Goodbye to the general
It's a little sad that, going into his last Test for his country, Stephen Fleming should carry the burden of having to score 125-odd runs to raise his batting average into the forties. Then again, perhaps it's not too sad because, really, the only person who will feel better should he take his average from 39.81 to 40 is Fleming himself, and if he needs that fraction of a run per innings to justify his worth and class as a Test player to himself, then good on him.
Personally, I can look beyond it. I view Fleming as the best Test match batsman this country has had since Martin Crowe, regardless of his eventual statistics. If you want some stats to justify his worth, then how about these: most Test runs for New Zealand (7047 before the Napier Test) and the most Test double-hundreds (three). Surely, those would lead you to believe that he must be remembered as one of New Zealand's great batsmen, but ask people in the street what comes to mind when you say "Stephen Fleming" and many would most probably reply with something along the lines of, "An elegant 37, then out caught at cover."
Fleming did undoubtedly underachieve as a batman, and that had to do in large part with his tendency to get dismissed in ugly fashion between 50 and 100. But his contribution to New Zealand cricket was the total package: runs, partnerships, and most recognisably, captaincy.
Most Tests as captain and most Test wins are statistics that really should outweigh his average personal score as an indicator of his worth. After all, cricket is a team game: you bat in pairs and the individual performances add together for a total team performance. It was Fleming who was responsible for doing the adding up.
It's ironic that in his last game he should be thinking of personal achievement, because for most of his career Fleming has thought only of the team. To be perfectly blunt, it was New Zealand Cricket that forced him into a selfish mindset when it prematurely removed him from the Test captaincy. That move was always going to force him into early retirement too. Some people are meant to be CEOs and feel more comfortable and satisfied thinking at the strategic level.
You could argue that Fleming's retirement process was set in motion as far back as 2003, when New Zealand Cricket announced John Bracewell as the national coach. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fleming pretty much ran the team. Steve Rixon had pulled a rabble together and developed Fleming's leadership. In 1999, Rixon left and the two coaches who came in after him were not the dominant figures in the team; Fleming was.
|It's ironic that in his last game he should be thinking of personal achievement, because for most of his career Fleming has thought only of the team. To be perfectly blunt it was New Zealand Cricket that forced him into a selfish mindset when it prematurely removed him from the Test captaincy. That move was always going to force him into early retirement too|
Fleming had his team and it was his to mould as he pleased. Very quickly he took that team to a point where it was being compared with the glorious side of the 1980s. At the same time pundits and commentators did not speak of Fleming the batman but rather of Fleming the captain. While his leadership had longevity, it was during this three-year period in the early 2000s that he became the most influential cricketer New Zealand had seen. In the past, great victories were associated with Sir Richard Hadlee's heroics or Crowe's runs; now Fleming's leadership was gaining the accolades.
However, while it is desirable to have a quality captain leading your team, it is not ideal for that player to have too much control over the direction of the team in general. After all, a captain must still justify his place with runs and wickets. And what if he should sustain an injury? I've no doubt that the appointment of a strong autocrat, Bracewell, as coach was motivated by the desire of New Zealand Cricket to reduce the power of Fleming - and that, I think, is a mark of the influence Fleming had managed to attain.
Let me not solely depict him as some sort of messiah: personal gain was still a major motivator for him. But he also had the ability to see the bigger picture. My first experience of him as my Blackcap captain was of him reprimanding the team and putting us through a gruelling fitness test in 40-degree heat in Singapore. And all because he thought his team performed better when everyone felt just a little uncomfortable.
I'm unsure of what he will do in retirement, but rest assured, what he does do may cause others to feel just a little uneasy, though most will definitely be better for the experience.
Former New Zealand opener Mark Richardson is now a television commentator and cricket columnist