May 27, 2003

Exit the invisible man

Wisden's Australian View by Chris Ryan

Damien Fleming: forever in and out of favour, on and off the physio's bench

Damien Fleming went as he came. No fuss, no fanfare. His retirement last Thursday stirred barely a ripple, drowned out by a tidal wave of footballing tittle-tattle and news of Annika Sorenstam, a golfer, striking a blow for women in a men's world.

Like Sorenstam, Fleming also struck a blow for an unsung cross-section - swing bowlers - in a game ruled by men who fling fast and spin hard. Unlike Sorenstam, he did it so nonchalantly he was almost invisible.

He sits in joint-172nd place on the list of alltime wicket-takers with 75 Test victims. It is a fairly anonymous position shared with some fairly anonymous ex-trundlers: Tim May and Dipak Patel, Brian McMillan and Salim Durani. And Fleming, in many respects, might have seemed a fairly anonymous journeyman himself - until you saw him bowl, that is.

Fleming made swing bowling exciting. When he started out with Victoria back in the late '80s he sported long hair and an even longer run-up. In 1994 he followed in Dennis Lillee's footsteps, spending an off-season in the Lancashire League and paring back his approach to the wicket. Like Lillee, he never looked back. At his best he resembled a right-arm Wasim Akram, hurtling in off eight or nine strides. All he lacked was Wasim's occasional capacity for brute speed.

If England was Fleming's finishing school, he was anything but a textbook English seamer. Line and length was something his old team-mate Paul Reiffel could worry about. Fleming preferred to make the ball bounce and watch it zip - in or out, and sometimes both at once, or so it seemed.

Yet it was not the arc of his swing but the timing that most befuddled his opponents. Fleming had this knack of swinging the ball freakishly late. Just when a batsman had settled on his stroke the ball would zoom back into him, or screech alarmingly away. Often the batsman would look like a goose. Just as often he would survive. Whereas Glenn McGrath would jag the ball just enough to attract the edge, Fleming would invariably do too much.

If this was a weakness it was also his greatest charm. We shared his anguish when ball beat bat. We lapped up his joy when he found the edge. And for the rest of the time we mostly felt sorry for him. Because Fleming had rotten luck. He was forever in and out of favour, on and off the physio's bench. His only constant was his smile. Fleming injured body parts that sounded more like pasta dishes. A strained patella here, a swollen rotator cuff there. Then maybe a stiff neck for variety, or a broken finger, or a bout of knee tendinitis. Fleming had 'em all.

He should have been a sensation on seaming English wickets, like Terry Alderman before him. But he never played a Test there. He could have done nicely in the West Indies too. But he flew home early in 1994-95 and never made the trip in 1998-99. His wonky right shoulder was the culprit on each occasion.

Only once, in 1999-2000, did he see out an entire Australian summer. He played six Tests against Pakistan and India that season, taking 30 wickets at an average of 22. When Shane Warne floored a simple catch off Javagal Srinath at Adelaide, thus robbing Fleming of an historic second Test hat-trick, Steve Waugh commented: "Flemmo has definitely been our best bowler all summer."

It should have been the beginning of his pomp. Instead it was the beginning of the end. He buggered his knee a couple of months later and was all but washed up at 29. He played only one more Test.

He finishes his career with a Test average of 25.89 and a strike rate of 55. Impeccable stats. He goes down in history as the most underrated Australian bowler since the left-armer Bruce Reid, slender as a lamp-post, sturdy as a sandcastle.

Reid could also be the smoothest of operators, his subtlety of swing undermined only by his frailty of physique. His coach Bob Simpson once labelled Reid's unfulfilled career as "my biggest if-only". "He was pure silk," said Simpson. "I sometimes wonder if the Australian public realise just what they lost when Bruce was lost to the international game."

The same question applies with Fleming, if not more so. At least Reid lasted long enough to collect 113 Test scalps. Fleming is perhaps the best Australian quick of the last 80 years not to take a century of wickets.

Not that it is likely to fluster him too much. Stuart MacGill said last year that he could "die happy" once he took his 100th wicket. It is difficult to imagine such frippery wiping the permanent grin off Fleming's face.

Besides, he has plenty to smile about. He seldom gets much credit for it but, without Fleming, Australia might never have reached the 1996 or 1999 World Cup finals. Fleming was the last-over specialist in both semi-finals. West Indies needed six runs to win off five balls at Mohali; South Africa required one off four at Edgbaston. Richie Richardson and Lance Klusener promptly self-destructed. But as ever with Fleming, it was his cool head and late swing - the quality that made him a lively force on the deadest of wickets - which planted seeds of doubt where none existed.

It is hard to believe he's given it all up to coach at the academy. He has only just turned 33. He is younger than Glenn McGrath, steadier than Brett Lee, more potent than Andy Bichel. You wonder if the Australian public realise just what they have lost.

Chris Ryan is a former managing editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and a former Darwin correspondent of the Melbourne Age.