Melbourne: A swashbuckling century on debut against India was the making of Michael Clarke as a test batsman. Seven years later, the one-time golden boy of Australian cricket might hope a home series against the same team could be his making as a captain.

Tasked with leading Australia out of the cricketing doldrums, the 30-year-old has endured a baptism of fire since taking over from Ricky Ponting, who relinquished the captaincy with the team at its lowest ebb in a quarter of a century.

Inheriting a team demoralised after suffering humiliating defeat to England in the Ashes on home soil, Clarke's nine months at the helm has seen Australia mix rousing test victories with losses farcical in their ineptitude.

Clarke led Australia to a 1-0 series victory in Sri Lanka before splitting series 1-1 away to South Africa and home to New Zealand.

Australia's loss in the second test against New Zealand in Hobart, their first defeat in 26 years on home soil against their trans-Tasman rivals, left a particularly sour taste and declarations of "crisis" in local newspapers.

Against second-ranked test side India and their stable of ageing champion batsmen, Clarke faces his biggest test as captain while under pressure to deliver the goods in front of a still-sceptical public.

"All of us feel we're playing inconsistent cricket at the moment ... We go one step forward and two steps backwards," Clarke wrote in his newspaper column last week.

"I'm confident we can make amends against India ... I think it's going to be a really good contest between youth and enthusiasm versus some old wise heads in the Indian team."

UP FOR A CHALLENGE

Clarke is nothing if not up for a challenge, and has a record of defying critics and revelling in the spotlight.

The New South Welshman stroked a brilliant 151 on debut in Bangalore in 2004 and posted another two half centuries as Australia won their first test series in India in over three decades.

Dropped after a poor away series against England in Australia's 2005 Ashes loss, Clarke fought his way back into the side and helped guide them to their 2007 World Cup win with an unbeaten half-century in the semi-final against South Africa.

Off the field, the telegenic boy from Sydney's blue-collar west has generated headlines of a different sort, featuring in the tabloids' society pages with his taste for fast cars, model girlfriends and tattoos.

With underwear modelling among his many sponsorship endorsements, Clarke's celebrity has grated with sections of the Australian public more used to hard-bitten figures like Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh occupying the country's "second highest office" after the prime minister.

He stoked controversy by leaving New Zealand mid-tour in 2010 to be with his fiancee Lara Bingle, but returned days later to blast 168 in Australia's test win in Wellington having just ended his engagement with the model.

With Ponting sidelined through injury, Clarke's first taste of the captaincy in January resulted in an innings thrashing in the fifth Ashes test in Sydney and as he was jeered by home spectators in Brisbane during the subsequent one-day series.

CRIMES AGAINST BATTING

Australia went on to crush England 6-1 under Clarke's stewardship and he later remarked he doubted he would ever win over the whole country.

"For me it's about earning the respect of the doubters by leading the team in the right way and playing cricket in the right way," Clarke said on his permanent appointment to the captaincy in March.

Clarke has since led from the front with three centuries in his last five tests, banishing a long run of poor form at the crease.

Handed expanded powers as a selector, he has also been credited for lifting morale in the dressing room while making astute tactical decisions on the field.

But he has also been an accomplice in Australia's recent crimes against batting.

Clarke was as guilty as any of his team's batsmen when they were skittled for 47 in the first test loss against South Africa in Cape Town and when they lost by seven runs to New Zealand after cruising at 159 for two when chasing 241 for victory.

He has also struggled against India in recent series and failed to fire in two losing tests in the subcontinent last year.

He will nonetheless be expected to be the lynchpin of a brittle batting lineup struggling for form top to tail.

"Clarke has the experience, the test record and the ability to take charge of an innings," said former Australia captain Ian Chappell, who called for the middle order batsman to move up to three.

"He's also in form and has responded well to extra responsibility in his short captaincy career."


(Agencies)