APART from a possible court appearance as witnesses over the theft of an Aston Martin, Michael Clarke has managed to disengage with the Lara Bingle media circus and return to cricket to represent Australia against New Zealand in the first Test at Wellington, starting on Friday.
Clarke suddenly quit the tour on March 8 and missed three one-day internationals against New Zealand after flying to Sydney to comfort his then fiancee Lara... and then break off their engagement that had lasted two years. They became a celebrity couple when Clarke popped the question to bikina model Lara, 20, with a 4.7 carat diamond ring allegedly worth about £100,000 while on holiday together in New York.
This week before Clarke returned to cricket still as Australia's vice-captain, he spoke to Lara on the phone after it had been reported that her agent Max Markson had offered her exclusive 'story' to a television channel for about £500,000. This followed an earlier plea to the media by Markson to respect the couple's privacy with an oily hypocrisy that surprised even the Aussie newspapers.
Clarke returned to a media scrum at Wellington airport this week, and Australia's coach Tim Nielsen said he had the team's support while he dealt with the sort of personal issue that anyone might have. "It's just that we happen to do it in a public forum, pretty much," Nielsen said.
The theft of Bingle's Aston Martin, after a third party had illegally obtained the keys, resulted in a police charge and a likely court appearance for the two celebrities as witnesses. The Bingle saga continued to fizz when a report claimed that plumbers had been called in to rescue a precious item from the foul water drains at her Bondi apartment amid speculation that she had thrown her engagement ring away, though this was denied by her father and her agent.
Clarke's original reason for leaving the tour was to support an upset Bingle after a magazine published an old topless photograph, a shower room picture that had been circulated by her previous boyfriend, an Australia Rules footballer not worth dignifying by reporting his name. His claim that he was not involved in the magazine access hardly let him off the hook as an outright cad.
Sportingly, one might think, the New Zealand fast bower Chris Martin said he and his team-mates would not be 'sledging' Clarke about the Bingle embarrassment. One of Clarke's team-mates, Mike Hussey, had appealed to his opponents not to attempt to upset the batsman in this way, a plea that drew angry response from members of the public in newspaper comment strings.
Bearing in mind that Australians had been the world's keenest sledgers since the foul-mouthed days of Ian Chappell in the 1970s, there was little sympathy for Clarke. There was a time when the Aussies had been accused of making 'choo choo' noises when Chris Cairns arrived at the crease after his sister had been killed in a railway crash, but this dreadful personal insult had almost certainly been barracking from the crowd and not from the players.
Nevertheless, that notion that choo choo from the Australian players was a credible possibility stood as the legacy of a dirty past that was not exorcised, as many hoped, by the revolting flare-up between Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan in Antigua in May 2003. Loutish Australian behaviour surfaced again at Sydney during their home series against India in January 2008. After Martin had given his informal non-sledging assurance in Wellington, he added: "The fans will probably have a ball, but that's nothing to do with us."
Clarke proposed on bended knee under a full moon at the Rockefeller Centre skating rink in March 2008, and within a year there were reports that Bingle was feeling lonely while her future husband was away playing cricket. Many would think she should have twigged this eventuality before accepting his romantic marriage proposal.
Clarke arguably should not have quit the tour, leaving the team hotel in Hamilton without warning on the eve of a one-day international, his absence reducing Australia to 12 fit men. Major family events such as illness, bereavement or birth have caused such disruption in the past -- and one could add personal mental state, as with Marcus Trescothick -- but an upset fiancee could hardly be deemed so serious, not for a man due to captain Australia at the World Twenty20 tournament in the West Indies in May.
Clarke's sudden departure was a mystery at the time, and it was assumed his father, a cancer sufferer, had been taken ill. Clarke had declined a slot in the Indian Premier League in 2008 to spend time with him.
CHARLIE SAYS: While Bingle deserved sympathy for the photo scandal, her hurt was a relatively minor matter. Such tumult should not have been set in motion to envelop Australia's likely successor to Ricky Ponting. Naturally Clarke was upset and could not have been in a good frame of mind for cricket. Nevertheless the show had to go on, for Clarke and for everyone else. Marriage must have already slipped off Lara's priorities by the time Clarke joined her from New Zealand. Clarke's standing has been reduced by his hapless action; Bingle's consolation will be publicity likely to earn her hundreds of thousands of pounds.