Thursday, February 14, 2008

Captain cool

Stephen Fleming gave away little on the field, but his plans were always meticulously prepared...

In a country used to being dismissed, perhaps unfairly, as a minor player in world cricket, Stephen Fleming has been a giant. New Zealand's population of four million is smaller than most of their rivals, they have produced fewer superstars and enjoyed less major tournament triumphs, but they provided one of the most respected captains of the modern era.

That Fleming led his team in more Tests than any player other than the indefatigable Allan Border should not be underestimated. That he did so with a winning ratio of 35% in a team that lacked flair and often appeared out-matched on paper, is testament to his skill as a leader.

Fleming said last month that although he spent a decade as captain, he felt only the final three or four seasons were really his. In the time leading up to that New Zealand simply had no other options. Even if that were true, repeated failures would not be tolerated and his ability to retain the job for so long made him a rarity in the modern game. During his reign West Indies went through six full-time captains, and even the stable Australia had three.

It is true that Fleming was thrust into the top role when New Zealand were running out of options. He was 23 when Lee Germon's groin injury left the captaincy vacant and Fleming became the youngest man to lead New Zealand in a Test. His appointment was not totally without objection - two years earlier he had been slapped on the wrist for smoking marijuana on a tour of South Africa - but his calm guidance of the squad soon won him admirers. If Border had been Australia's captain grumpy, Fleming was New Zealand's captain cool.

Fleming had idolised Martin Crowe for his innovation while leading a team thin on natural talent, a situation Fleming would know all too well. Steve Waugh was another who influenced Fleming's later years, and holding Waugh's men to a 0-0 draw in 2001-02 ranked as a career highlight. But for some final-day fight from Waugh and Adam Gilchrist in the third Test in Perth, New Zealand might have stolen the series.

The result was no fluke. Fleming proved himself a top tactician by asking his fast men, who with the exception of Shane Bond were not that quick, to bowl short at the 36-year-old Waugh twins, taking advantage of their age and slowing reflexes. He also negated the impact of Damien Martyn, who was coming off a highly productive Ashes tour, by setting grouped fields between point and gully that forced the batsman to alter his natural game.

It was a classic example of Fleming doing his homework. And like a student whose essays were always handed in ahead of time, Fleming's thorough preparation calmed him when the real deadline arrived. On the field he gave little away as he often rubbed his chin, deep in thought, but much of his work would have been done in the days leading up to the game.

Sometimes his ideas did not work, and he was sorely frustrated not to fare better in the World Cup than to reach semi-finals in 1999 and 2007. But outsiders admired the way he got the most out of a side devoid of superstars. Just as Fleming looked to Crowe and Waugh, a new generation of leaders will surely take inspiration from the Fleming years.