Few people are born to lead. In that aspect, Stephen Fleming, arguably one of the greatest captains was one such personality. He was a tactical genius. But what’s more that seldom meets the eye?
It was 14 February 1997, when New Zealand walked out to take on England at Lancaster Park, Christchurch. The home side that was trailing by 0-1, didn’t have the services of their regular skipper Lee Germon and as a result, the selectors had decided that a new captain should take over. In such a moment, Stephen Fleming, aged 23 years and 319 days lead the team with lots of grace and showed tactical moves, which impressed everyone, in spite of the loss, he is appointed as the regular captain.
It was the moment of breakthrough that New Zealand cricket was waiting for after going through five years of a downward spiral. From that moment began the journey of one of the finest leaders and captains that this game has ever seen. Fleming was astute, a fine reader of the game, a tactical genius who used to play cricket like a game of chess, a leader who would know how to get best from his troops and a general who knew how to overcome the audacity.
In his 10 years at the helm, he took New Zealand cricket to a new level. But how did he do that?
He not only identified a core group. But brought them together and, succeeded at getting the best out of them.
Stephen Fleming’s genius was one that had a quotient of simplicity; it was as if a quaint but thinking man empowered his troops, relying on them, instead of directing them plainly.
What had to be done didn’t occur in some cricketing workshop. The likes of Chris Cairns, Dion Nash, Simon Doull, and Adam Parore, four talented yet complex characters rallied around their leader, who in turn, rallied around them.
This also leads us to a question. Was Stephen Fleming among the old-fashioned but democratic captains; where one was for all and all was for one?
His mother raised Stephen Paul Fleming.
Maybe the aspect of being close-knit with his players had something to do with an element of loss.
A relationship vacuum, did you know?
How many of us knew a doting single mum raised him? David Crowe (father of Martin Crowe) once regarded, “Stephen’s mother has raised a fine young man. A person of grace and character with a more steely side to him than might be suspected at first glance”.
It was mum who encouraged Stephen Fleming to play cricket in spite of no family background.
There were only a few people who were impressed when he was nipped out for a duck upon his debut first-class match for Canterbury in January 1992.
It was a sad moment for an 18-year-old teenager who was wiser than most around him.
However, David Trist one of the provincial coaches identified the skill of Stephen Fleming. He remembers telling the great Martin Crowe, “Watch out, here’s the heir apparent.”
Fleming debuted in Hamilton against Azahruddin’s India, March 1994, aged just 20.
But immediately showed in the second inning what New Zealand had found in him.
The remarkable 92; how can one forget that stoic knock?
However, in spite of a strong start, Fleming had a lot of flaws.
He would be often caught fishing outside stump, a sin for anyone wanting to forge a long career, not in the least for a top-order bat.
The concentration would wane out easily. More than anything else, the reputation beyond the field took a serious hit when, along with Dion Nash and Matthew Hart, he was caught smoking Marijuana on a tour to South Africa later that year.
In 1995, New Zealand made some big changes to its cricket system.
Lee Germon became the captain and Glenn Turner was made coach. While Turner’s way was too controversial, Germon was a serious trier. And in spite of limited capabilities, the latter gave his best until he lost the leadership reins to the lanky leader Stephen Fleming in the summer of 1997.
A permanent solution to the chop and change philosophy was found.
By his own admission, Stephen Fleming was never ready to take over. He was still learning the tricks of the trade during those initial years but enjoyed the idea of leading, the challenge that came along.
The key to his success was that he gave everyone a sense of comfort but always pushed them to give their best.
One reason when he was injured against India in 1999 and Nash took over the captaincy, it was expected that Nash’s aggressive way might win him permanent captaincy but Nash himself refused for he relished playing around the usual captain, the one who didn’t impose things, didn’t want players to play “under” him.
Under Stephen Fleming, New Zealand became a united unit being a somewhat fractured one, circa 1996.
He started winning series against India, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, England, and West Indies. A big breakthrough was reached in 2000, Nairobi, when the team won the first and till date, their only Champions Trophy. The series win in England in 1999 and a fearsome draw against Steven Waugh’s ‘Invincible’ Australians made big feats too.
