March 27, 2008

Fleming rides into sunset with a tinge of regret

By H Natarajan

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown - William Shakespeare in King Henry IV, part 1.

Be it at corporate CEO or a national cricket captain, the man heading the show wears a crown of thorns. Leadership comes with myriad pressures which is why it’s probably easier getting to the top than remaining there. Even an apolitical man with a squeaky-clean image and loads of international experience in crisis management like Rahul Dravid gave up the captaincy in a hurry. It also did not matter that Dravid, over a period of time, was widely acknowledged as one of the finest batsmen in world cricket.

What chance then does a cricketer with no great pretensions of being a world class batsman have staying as captain for a protracted length of time? Especially when leading a side that neither has much star value nor does it have the kind of record that would make rivals lose sleep? Not much, obviously. Yet Stephen Fleming confounded the world by staying as New Zealand captain for 11 long years.

Despite his phenomenal run as captain, Fleming has almost been in the background, rather quiet and almost unnoticed. Nobody spoke of him as having the cerebral thinking of Mike Brearley, the charismatic personality of Imran Khan, the statesman-like presence of Clive Lloyd, the mental toughness of Steve Waugh or the warrior-like approach of Ricky Ponting. But the fact is that Fleming had something of all that and more. If the world did not give him his due as a master leader and strategist it was because he was from the tiny nation of New Zealand than England, Australia or India where the omnipresent and omnipotent media would have made and marketed him as a giant among leaders.

Fleming was given the hot seat in 1997 after displacing the controversial Lee Germon. New Zealand cricket was in turmoil and the responsibility was humungous on the 23-year-old Fleming. But it was soon obvious that he was a good man manager and a wonderful strategist. His calm demeanor and innovative ideas on the field earned him the respect of his colleagues and brought sanity and stability to New Zealand cricket.

For the major part of his international career, Fleming was commander-in-chief of the New Zealand army. He led New Zealand in 80 Tests – including 65 in a row - which is second only to the record 93 Tests by Australian Allan Border. In his 11-year rein as captain he also led his country in 218 ODIs – the only international captain to lead in over 200 games of the abridged version.

There is no doubt that had Fleming been blessed with a stronger team he would have won greater acclaim as a captain. Outside of leading New Zealand, he showcased his leadership skills by leading Nottinghamshire to County Championship victory in 2005 - their first Championship title in 18 years.

He was unseated last year as New Zealand Test captain by Daniel Vettori – a decision that still upsets Fleming. It’s apparent from his veiled barbs in public against the decision of the selectors.
When asked recently how he adapted to the change of being a mere player after such a long tenure as captain, Fleming replied wistfully: “I guess the difference is not being involved in the decision-making. You are so used to it, and conditioned after ten years of watching the game and instinctively making moves, moving a field, trying to read the game and see the game through your own eyes. To some degree you lose that when you are not captain. Still, I watch and pass information to Daniel (Vettori), but he sees it differently at times. Therefore your impact on the game is a lot less. Stepping back is a difficult transition.”

Pressed on by the interviewer if that came as sense of “big relief”, considering the stress leading an international side, Fleming shot back: “Having done it for ten years, it was just the way I knew the game. The time of being tired of it was gone. I was so conditioned and so used to it. No, I wasn't relieved. I was disappointed to lose the Test captaincy, because I still loved it and still thought I had lot to offer. So I am disappointed that I am still not the Test captain.”

If he nurses a greater disappointment in his cricketing career than losing the Test captaincy it has to be his underachievement as a batsman. Fleming had the class and did promise much scoring 92 on his Test debut and 90 on his maiden ODI game. But the twin failures to get into three-figures was going to be the sad feature of his career which he ended his career with one of the worst 50 to 100 conversion ratios in international cricket. “As a batsman I'll always feel I underachieved because I couldn't convert my starts, and I'll never know why. Sometimes I was the master of my own failings, other times it just wasn't meant to be,” he said with understandable regret. His 111 Test yielded him just nine hundreds and as many as 46 half-centuries.

Fleming has been an enigma in many ways. Despite his low conversion rate, he ended his career with a respectable 40-plus batting average in Tests. His sequence of scores in the farewell series against England typically reading: 41, 66, 34, 31, 59, and 66. Yet he has five scores of 150-plus, including three double hundreds. He could well have go on to convert one of his double into a triple hundred had he not selflessly declared the innings when he was on 276. This was in 2003 in Sri Lanka. Fleming denied himself the opportunity to become the first New Zealander to score a triple hundred in Tests by declaring the innings so that his team could have a crack at the tired Lankan batsmen in the last 10 minutes of the day's play.

Another uncommon trait seen in Fleming's career is the fact that unlike most batsmen he has a better overseas record in comparison to that on his home soil. Fleming’s Test batting average at home reads 33.87 compared to his overseas average of 45.92.

All said and done when Fleming looks back at his career he would have the satisfaction of a tremendous run as captain, tally of Test and ODI runs that places him as the top run-getter from his country, and a safe pair of hands that pouched the second highest number of catches (171) in Test history and the fourth highest (133) in ODIs.

Unquestionably, his contribution to New Zealand cricket is up there with legends like Sir Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe. Yet, Fleming left the international cricket arena for the final time on Wednesday without the hype and hoopla that was reserved for some of the Aussie greats who quit recently. And that is exactly how Fleming would have liked as well.

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