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By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian cricketing prospects have rarely looked bleaker than when Michael Clarke took over the test captaincy after the last Ashes series but only an out-and-out optimist would declare the outlook that much brighter two years on.
While his personal stock has risen inexorably on the back of a torrent of runs, Clarke's Australia could hardly be said to be looking ready, willing and able to contest back-to-back test series against England this year.
At the weekend, Clarke celebrated the second anniversary of his appointment as Australia's 43rd test captain with a night in hospital suffering from gastroenteritis.
If the illness was a lingering reminder of the recent tour of India, it was not the only unpleasantness to accompany him back from the sub-continent.
The 4-0 test drubbing not only once again exposed the frailties of the Australian batting but also featured off-field problems, most notably when four players were dropped for not performing a post-match assignment.
Clarke pugnaciously defended the "homework-gate" exclusions as necessary to foster the team ethic required to fulfil the ambition he starkly laid out two years ago - to become number one ranked team in all forms of the game.
The Australians flirted with taking the top test ranking off South Africa in their home series at the end of last year but ultimately went down 1-0 to the Proteas. They are currently ranked fourth.
Clarke will have plenty of time to reflect on how much progress has been made over the last two years in the next seven to 10 weeks as he recovers from hamstring and lower back injuries that ruled him out of the final test in India.
What he probably did not anticipate when he succeeded Ricky Ponting was defending his team against the accusation that they were the worst Australian side to ever take the field.
"All of us understand our performances over the last four tests were not acceptable," he wrote in a column for an Australian website this week.
"But, that said, we are only a couple of months removed from advancing to within one test match of taking the number one ranking from South Africa.
"That suggests all is not lost and talk of us being the worst Australian team in history is a bit harsh. One bad tour doesn't define a squad and I'm confident we can take the fight to England."
Clarke singled out the performances of batsmen Phil Hughes, Ed Cowan and Steve Smith as positives to come out of the tour, along with the workrate of seamers such as James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc.
Whereas Ponting during his reign as captain was not on the selection panel and therefore able to shrug off, or even share, media incredulity at mismanagement of players, Clarke has no such luxury.
Along with South African coach Mickey Arthur, Clarke is part of the four-man panel and must take his share of responsibility.
Leaving aside "homework-gate", the most baffling decision in India was to drop spinner Nathan Lyon from the Hyderabad test, which Australia lost by an innings and 135 runs.
Although Lyon is not, and would never claim to be, another Shane Warne, he has been a solid test bowler and returned to take nine wickets in the final match in Delhi - a "good reward for effort" according to Clarke.
Still, if the India tour was the nadir for the Clarke-led Australia team, there have been plenty of highlights too.
Clarke, who turned 32 on Tuesday, has led the team to 12 wins, six defeats and five draws in 23 tests.
There have been series sweeps of India (4-0) and Sri Lanka (3-0) at home, series wins in West Indies and Sri Lanka as well as a 1-1 draw in an extraordinary series in South Africa.
There has also been his own remarkable form since he took the job, 2,533 test runs at an average of 68.45 with one triple century, three double centuries and five other hundreds.
Clarke repeatedly, and apparently genuinely, trots out the line that he would trade all his runs for victories for his team.
And, as Ponting discovered to his cost after three Ashes defeats, Australian captains will only ultimately be defined by how they fare against England.
"Everyone in Australian cricket knows how much the Ashes means to the country and we will do everything within our power to turn the ship around after our disappointing tour of India," he wrote in his column.
"The players know how big the next 12 months are and it is still our aim to win back the urn and make Australia proud."
(Editing by Patrick Johnston)