Yesterday, we celebrated the career and stellar captaincy record of Michael Vaughan, who came in at the 5th position in our ‘Greatest Captains of the decade’ list. Today, we take a look at the cricketing life of another inspirational leader and a true gentleman, former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming, one of New Zealand’s greatest ever players and a great ambassador for the sport in the country.
4. Stephen Fleming
If one sits to jot down a list of the finest captains to have graced the international stage since the last decade, surely a certain Stephen Fleming’s name wouldn’t go unnoticed, and infact, he is likely to feature in the top bracket, purely because of the kind of success he achieved with limited resources at his disposal. Despite not having the best of talent at his disposal, he marshalled his resources in such a commendable manner that New Zealand became a formidable team during his tenure, capable of rubbing shoulders with the giants of the game. Fleming belonged to a rare breed of leaders. After having been entrusted with the resonsibilty of leading the side at the rather tender age of 23, Fleming was quick to disprove the so-called purists of the game who believed that the mantle of captaincy must belong to an experienced campaigner, and it was after the success he achieved that several other international teams didn’t hesitate to appoint a young leader to helm the side.
Fleming made his Test debut in March 1994 against India winning the Man of the Match award on debut after scoring 92 batting at the No. 5 position. The fact that he was surrounded by players the calibre of Ken Rutherford, Mark Greatbatch and Shane Thomson augured well, for in the next three years, he scored 1463 runs in 23 Tests at an average of 38.50. These statistics were by no means earth-shattering, but for a batsman coming in to bat at No.5 in a team that was looking to rebuild on the shoulders of young blood, these were impressive figures that prompted the selectors to award Fleming the captaincy in February 1997, when Lee Germon, the original skipper, was sidelined by the selectors for the third Test against England, at Christchurch. Stephen Fleming became New Zealand’s youngest ever captain at 23 years and 321 days. Although the result went against the Kiwis, Fleming’s leadership qualities impressed one and all. And it didn’t take long for Fleming’s charges to stamp their mark at the global stage as Arjuna Ranatunga’s Sri Lanka side was blown away in the two tests the following month.
Zimbabwe, a strong unit under the able leadership of Alaistair Campbell, toured Down Under and were handed a heavy defeat in the two Tests at Wellington and Auckland. The Indians’ plight in terms of series result was no different. The only disappointing result came when the Kiwis couldn’t acclimatize to the sub-continental conditions and went down 2-1 in Sri Lanka. New Zealand continued to conquer one hurdle after another – they beat England on their home soil, and even a strong West Indian outfit was put away in the December of 1999. Against all odds, they trumped favourites India in the finals of the 2000 ICC Champions Trophy, thereby winning their first major limited-overs tournament. Fleming soon became New Zealand’s most successful Test captain (12 wins), ahead of Geoff Howarth, after victories over Zimbabwe at Harare and Bulawayo. . But Fleming’s decision to play county cricket and represent Middlesex during the 2001 season paid off as he scored 1059 runs at 55.73, and he was a different batsman since.
Until the 2003-04 season, Stephen Fleming had been the captain of New Zealand, but never the star player. Chris Cairns, Nathan Astle, Daniel Vettori, Adam Parore and, more recently, Shane Bond, were regarded as being near the top world class, but not Fleming. Instead, Fleming won renown for having the worst conversion rate (the ability to turn half-centuries into centuries) in the history of test cricket for a batsman scoring 2000 runs. After 62 tests – more than the length of John R Reid’s career – Fleming had scored just two centuries, but had reached 50 a staggering 31 times. There was much scoffing and sniggering at this statistic. He threw his wicket away; couldn’t concentrate; was setting himself low standards; was ‘soft’. Of course, critics overlooked the fact that Fleming was maintaining a test average in the high 30s and was therefore contributing consistently well. The focus, instead, was on his inability to press on and make big scores. But Fleming answered his critics in a manner most fitting of the soft-spoken individual he is – Fleming faced 476 balls in strength-sapping heat and humidity and made 274 not out in an attack that included the spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan, a selfless knock as he sacrificed the opportunity to become the first Kiwi to score a triple ton and instead declared the innings.
Fleming’s greatest credit is that, unlike his counterparts, he didn’t have a huge pool of talent to choose from, and had to extract the very best out of a select group of players. His cerebral approach, which included studying in detail the foibles of his opponents, was best seen in the 2001-02 Test series away to Australia. Frustrated by Fleming’s quirky field settings and specific bowling plans, Australia could not dominate and all three Tests were drawn, an achievement only India and England have managed to emulate or better in the last two decades. “We needed to think about the game a lot more than other sides. We couldn’t rely on talent and skill, so we had to find other ways to unsettle the opposition. We had to be very thorough and know the opposition almost better than ourselves.”, Fleming admits.
Perhaps not a great player, but an inspirational skipper and a great achiever, Stephen Fleming will go down in the history books for putting New Zealand on the world map, in the sport of cricket at least.