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March 25, 2008
Had Stephen Fleming's final Test innings been scripted for a film about his life, it would have been deemed too boringly realistic to make the final cut. He entered with the stage set for heroism and sparkled briefly as New Zealand began their long and unlikely trek towards salvation. By tea he had achieved his first aim, the 54 runs required to nudge his career average past 40, but within minutes of the resumption, he was gone - not to a sublime piece of skill from the bowler, Monty Panesar, but to yet another wafty, half-conceived flash outside off stump.
That's been the story of his career for 14 eventful, eye-pleasing, but ultimately under-fulfilling years. "It was short and wide, and I was trying to run it down to point," said Fleming, as he reflected on the delivery that ended his 189-innings, 111-Test career. "But it was the quicker one, and it seemed to skid through, out of the rough, and hit the bottom edge of the bat. Once again, it wasn't flamboyant, it was just another mistake that I'd have liked to get away with. But not this time."
And so he trooped off the field, applauded all the way to the boundary's edge by the England team who had broken off their celebrations to join his ovation. At Michael Vaughan's instigation, the players had also got together a guard of honour to welcome him to the crease, a tribute that Fleming described as "humbling", even if - as a fellow tactician - he recognised the underlying ploy in Vaughan's actions.
"I took three or four, maybe half-a-dozen, balls to get into my innings, which was probably very smart from Michael," said Fleming. "I regard him as a very good captain and a nice guy, and the same goes for the English side, so it was humbling. I tried to think about everything that would go on, but it's hard to keep a lid on the emotions when you walk through a thing like that."
Ever the professional, Fleming kept his feelings in check for 103 deliveries, right up until the moment a puff of the cheeks and a guilty glance at the umpire betrayed the error that sent him on his way. "I walked off frustrated, which has happened about 50 or 60 times in my career," he said. "I did have a wry smile at myself, thinking that was a fitting way to go. If I'd scored a hundred it would have been an anomaly. Instead it was another fifty, and there we go."
Fleming's pregnant wife, Kelly, was among those who stood to applaud him, as Fleming at first appeared lost in his own thoughts, then belatedly lifted his head, removed his helmet and saluted all corners of the ground. "I had a lot of things to cram into 55 metres, and it seemed to happen pretty fast," he said. "Those first 30 paces, I was just annoyed to be walking off with another start to my name. Then it was about savouring who was here, and what it was about, and enjoying the ovation. It was all just mixed emotions, which is what I'll have for the next two or three weeks, maybe longer."
Fleming's international retirement has been a long drawn-out process, which began when he stepped down from one-day cricket in Jamaica last April, following New Zealand's defeat in the World Cup semi-final. It continued through to Auckland earlier on this tour, when he announced that the current Test series against England would be his last, and finally culminated in today's anticlimactic departure.
It's a fairly open secret that this is not how he would have envisaged his final days in the game - he had designs on a final tour of England before handing the Test captaincy over to Daniel Vettori, but events overtook him and now, at the age of 35, he's walking away for good. "The selectors seem to have their ideas of what they want," he said darkly, when asked who he believed could fill his shoes as a No. 3 batsman. "My ideas are a lot different to the selectors.
|If I'd scored a hundred it would have been an anomaly. Instead it was another fifty, and there we go|
"I loved the captaincy and everything that went along with it," he said. "The pressure, the emotions, the ability to control a game and a group of men. That's something I do miss and have missed, so if the opportunity with other sides, I'll look forward to it." His next stop is the Indian Premier League, while Nottinghamshire and Wellington also beckon. His tactical nous, not his runs, are what he will be remembered for, and in that regard, he might not be quite finished yet.
Regardless of the unspoken grievances, Fleming was asked if he would leave the game satisfied with his contribution. "Only just," was his disarmingly honest answer. "I am satisfied with 40 on the chest. It sets you apart, in terms of New Zealand batters anyway, but as a batsman I'll always feel I underachieved because I couldn't convert my starts, and I'll never know why. Sometimes I was the master of my own failings, other times it just wasn't meant to be.
"Even if I'd converted a quarter or a half [of my fifties] I'm up into the 20-25 centuries category which, as we know, is pretty good going," he said. "I'll always rue that fact and wonder why, but I guess there are bigger things out there so it won't last too long. When I take time to reflect, I'll be satisfied to have 4 in front of my average, but it would have been nice to chalk up ten hundreds, and have a crack at saving this game."
At 222 for 5 overnight, New Zealand are not completely beaten yet, but Fleming's role in the match is finished, and he's seen too much in his 14-year career to start believing in miracles at this late stage. "We've got some batting to come but we've got our backs against the wall," he said. "But that's the way it goes. In the first innings we were going pretty comfortably ... and look at my career, things go comfortably until the mistake, and then we're in trouble.
"Unfortunately four wickets in a session is trouble," he said. "If we'd lost one or two, we'd be going into a tight final day, but as it is, it's going to take some pretty strong resistance in the morning, and then we'll see how we go in the afternoon. The belief would be stronger if we hadn't lost those wickets but unfortunately the tendency of this side is to lose five or six wickets, not one or two. We'll make England work damn hard, but we only did that in patches today." The same, to his eternal chagrin, will also be said of his batsmanship.
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