A tale of two captains
The strangest thing happened at the Brabourne Stadium. A batsman slashed hard at a short ball outside the off stump, the fielder at point flung himself attempting to catch the ball - a small but voluble crowd roared - the ball went past, the crowd sighed and was silenced as the ball sped to the boundary. Aren't crowds supposed to applaud the fours and sixes and boo the wickets? New Zealand and South Africa played some tough cricket on a tricky pitch - supposedly good pitches are only those that are good for batsmen - and it was much appreciated.
The story of the day was a tale of two captains. First was the man who stands so tall that you have forgive headline writers when they said: Stephen Fleming stood tall among the ruins. Put in to bat, he read the pitch exceptionally well, and that was a good portion of the job done. He ensured two things - first that he was going forward, or aiming to go forward, at all times, and second that he stretched his front foot out fully, for good measure getting it outside the line of the stumps when possible, as he met the ball.
Fleming is an unusual batsman in that his cover-drives - every bit as handsome to the populace at large as he is to a growing female fan following in India - can startle you with their purity of execution, but are often sandwiched between the ugliest inside edges to fine-leg. In this innings there was only one cover drive, and it was not a classic, but rather a walk down the pitch to Andrew Hall that was slashed over cover. Off his pads, though, Fleming was completely in control, driving, flicking, and whipping the ball away in the arc from mid-on to fine-leg.
When you see that Brendan McCullum's 21 was the second highest score of the innings, Fleming's 89 assumes importance far in excess of the 46% of the total that it constituted. It put a score on the board, on a pitch where New Zealand had the bowlers to prey on the minds of South African batsmen who are bred on hard tracks with plenty of bounce in them.
This South African team chased 434 against the mighty Australians only seven months ago. Surely 195 against the lesser cousins from across the Tasman Sea should have been achievable. Lesser cousins, maybe, but certainly not a lesser captain. Fleming knows a thing or two about leadership, and Smith has learned that the hard way in the past.
It was in 2004, when South Africa toured New Zealand, having never lost either a Test or ODI series to the Kiwis, that Smith encountered Fleming. Going into the game at Eden Park, in Auckland 1-3 down, South Africa needed to win the last two games to keep their record intact, and looked set to do so as New Zealand managed only 193 batting first. Just as South Africa began their response, with Smith opening, Fleming launched into a full-frontal verbal assault, cleverly before the cameras had really turned their attention to the middle. Smith, a high-strung chap at the best of times, responded with a tongue-lashing of his own. Visibly upset, he was out for only 15, South Africa lost that match by 2 runs via Duckworth-Lewis, and the series 5-1. When asked about the incident Fleming showed little remorse, saying he knew what it was like to be in Smith's shoes - a young captain - and exploited it to the max. All through the series, Fleming and Smith exchanged barbs in press conferences, and only when it was finished, did Smith accept Fleming's invitation to dinner.
When New Zealand next toured South Africa, in 2005, Smith was ready to give it back, as you'd only expect. There was the odd mention of real tough cricket on hard, bouncy pitches, not the soft stuff on New Zealand's tracks, and the sarcasm flowed unabated in press conferences as the two captains went after each other. This time though the contest - on the pitch at least - went emphatically South Africa's way as they blanked New Zealand out 4-0, with one game rained out.
And so it was with the Fleming-Smith scoreline tied on one apiece that they took the field in this Champions Trophy match. Smith and Fleming, both intelligent and thoughtful men, one the belligerent boxer the other a nimble fencer, would have been aware of this. And after Fleming had shown the way with 89, Smith had his chance. He began slowly, but with determination, and a typical punchy drive past mid-on, uppish but firmly hit and safe, brought him his first boundary. Wickets fell, but Smith stuck stoically around, and consecutive boundaries off Jacob Oram - the first carved over cover, and the second times off the toes - kept South Africa in business.
One boundary later, Smith's attempt at a forcing shot at Oram failed to clear Vettori at mid-off, and he was gone for 42. The rest of the South Africa's batting card was virtually identical to New Zealand's. Fleming made 47 runs more than Smith, and that was enough to seal victory by 87 runs. The old fox, you'd have to say, outplayed the young pretender once more.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo