She is being called the Yoko Ono of the cricket world. Lara Bingle, a 22-year-old swimsuit model, stands accused of jeopardising the career of the Australian cricketer Michael Clarke. The vice-captain's decision to desert a one-day series in New Zealand has outraged fans and commentators, with some calling for him to be sacked.
Clarke, 28, rushed home to Sydney this week to comfort his fiancée, who has been in the spotlight since a naked photograph of her was leaked to a women's magazine. The picture, showing Bingle stepping out of a shower, was taken by Brendan Fevola, a married Australian Rules footballer with whom she had an affair four years ago.
Fevola's behaviour, which also reportedly included circulating the picture among his teammates, upset Bingle, who hired a celebrity agent and sold an interview to the same magazine, Woman's Day. She also summoned Clarke home.
Clarke, a well liked and talented cricketer, has been widely tipped to inherit the Test captaincy when Ricky Ponting retires, a job many of his compatriots regard as more important than the Prime Minister's. Now some are questioning his suitability for the post.
"Maturity is the issue," wrote Peter Roebuck, a leading cricket commentator, in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald. "From a distance, the romance has all the traits of a schoolboy crush. Clarke has scored a stack of runs for his country, has travelled to many places, has seen and done a lot ... By now gilded youth ought to have given way to adult sensibility."
Eyebrows were raised when Clarke started dating Bingle, who found fame in 2006 starring in an Australian tourism campaign. The ads, which featured a bikini-clad Bingle asking "Where the bloody hell are you?", were banned in several countries, including Britain. In 2007, topless photographs of Bingle attracted so many visitors to the GQ magazine website that it crashed.
It seems a strange match: Clarke is, by his own admission, a quiet type. He never drinks beer, preferring wine or soft drinks, and spends his leisure time watching movies or walking his dog. But Bingle became a fixture on his arm, turning up at sports award ceremonies in eye-catching dresses.
Now fans are calling on Clarke, who is Australia's Twenty20 skipper, to choose between her and his job. One wrote on a news website: "Clarke should be sacked for putting his high-maintenance fiancée above his duties to international cricket." Another fumed: "Clarke should not captain Australia if he is going to walk out every time Lara pulls a publicity stunt."
The fans might yet get their way. The couple were yesterday holed up in their $6m apartment at Bondi Beach, with a "confused and lost" Clarke reportedly considering breaking off their two-year engagement. Insiders say the nude photo scandal was the last straw for Clarke, who detests the off-field publicity triggered by, among other things, Bingle's friendships with various shady Sydney figures.