Stephen Fleming's 100th Test April 14, 2006

From young dasher to mature leader

Andrew Miller looks back on Stephen Fleming's career as he reaches 100 Tests

Stephen Fleming began as a dasher, but the captaincy brought out a new side to his play © Getty Images
There has been a sense of inevitability about Stephen Fleming's career. From the moment he made his debut at Hamilton as a 20-year-old in March 1994 - where he made 92 with some typically left-handed insouciance - the question has been when, not if, he would rewrite New Zealand's record-books.

And so here we are, 12 years and 100 Tests later, and Fleming as anticipated stands at the pinnacle of his game. The most capped Kiwi cricketer in history, and the first to reach three figures, he is his country's longest-serving captain and by some distance their highest run-scorer as well. At the age of 33, time is on his side if he wishes to extend his hegemony further.

And yet, Fleming's route to the top has been far removed from the fluidity of that debut. When he first came onto the scene, the purity of his cover-drive, and his sheer elegance at the crease, had the pundits purring about the second coming of David Gower - not least because the pair share a birthday, April 1. And yet in his latter years, Fleming has shelved the flamboyance and opted for the attritional route. He has become admired, rather than adored.

In terms of his statistics, Fleming seems an imposter at the game's top table. No specialist batsman has reached 100 Tests with fewer than his eight centuries - which propagates the belief that he is in fact a specialist captain - and for large tracts of his career, that conversion-rate was even less flattering.

After 62 Tests - the same number that Chris Cairns managed - he had reached three figures on just two occasions, which is all the more remarkable when you consider the landmark innings of his career was an epic unbeaten 274 in the baking heat of Colombo. But for his own declaration, he could have become his country's first triple-centurion.

These are enigmatic statistics for a man so poker-faced. But the eternal question will remain, how might he have fared without the pressures of the captaincy? The leadership role was thrust upon him at the tender age of 23, in a period of intense upheaval in New Zealand cricket. He embraced the challenge and grew into the responsibility, and for a four-year period around the turn of the millennium, he was quite conceivably the greatest leader in the game.

Fleming was forced to grow up fast. On the 1994-95 tour of South Africa, he was one of three New Zealanders to be busted for smoking marijuana, which is of trivial importance now except that it hints at a free-spirited soul that has scarcely been glimpsed for the past decade. Two years later he had assumed the captaincy from the limited Lee Germon, and by his own admission found it daunting to graduate from being one of the lads to the man at the helm.

He needn't have worried on that front. After labouring under the dogmatic regime of Glenn Turner, whose popularity with the media was in no way mirrored in the dressing-room, the team thrived under Fleming's firm but unforced approach, particularly the "flair" players such as Cairns and Adam Parore. When Dion Nash had to stand in for the visit of South Africa in 1998, and performed creditably in the role, there was once again a movement for change among the media. "No way," said Nash, "we can't wait for Steve to get back and take over again."

The 2-1 series over England in 1999 was one of Fleming's greatest moments © Getty Images
Cairns aside, the New Zealand team that grew around Fleming lacked the natural talent that had marked out its 1980s predecessors - no Hadlee, no Crowe, not even an Andrew Jones. But all such shortcomings were more than made up in cohesion, and that was never better exemplified than in the two key-note series of Fleming's reign - the 1999 triumph in England, and the 2001-02 draw in Australia, when a modicum of fortune of the final afternoon at Perth might have tipped the scales in New Zealand's favour.

The identity of his opposing captains were as significant as the teams that he outsmarted. Nasser Hussain and Steve Waugh were widely perceived to be the frontline thinkers of their time, but each came a cropper against the square-jawed Kiwi whose surname began increasingly to conjure up James Bond references in the media.

In one-day cricket, Fleming was to prove no less audacious. In October 2000, New Zealand beat India in the final of the ICC Knockout - the forerunner to the Champions Trophy - to secure their first global one-day title, and when Fleming outsmarted the Australians in consecutive VB Series matches in 2001-02, the end of Waugh's one-day captaincy followed soon behind.

Perhaps, however, Fleming's star has dimmed since that four-year zenith. His infamous sledging of the cocksure Graeme Smith paid short-term dividends in a 5-1 one-day drubbing in 2003-04, but two seasons later and considerably wiser, Smith took full revenge with a 4-0 thrashing on home soil.

Fleming's achievement in winning in England in 1999 was also compromised by the magnitude of the thrashing Michael Vaughan's men handed out four years later, while his testy relationship with New Zealand's coach and chief selector, John Bracewell, seems far removed from the clubby one-for-all attitude that he brought to the leadership in his early years. When a spoof interview accidentally made its way into the mainstream last month, few questioned the authenticity of Fleming's furious outburst against his former team-mate, Mark Richardson. Nobody lasts as long at the top as he, without recourse to a volcanic temper and a fine line in put-downs.

But it is hard nonetheless to see beyond Fleming as New Zealand's leader. Attractive, engaging and media-savvy, he is the biggest drawcard in their game. He enters his 100th Test with expectations far different from those that he took into his debut all those years ago, but such are the changes that occur on a journey of such length. The flamboyant young dasher is witnessed only ever in glimpses, but the square-jawed thinker is firmly planted in our mind's eye.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo