Canny Fleming drops nice-guy role
England must not take New Zealand's robust captain lightly, says Mike Selvey
Wednesday May 19, 2004
There is a story that soon will pass into cricket legend. Last winter, midway through a one-day international against South Africa in Auckland, the New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming, Test cricket's man-in-black, cool-dude skipper, let loose such a tirade of abuse in the direction of his opposite number Graeme Smith, who was about to embark on a run chase, that the Proteas captain lost his composure, his wicket and eventually the series.
It is worth mentioning because everything about it contradicted the perception of Fleming's style. He is a well-seasoned international cricketer and no stranger to robust language, but with it there is a genuinely nice, compassionate man, one who respects opponents and who in return has the respect of his peers.
He plays hard and expects little in the way of favours in return. But those who witnessed it could not recall any other occasion where he crossed the boundaries of fundamental decency. In its unsavouriness it was none the less regarded as a masterstroke.
Where did it come from? Well, it seems to have been an action rooted in his own experiences at the hands of Steve Waugh, and his admiration for a cricketer who never took a backward step. The South Africans were uppity and he was not willing for his side to accept that. Confrontation was the result. "Graeme is an emotional guy," Fleming has said in explanation. "That was one chink we thought we might explore and he took the bait."
So there we are: expedient, cold, calculated sledging, timed to perfection. For the sake of team and country it had to be done. If Smith was upset at first, quieter moments made him realise that he had been had. He later made a point of seeking out Fleming in order to pick his brains.
By common consent, Fleming is the finest captain on the world stage today. Not aloof like India's Sourav Ganguly, nor blessed with quite the same depth of talent in his side as Australia's Ricky Ponting. Smith has been impressive but he is still wet behind the ears. Fleming could take a team, any team, and make it better.
He was handed the leadership against England in Christchurch on Valentine's Day seven years ago. Since then he has captained New Zealand in 58 of the subsequent 61 Tests, a sequence broken only by a three-match home series against South Africa for which he was injured. Only Allan Border with 93 and Clive Lloyd with 74 have led their teams in more Tests. Border, Mike Atherton (52) and Mark Taylor (50) are the only captains to have captained more Tests consecutively than Fleming's 43.
No one survives as captain if he does not have the record to back it up and Fleming's is commendable, with 20 wins and 17 losses, of which only seven have come in the 31 matches since September 2000. He has gathered around him a core of dependable senior players and integrated the best of the young cricketers that are filtering through the New Zealand system.
Fleming tends to smile disarmingly whenever the subject is raised of his pre-eminence as captain. Keep talking, he'll say, I like hearing it. But let's get real. Give any captain a run of seven years in the job and he will have a decent chance of developing into a very good one. If only it were that simple. Fleming plays down his role partly because it is the Kiwi way and partly because it suits the team to be underestimated.
In any event, Fleming's assured leadership is a crucial factor in why his side will begin the three-match series this week if not favourites to beat an England side still high on the success of the Caribbean tour then as certainties to make it potentially one of the most competitive series of recent years.
Fleming's strengths go beyond his capacity to weld talented individuals into a unit that plays beyond its collective ability. He has succeeded in taking New Zealand beyond the stage where they might feel inferior to the so-called bigger names, and to one where self-belief is huge. "He gels the team," says Shane Warne, who recognised Fleming's qualities above even those of Waugh. "Until he took charge we always felt that New Zealand were content simply to compete. Under him they have a ruthless streak."
No side has discovered that more than the Australians themselves for, until India played out that remarkable 2003-04 series in which the Waugh's side were forced to come from behind to draw the four-match series 1-1, only the Kiwis in recent times had been able to go to Australia and give them a run for their money. In 2000, with the first two matches drawn and all hanging on the final game in Perth, only umpiring blunders prevented Fleming from taking the series.
The success was born of planning. No one prepares better and no one has a greater readiness to carry out strategies that may defy the norm. Damien Martyn for example, a batsman who exploits the area square of the wicket on the off-side, was mortified to see not two fielders in the region of point but three, with inviting wide open spaces elsewhere. It was a brilliant plan to neutralise a dangerous player carried out by a captain with the courage of his convictions.
The injury to Michael Vaughan has brought home to England that for all the euphoria of the winter they cannot afford to take their eye off the ball for one moment. He hopes England underestimate their capabilities. "Captaincy," he has said, "is realising where to tap into the pressure points of other teams. There are a lot of countries who think they are better than us and within that lies an opportunity. If you are smart enough." None smarter actually. Watch out England