Stephen Fleming, born April 1, 1973, is one of New Zealand’s finest-ever cricketers and captains. He captained New Zealand for a decade — longer than some of the greats likes Steve Waugh, Arjuna Ranatunga and Clive Lloyd — and scaling peaks and collecting many firsts in the process. Karthik Parimal looks back at the career of Fleming who now masterminds Chennai Super Kings as a coach.
If one sits to jot down a list of the finest captains to have graced the international stage since the last two decades, Stephen Fleming’s name is sure to feature in the top bracket. Despite not having the best of talent at his disposal, he marshalled his resources in such a commendable manner that New Zealand became one of the most formidable teams in the arena under his tenure, Fleming belonged to a rare breed of leaders. He proved to the purists of the game, who often advocate the theory that the mantle of captaincy must belong to an experienced campaigner, that it need not always be an imperative factor. In fact, most international teams followed suit after Fleming, who took charge of the side at age 23 and tasted considerable success.
Entry into the setup and captaincy
Fleming, the tall and sturdy southpaw, made his debut in the March of 1994 at Hamilton, against India, and immediately stole the spotlight with a studious 92, after walking in to bat at No. 5. 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. The statistics were by no means jaw-dropping, but considering the fact that the team was looking to rebuild on the shoulders of young blood, it pushed Fleming to the brink of captaincy.
It was in February 1997, when Lee Germon, the original skipper, was sidelined by the selectors for the third Test against England, at Christchurch, that Fleming was asked to step in. With that, he became the youngest Test captain in New Zealand’s history (23 years and 319 days). Although the result went against the Kiwis, the cricketing world had caught a glimpse of Fleming’s leadership traits. Ever since his debut, he was touted to bag the top job, and the position soon became a full-time one.
In the next month of that year, Sri Lanka, a team that had become a force under Arjuna Ranatunga, came visiting and, were duly thrashed by Fleming’s entourage in the two Tests — one an innings victory and the other by 120 runs. It was to be the start of a riveting journey.
The Kiwis scale peaks
After taking over as captain, for the next 18 months, Fleming, along with his team, rode the crest of the wave and looked a natural in the role. 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 botch was when the Kiwis were invited to Sri Lanka, where, despite winning the first Test at Colombo, they couldn’t maintain the impetus and went down in the next two games.
During this phase, certain sections demanded his ouster from the position, especially after Dion Nash’s captaincy credentials, in Fleming’s absence owing to an injury, came to the forefront during the series against South Africa. Nevertheless, Fleming was persisted with, and the decision paid rich dividends, for in the next few years under him, the side conquered many frontiers.
It must be remembered that Fleming, unlike his counterparts, didn’t have a huge pool of talent to choose from. Yet, the fact that he extracted the fullest out of his troops of limited abilities deserves tremendous praise. With Fleming at the helm, New Zealand were on a par with some of the best teams in the world in both formats of the game. They beat England in England, something Nasser Hussain, given his fondness for a battle against Kiwis, would have least expected. West Indies, who not long ago gave Steve Waugh’s men a run for their money, surrendered meekly to Fleming’s army 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.
A few months later, in September 2000, after wins against Zimbabwe at Bulawayo and Harare, Fleming became New Zealand’s most successful Test captain (12 wins), ahead of Geoff Howarth.
Rise as a batsman
Although his graph as a captain often hovered in the positives, his batting, it appeared, had hit a roadblock. To remedy this glitch, he made his way to England and represented Middlesex during the 2001 season, scoring 1059 runs at 55.73, an average better than that of his teammate Andrew Strauss’s.
Thereafter, he returned to the international grind and made hay. In 2003, his innings of 134, against hosts South Africa to gift his side a nine-wicket victory, will go down as one of the best knocks in a World Cup tournament. That hundred, which came amidst a daunting run chase, kept New Zealand’s hopes of moving ahead alive.
Later that year, in April, he let this brilliance spill over into the Test circuit as well. He scored an unbeaten 274 against Sri Lanka at Colombo, before amassing 192 versus Pakistan at Hamilton. In the interim, he kept frequenting the county circuit to work on mental aspects of his game and, the results were there to see.
In the October of 2004, against Bangladesh at Chittagong, he downed three records at once. It was to be his 87th Test and 150th innings — the highest by any Kiwi. And when he moved to 81 in his innings of 202, he overtook Martin Crowe‘s aggregate of 5444 runs in Tests for New Zealand. Although Fleming’s conversion rate was a factor in comparison to Crowe, one could not discount his spectacular improvement as a batsman, for since his county stint in 2001, he scored 2144 runs at an average of 46.60, with six hundreds and six half-centuries.
Heading into twilight
Towards the latter stages of his career, Fleming’s reputation as a captain and batsman kept exceeding expectations. He skippered in 80 Tests, a count higher than Steve Waugh, Arjuna Ranatunga and Clive Lloyd. He steered New Zealand to the semi-finals of the 2007 World Cup and relinquished captaincy, in limited-overs, in the aftermath of the defeat. A few months later, Daniel Vettori took over the mantle from all formats as Fleming quit One-Day Internationals. In the February of 2008, he bid adieu to the cricketing world post the series against England, during which he finished as the second highest run-scorer, with 297 runs from three Tests. In his final innings, he walked in to a guard of honour from England’s fielders and, scored 66. That knock nudged his career batting average to just over 40.
With 7172 runs to his name, Fleming is still New Zealand’s highest run-getter and, his tally of 111 Test caps is equalled only by Vettori.
Indian Premier League
Post retirement, Fleming has been closely associated with the renowned Chennai Super Kings (CSK) in the Indian Premier League (IPL). He donned the jersey in the first edition as a player, but since the 2009 edition has remained coach and been instrumental in the side’s victories in 2010, 2011 and Champions League T20.
Opportunity to coach New Zealand came about in 2009 and 2012, but Fleming politely declined, stating to Live Sport, “I enjoy these two months [in the IPL] because it’s my cricket fix and it’s done and dusted, whereas with the national side you’ve got constant development and requirements with travel, not dissimilar to when you’re playing and I’m still, I guess, weaning my way off playing for 15 or 20 years. I don’t know if that’s the path I want to go down.”
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)