New Zealand v England, 3rd Test, Napier March 20, 2008

Fleming set for final salvo


Stephen Fleming in a cheerful mood as he practises ahead of his last Test appearance © Getty Images
 
Regrets? He'll have a few. After a 14-year Test career in which he's broken pretty much every New Zealand record going, Stephen Fleming is preparing to bow out of the game. His final press call took place in a rugby locker-room at Napier's McLean Park, a far cry from the grander stages that he has graced since making his debut against India in Hamilton in March 1994.

With one match to go before he calls it quits, Fleming is already New Zealand's most-capped player with 110 appearances and the country's highest run-scorer (7047). His tally of 171 catches is exactly 100 more than the next most reliable pair of hands, Martin Crowe, while his highest score of 274 not out, against Sri Lanka in 2003, is second only to Crowe's 299, against the same opponents a decade earlier. And yet, Fleming is fully aware that his statistics are not what they could, or perhaps should, have been. Which makes him all the more eager to apply a gloss finish at Napier this week.

"I'm trying to be deadpan about my retirement," Fleming said. "The emotions will creep in from the people around me, but I'm trying to be very statistically motivated in the goals that I've set. I'm not always that good at following them, but I've tried to really get into them. One of them was 7000 runs, another was 10 hundreds. It's a focus to get away from the emotions of Test cricket. And the other thing is we're in a hell of a good battle with an England side. Being at 1-1, it's a good series to finish with."

Fleming chalked up his 7000th run in his farewell appearance in Wellington last week, but the tenth century still eludes him. His scores so far this series are 41, 66, 34 and 31 - a microcosm of a career that, in purely numerical terms, promised more than it delivered. He now needs a further 113 runs at Napier to guarantee himself an average of 40 when he retires - and though he seems slavishly focused on that figure, he is realistic enough to realise that, when all is said and done, the numbers won't count for much.

"If I can get it up over 40, it means I've scored another hundred and we've got a score that enables us to put pressure on England," he said. "If I'd averaged 45 the team might have won more games. You can bust a gut and get wound up by statistical goals, but I don't think that they are important. It's not about me averaging 40 as a badge of honour to wear on my chest all my life.

"I guess that's the way I've played my cricket. I'll have a lot of regrets, most of them statistical, because I haven't been able to gear myself up as a player who achieves statistically great things. I've tried but I've loved the thrill of the battle and the competition [too much]. At times it's left me a little short, but it's given me great exhilaration and great reward.

"I'm proud as a cricketer, but I'll put these things in perspective once I leave the game," Fleming said. "I'll reflect on them fondly, but just how much they mean, only time will tell. I've given everything and tried to be as good as I can be, but I'm an achiever rather than a good player or a great player. I've managed to achieve through longevity, and I'd love to finish with a hundred, or rather a substantial score that helps us win the Test match."

It is, and will remain, a travesty that a player as combative and stylish as Fleming should finish with so few hundreds. Might things have been different had he not had the captaincy thrust upon him at the tender age of 23? It was a post he held for the next 10 years and 80 Tests, and Fleming has had plenty time to ponder what might have been.

"I reflected on that when I lost the stripes, and the answer is I don't know," he said. "I may not have been half the player. I may have averaged 29, rather than 39 or 40. It would have been easier at times - there are some challenges that get put in front of you as captain that you just don't see, and you learn to deal with that. But I'm a better person for having captained the side. There are skills you learn, and some of those situations I wouldn't have been put in as a player, and I may not have had the experiences to fall back on that the game has given me."

An England Test is an appropriate series for Fleming to bow out in, for his proudest moment will always remain the 1999 tour of England, in which New Zealand reached the semi-final of the World Cup, before beating England 2-1 in the four-match series, having lost the first Test in Edgbaston. "It was the moment we started to realise we could compete, overseas in particular," Fleming said. "We'd been a spasmodic side, and the expectation of an England tour was probably already exceeded by winning the [second] Test at Lord's.

"We then had a chance at Old Trafford, only to be interrupted by rain, and then we won the series and that gave us belief and set us on a nice period. We crushed the West Indies when we got back home, and we were competitive in everything we did. It was certainly one of most enjoyable periods because the belief for the first time was prevalent in the side."

That belief, despite the odd set-back here and there, is still flowing through the side to this day, in Fleming's opinion. "We're always looked on as a side that's dangerous, but we've been dangerous too many times just to be that," he said. "In World Cups we are always there or thereabouts, and in Tests we can compete with most teams. We'll not always get across the line, but we are genuine contenders. That black beauty, dark horse tag has gone, and that's been a long process, which is by no means finished. It's a gradual development, but even in this series, to be 1-1 having won the ODIs, it's not a great surprise anymore."

And so Fleming faces the final curtain. With regrets yes, but with an eye firmly fixed to the future. "I can believe it's nearly over, which is another good indicator that the time is right," he said. "I'm looking forward to finishing, rather than regretting it. When you first put yourself in that situation, you ask the questions - do I want to keep going and play for two or three more years, in a game I love and from which I earn great money? But sometimes for the wrong reasons it's right. For the other people in my life it's important to move on."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo