'My style of captaincy has gone 360 degrees' - Fleming
One hundred and ninety four is the highest score in a one-day international. Come tomorrow and it will also be the number of one-day games in which Stephen Fleming has led New Zealand, beating Arjuna Ranatunga's record. In an age when captains are swapped on a seasonal basis - in some countries even on a daily basis - he's stayed pilot for close to a decade. It's been a journey that's seen someone who "didn't know what was happening" turn into one of the shrewdest minds in the business. Better still, the end isn't anywhere in sight.
"I didn't know what I was doing in my first game," he reminisced when asked of the March day in 1997 when he led New Zealand for the first time in an ODI. "My style of captaincy has gone 360 [degrees] and more; I've used different styles and developed different ways. Probably now, with the advantage of hindsight I'm at a point where I'm discovering just how important leadership can be. And that comes down to being in the job for so long. I'm thankful for being given such a long run."
Captaining New Zealand couldn't have been easy. Out of the 25 men who've led, seven didn't manage more than five Tests. Only 12 captained a winning team and just two others - Geoff Howarth and Jeremy Coney - have won more Tests than they have lost. To present-day audiences Coney might appear to be a stand-up comic providing a lot of mirth but his hard-as-nails approach catapulted New Zealand to one of the leading sides in the '80s. His assessment of Fleming is worth noting: "He has a mariner's gaze," he told Cricinfo. "There's a calmness," says Coney about Fleming's on-field countanance, "he has a word here and there, puts in a lot of introspection and thought. At times it would have been very frustrating - with the team playing inconsistently. But he's got through it all very impressively."
Fleming spoke of the hard times, moments when he thought of throwing in the towel. "Giving up the captaincy for the betterment of the side is something I've grappled with," he continued. "Ultimately the buck stops with me, in the playing sense, and you have to see if your captaincy is hindering or helping your game. Yes, I have thought of giving it up."
In his first 15 innings as captain, Fleming managed just two fifties. In fact, throughout his career he's endured phases of low scores (once in 1998-99 he strung together 23, 21, 23, 5, 16, 9 and 0). "It comes down to how you play as a batter," he reflected when asked about captaincy pressures. "I'm certainly not as good a captain when I'm under pressure batting wise. The decision making is not confident as it should be when you're under pressure with your batting. I think I've been in the game long enough to know that I can set that aside and concentrate on my captaincy even if my batting is not going well. The hardest time is when you're under pressure with both. The bottom-line is that I didn't want to give up when the times were bad, I didn't want to give the opportunity up."
Fleming's longevity doesn't confirm to Steve Waugh's assertion about captains having shelf-lives. So what's the secret? Where does he summon the energy and inventiveness to lead day after day? "I'm still getting massive satisfaction from leading," he responded, "and that's an important thing to acknowledge. Even after ten years, there's a drive and desire to get better as a captain. It's as intense as it's always been from day one. I understand the shelf-life talk but I've tried to be innovative and encourage leadership. There's still a lot to achieve - winning this [tournament], winning the World Cup, encouraging people like Vettori, Oram, Bond and the Marshalls to develop their leadership along with me. They're the next group of leaders that this team has."
He completely agreed with the notion that established captains often receive more credit than they deserve. He's also quick to point out the flipside. "You're only as good as your team's performance," he asserted when asked if captaincy is over over-estimated. "You must remember the flipside as well - when you captain and your team loses, there are subtleties that you miss, something that don't work out. But if you're in the game for that kind of recognition, you're there for the wrong reasons. Team success is what counts. There have been great sides with average captains. And there have been very good captains who haven't had too much success."
So what advice would the Stephen Fleming of today offer to the Stephen Fleming who walked out to toss in his first game? Is leadership a natural attribute or does one learn on the job? "You learn most of it," he said introspectively. "If you're observant and if you have the man-mangement skills in order then half of it sorted out. Then there's the tactical side, then development side. If you walk around thinking you're a leader, you're a long way from it."
In India and talking about captaincy, there was no way Fleming could avoid the inevitable query - the captaincy credentials of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly. At this stage, Fleming felt, it wouldn't be appropriate to compare them. "Captaining India is probably the toughest job around, considering the pressure from fans and number of people who follow cricket," said Fleming. "Both have contrasting styles and both are very strong personalities. Sourav had quite an emotional streak but Rahul seems more calculated and more measured. Now they're examples of different styles and can also complement where their teams are.
"Teams develop naturally depending on styles," he continued. "I don't think you should compare. You need to respect what Sourav did - he brought a lot of spark and passion to the side. In a way he was a little different, because there was always a passive approach from India. But Sourav was very confrontational. Rahul is quite measured. It will be interesting to see over time how they measure up."
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo