Stephen Fleming May 3, 2006

Captain Insatiable

Andrew Miller looks at Stephen Fleming, Cricinfo's top performer of the week

Stephen Fleming: an epic 262 at Cape Town © Getty Images
Two weeks ago, Stephen Fleming took part in his 100th Test match - at Centurion, of all the appropriate venues. It was not, however, an occasion he will recall with any fondness. An awful decision condemned him to a first-innings duck, and he managed just 6 second time around as New Zealand floundered to a desperate 28 for 6, and eventual defeat. On Friday, however, he made the most emphatic of amends, producing a defiant captain's innings of 262, spread over the course of nine-and-a-half hours and 423 balls.

Fleming is a man who has been famously averse to three figures - this was his ninth Test century, but the 50th occasion that he had posted a half-century. But the pride in his performance was tempered by New Zealand's inability to force victory on a featherbed of a pitch. "It's [a] disappointment because we came here to win the series," he told reporters afterwards. "We created some opportunities in this Test and couldn't convert."

Even so, such regrets cannot detract from the magnificence of the 256-run stand that Fleming compiled with his eighth-wicket partner and fellow centurion, James Franklin. When the pair came together on Thursday afternoon, the scoreboard read 279 for 7, and though that didn't seem too shabby at the time, the lack of venom in the wicket meant that three more quick strikes, and South Africa would have had a golden opportunity to settle the series there and then.

When he's in full flow, with his effortless cover-drive easing the ball through the slenderest of gaps, Fleming is among the classiest strikers of a cricket ball in the game. This was his first century against South Africa (his previous highest was 99) which means - remarkably, given their rarity - that he has now scored Test centuries against every opponent save India and Zimbabwe. And what is more, after spending the bulk of his career with an average in the mid-thirties, Fleming has, on the strength of this innings, poked his head above the 40-mark for the first time since his third Test, 12 long years ago.

Not that he is satisfied, of course. "We should have got more," he said of New Zealand's hefty total of 593 for 8 at Newlands. "I needed everything I could get. The follow-on was our only real chance. We had to bowl South Africa twice. When you commit to that you have to get enough cash in the bank."

Friday's third Test at Johannesburg provides one final chance to square the series, before Fleming trades in his black cap for an olive-green one, and returns to Trent Bridge to captain the county champions, Nottinghamshire.

He says
"Unfortunately you are marked by how many hundreds you get, and I haven't been that good at converting them. Every time I go past 50 now there's almost additional pressure to do it, so it's nice to get across the line." And when he crosses the line, he doesn't stop running. Of Fleming's nine Test centuries, five have exceeded 150, including three double-hundreds and a 192.

They say
"You get the feeling that the monkey on Stephen Fleming's back has just grown into a full-sized gorilla." The New Zealand Herald reacts to Fleming's dismissal for 99 against South Africa at Bloemfontein in November 2000. "Depending on how you want to look at it," added the paper, "he has now scored more runs than any other player in the world with the benefit of only two centuries, or his 26-2 conversion rate is the worst in Test history."

What you may not know
Fleming's first cricketing idol was neither a batsman, nor even a New Zealander, but the West Indian fast bowler, Michael Holding, who played for his home state, Canterbury, for one season in 1986, while Fleming, then aged 13, was working as a gopher in the team dressing-room. In his autobiography, "Balance of Power", Fleming recalls being like "a pig in s**t" when Holding, unable to take the field through injury, spent an afternoon in the first-aid room discussing the game with him.

What the future holds
The end of the road is nearer than the beginning for New Zealand's most-capped player. By the end of the 2007 World Cup he will have been an international cricketer for 14 of his 34 years, and that tournament could well prove to be his final curtain. "I want to keep learning and developing skills that will hold me in good stead after I've finished playing cricket," he told The Herald recently, which was one of the reasons why he accepted an offer to captain Nottinghamshire last summer. "Learning to captain and lead a different set of players has been a challenge, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo