The crisis at the top
As New Zealand fumbled their way through another day's play, Australia's vice-like grip on the series intensified as Stephen Fleming's men were battered into submission. At Christchurch, the Adam Gilchrist-inspired Australian fightback on the third day spelt the beginning of the end. In this Test, Gilchrist and Damien Martyn tilted the balance yesterday and took the game way beyond New Zealand this morning.
At the start of play, few could have scripted anything other than Gilchrist racking up another century and Australia declaring in the afternoon around the 550-run mark. With take after take played out by two A-list actors, Ricky Ponting's need to rise from the comfort of his director's chair came only when some rouge extras wearing black caps threatened to break the continuity on the set.
Hamish Marshall's surprise spilt catch allowed Gilchrist a further 98 runs, including a six that smashed a window in the RA Vance Stand's Norwood Room. After Gilchrist raised his third century in four Tests against New Zealand this summer an edge off the next ball flew between Brendon McCullum and Fleming at slip. When Martyn edged Chris Martin, McCullum grassed a tough chance.
A Test against Australia is no school play and a bad audition can make one do strange things, like letting straight balls hit your pad as Fleming did in the first over of Scene Two. Fleming has been a shadow of his former self this summer, and wouldn't be in his eighth year as New Zealand's captain if not for his consummate leadership. Whether he's up to the current crisis though is not as clear.
Fleming stated before this match that he needed to start making runs, as every international batsman does. With 91 Tests to his name and the added responsibility of facing the new ball, he is not just any old batsman, which is exactly why his team-mates should expect nothing less than Fleming leading by exhibiting authority at the crease.
In four Tests against Australia this season Fleming has scores of 0, 11, 83, 3, 18, 17 and 0. Just as the All Blacks semi-final loss to Australia in the 2003 World Cup came in the match that mattered most, Fleming is stuck in a rut when he can least afford to be.
An average below 40 and a mediocre return of eight Test centuries has not stopped Fleming from being rated highly as a batsman - or at least one with untapped potential after he debuted in 1993-94. He's also well regarded in cricketing circles as a captain and an individual. However, it has only been since New Zealand's last tour to Australia, in November 2001, that Fleming has done justice to the praise, his ton at the WACA being the first of six in three years thereafter.
Fleming's lean trot this summer comes as no real surprise as he averages just 25.46 in 13 Tests against Australia. Amidst the wreckage, his century, two fifties and a series average of 47.40 in 2001 stands out prouder than a honeymooner.
Trans-Tasman battles are no time for mediocrity. This series is more that just an assignment against the best cricket nation in the world; it's another chance to get one over our greatest sporting rival. Rugby aside, when it comes to football, rugby league, netball, basketball or cricket, New Zealand is invariably the underdog. Victories are possible but they require special performances from key players.
As the side's captain, leading batsman and most experienced player the time has come for Fleming to lead New Zealand to an against-the-odds upset. To achieve that he needs to score runs in the way that Martin Crowe and John Wright did when they captained their country.
In 82 Tests Wright set a New Zealand record of 5334 runs at an average of 37.82 until his successor, Crowe, posted 5444 in 77 matches at 45.36. Significantly both men far exceeded their career average when they assumed the captaincy.
In his 14 Tests in charge, Wright scored 1070 runs at 47.63 including three centuries and four half-centuries. Crowe averaged 54.29 in collecting 1466 runs, passing both three figures and fifty on four occasions in his 16 Tests at the helm. Fleming's average of 39.94 in 66 Tests as captain only matches his career average.
Reaching the levels Wright and Crowe attained when entrusted with the captaincy will be extremely difficult from a purely statistical point of view, by virtue of Fleming's longer tenure. However anything less than lifting his game to a higher level will most likely ensure New Zealand's last-decade Test run against Australia will remain dismal. So the time has come to say: Would the real Stephen Fleming please stand up?
Andrew McLean is a presenter of The Cricket Club, New Zealand's only national radio cricket show.