Round the World March 2, 2004

Fleming is winning the mindgames

Stephen Fleming has outmaneouvred his opposite number, Graeme Smith ..

New Zealand's crushing 5-1 victory over South Africa in the recent ODI series has been a personal triumph for their captain, Stephen Fleming. But, as Neil Manthorp reports in this week's Round the World column, his approach has not been entirely above-board



Stephen Fleming: giving Graeme Smith a lesson, and a tongue-lashing
© Getty Images

South Africans have always respected New Zealanders for being doughty and spirited - but nobody really expected them to rise above that tag. They have been perennial losers since time immemorial, but suddenly the status quo has been turned on its head - South Africa have been outbullied by the underdogs.

New Zealand have just won their first and only series in 73 years against South Africa, but they didn't just win - they thrashed them 5-1. It was a chastening, painful experience and one that will take the South Africans some weeks to recover from; it will also, surely, shape the course of the imminent Test series.

There is good reason to look at the physical obstacles that have impeded Graeme Smith's team during the last three weeks. Freezing cold weather prevented more than three full practice sessions between rain-affected matches, a virulent bout of 'flu knocked over eight members of the squad, there were half a dozen key injuries and the sort of general fatigue that comes from 17 consecutive months of international cricket.

But Smith did not dismiss them all merely to win friends and influence people with his magnanimity and generosity of spirit. He did so, from the second game to the sixth, because that was the truth. "Those are the things you have to deal with playing international cricket," he said, "it's part and parcel of the job. None of them are excuses - we were out-performed."

Where Smith did not tread, during his analysis of an appalling series for him and his team, was into the realm of gamesmanship. Not just sledging (although that played a big role) but in the ability to manipulate home advantage in every possible way, and then some.

The "emotional blackmail" type of pressure was applied to Smith when he agreed to play on a sodden, muddy outfield at Wellington. This was immediately followed up in the fourth match by New Zealand pressurising the Dunedin groundsman to ensure there was no chance of a shortened slog match, despite the fact that it was sunny and the outfield was dry. South Africa's big hitters naturally fancied their chances, particularly after Smith had won the toss and given them the chance to chase a target.

But Fleming saved his brilliant best for for the series-decider at Eden Park. He launched a premeditated and calculated attack of unusually graphic abuse at Smith, just moments before he went out to start his team's run-chase.

Smith was startled, but it would have been out of character for him not to fight back with some angry finger-wagging and swearing of his own. It was exactly what Fleming had hoped for and he pushed the stick even further into Smith's cage as he wobbled to an uncertain 15 from 33 balls before being bowled.

But Fleming wasn't done yet, despite the euphoria of the series win. After the match, Smith said that he couldn't comment on Fleming's extraordinary behaviour: "Ask Stephen," a pale Smith said. "I have my views but if I tell you them I get a fine and a ban."

Fleming played down the stand-off with a sweet, insincere smile: "Just an exchange of captaincy views between Graeme and myself," he said with the face of an angel. The following day, however, he showed just how clever he has become at playing the mindgames ... and just how much Smith has still to learn.

"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."

In so doing Fleming was admitting to a gratuitous, premeditated verbal attack in full view of the world, which proved he can play the pedantic ICC Code of Conduct administrators in London just as sweetly as his on-field opposition. Sportsmen do beat the politicians, sometimes, even at their own game.

Tactically and psychologically, Stephen Fleming is the best captain in the world, and is rapidly becoming one of the best of all time. "I think Stephen is trying to put me under pressure," smiled Smith once the final match was complete.

"I like the guy but I remember Steve Waugh doing it to me and I enjoyed the experience because I learned a lot," Fleming smiled, genuinely. There is much to look forward to in the forthcoming three-Test series, but nothing nearly as juicy as the ongoing clash of the captains.

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