But are they credited enough?
Moreover, how often is he credited for being the only Kiwi skipper to draw a Test series in India, in the last 50 years (in 2003)?
Stephen Fleming became the most successful captain New Zealand ever had; he captained them in most format outings. He is one of the most successful captains in the game too, where he stands among the top 3 captains in both formats.
His stats might not tell a devastating tale, yet, a lot of things can be gauged from his ability to fight fire-with-fire with the shrewdest of minds.
In 2001, Australia, he was all over Steven Waugh, his opposite number. He set fields for Waugh brothers who were 35 by that time and their reflexes were getting slower each passing day.
Fleming instructed the bowlers to ball short. He cut the scoring shots of Damien Martyn, the only ‘in-form bat’ for Australia.
Moreover, why Stephen Fleming is respected is for bringing to the sport the very character than often seems a thing of the past, an example of which was felt then.
He publicly requested his players to out sledge the Australians. In the end, NZ came mighty close at winning both Tests.
Bigger success followed in 2004, wherein he rattled Graeme Smith. None expected Proteas to lose the ODIs.
At Wellington, Stephen Fleming put Graeme Smith under emotional stress, and at Eden Park, he demonstrated the power of cleverly taunting his opponent.
He threw some verbal volleys over Smith who promptly gave it back. But losing concentration, the famous batsman fell after a miserable 15 of 33.
However, Stephen Fleming was frank later at the media presser, stating, “Just an exchange of captaincy views between Graeme and myself”… He has been in great form during the series and we had to come up with a way of getting him out,” Fleming said of his sledging assault. “It isn’t always pretty but we’ll take any advantage we can get for the sake of the team.”
He showed the ICC bosses sitting in London how smart he was, playing mind games but within the lines.
It’s that quintessential cerebral trait that to this day, casts NZ in a different league.
Later, even the great Smith admitted, “Tactically and psychologically, Stephen Fleming is the best captain in the world, and is rapidly becoming one of the best of all time.”
Quite a feat when Waugh, Ganguly, and Hussain were still there.
New Zealand were always known for the talent and authority of John Reid and later, Glenn Turner, Crowe, and Sir Richard Hadlee.
But for the first time, they were being acknowledged for having a great world-class leader who molded a decent outfit consisting of great believers.
He didn’t have just cricketers amid him, but troops who could field-marshall.
But then again, it wasn’t all rosy for Stephen Fleming.
In 2001, he lost to a Zimbabwe that never capable of overwhelming his team. Later, he lost to England 0-3.
But ever the team man, he always stood by his players during grim times.
And maybe his imaginative, relevant and determined leadership was also the trait that often overshadowed his batting.
Stephen Fleming, it hardly occurs, has an average of 40 in Tests, notched up 17 centuries.
Maybe, he could’ve done more, like going past 20 hundreds easily.
But make no mistake.
The captain was more than being just handy with the bat. 95 international fifties cut a picture of a constant scorer. A feat given in his time Tests found equal attention from boards as ODIs.
His match-winning 134 against South Africa could be called his best ODI knock. On the other hand, his whopping 274, where he singularly waged an attack against Sri Lankan Muralitharan in Colombo could be called his greatest moment as a batter in white shades.
Only recently did Ross Taylor overtake him in scoring most in both formats, previously, Stephen Fleming was the highest scorer in both templates.
But the debacle in the 2007 world cup saw him abdicate leadership.
Post Vettori was made the skipper, Fleming, after his home series against England, walked into the sunset, circa March 2008.
But even then, his stints with the revered Chennai Super Kings where he conducted himself as the admiral of sorts led to Dhoni’s calmness, strategy plannings, man-to-man plans.
Suffices to say, many might unreasonably not afford him the place among great leaders of NZ and world cricket in the 90s and mid-2000s, but here was a stalwart that loved to lead.
Putting himself amid the fiery face of action, time and again,
After all, aren’t the Generals meant to lead? Salute Mr. Stephen Fleming.