not quite as black-and-white as some make it out to be. As Daryl Mitchell, captaining the side in this game and the PCA Chairman, said last night, players are entitled to run their contracts down and take their careers forward, and few would begrudge Clarke for trying to further his England prospects with the guarantee of Division One cricket and maximise his earning potential in what is a short career.
There is, of course, an alternative. Last year, several counties including Surrey, Durham, and Middlesex went public in support of a proposal for compensation fees when players under 24 move despite being offered improved deals by their home club. But that proposal is yet to go through, and with Zak Chappell, Liam Norwell, Craig Miles, Aneurin Donald, Ben Slater, Ben Duckett and several others all moving onto bigger and better things in the past few weeks, fresh calls for change to a football-style approach to the Bosman ruling must be imminent.
This innings had a tantalising feel given the current state of Worcestershire's Championship season. In some ways, the club have surpassed some expectations this season, despite being rooted to the foot of Division One. In each of their past three games they have won several sessions, and have competed in a way that many thought unlikely.
And yet they find themselves staring down the barrel of relegation, likely to go down tomorrow, and facing a fifth demotion in their six top-flight seasons since the advent of two divisions. Sharp and his talented crop of young bowlers will rebuild over the winter, and have every chance of coming straight back up, but their reputation as a yo-yo club will remain intact.
That Clarke's innings will likely come in defeat was confirmed by Ravi Bopara's patient hundred which steered Essex into an unassailable position in this game. He was the steady partner in century stands with both Adam Wheater and Harmer, but batted with a maturity and poise with which his critics rarely associate him. He did benefit from two lives, dropped on the leg-side boundary and at second slip, as Worcestershire's fielding became ragged, but resisted any attempt to lure him into a false shot.
Porter made the initial breakthroughs in Essex's victory pursuit, but spent some of the afternoon off the field. He has been suffering with a bout of food poisoning this week - not that you'd know it from his current match figures of 9 for 81. But it will be Sharp and Worcestershire left feeling sick tonight, in a seemingly impossible position in this game, their chances salvageable only by the man on the cusp of leaving them.