Stephen Fleming really has come a long way
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Stephen Fleming's stature as a captain has never been in doubt. It was one reason why he was put in charge in 1997, when he wasn't quite 24, and why he remains at the helm now, the longest-serving international captain around today - and that includes the soon-to-retire Steve Waugh. But it is Fleming's batting star that is in the ascendant now. His latest century, 192 against Pakistan at Hamilton, was a round 100 more than the 92 he scored on his Test debut, also at Hamilton, against India in March 1994. Yet between those two innings there have been long periods where batting talent promised has been talent unfulfilled.
Even in that debut Test it was clear that New Zealand had found a player capable of a long and productive career. He started out at No. 5, with security around him from players like Mark Greatbatch, Ken Rutherford and Shane Thomson. So obvious was his potential that he was accorded the luxury of time to develop - not something that many players in New Zealand sides have enjoyed.
Three years after making his debut, he was captain. Choosing him was a bold move, but one in keeping with the restructuring of the game in New Zealand - after all, a schoolboy by the name of Daniel Vettori, who had just turned 18, was chosen as a spin bowler at the same time. Just as the Kiwi game needed a new administrative face, it also needed a leader capable of rejuvenating a side which had slipped in personal standards and application. It was a little too easy for some players to hold on to international status once they had got there. A change of direction was needed.
Fleming started his career as a Test captain - as stand-in for the injured Lee Germon - by setting England a stiff target. He lost out, as Michael Atherton spearheaded his side to one of their greater runchases. But Fleming had made a statement about how he viewed the job, and it became his alone when Germon was jettisoned shortly afterwards. Fleming started impressively, as New Zealand won both Tests against Sri Lanka a few weeks later. He has already led the side to 19 Test victories, eight more than his closest rival, Geoff Howarth.
Captaincy in New Zealand cricket is not a favoured occupation. The player-resources that most of Fleming's international rivals enjoy are not the same; and having players out with injury is a perpetual companion. Consider how often Fleming has had to lead the side without key players like Vettori, Chris Cairns, Simon Doull, Geoff Allott, Dion Nash, Nathan Astle and Shane Bond, to name some high-powered individuals that no New Zealand side can afford to be without.
That meant Fleming had to deal more often with inexperienced tyros, constantly working with them to produce the sort of response that came easily to more battle-hardened performers. He spent long periods with a below-strength attack. Instead of getting down in the dumps about it, Fleming always maintained a positive air - even if the suspicion was that that wasn't quite what he was feeling inside.
The important thing was that when he did have a full-strength side, he had to extract the maximum from it. And that has largely been reflected in the results along the way: A home series win against India in 1998-99; 2-1 over England in 1999, with first-ever wins for New Zealand at Lord's and The Oval; 2-0 Test and 5-0 one-day series victories over West Indies in 1999-2000; winning the Champions Trophy in Kenya in 2000, New Zealand's first one-day tournament win; managing to hold Australia to three drawn Tests in 2001-02, and also managing to deny Australia a place in their own one-day series finals; and a first-time away Test series win in West Indies.
While all that was happening, Fleming's own batting stalled. It was as if the attention to captaincy in the field left him suffering concentration lapses in the process of his longer innings. He had a poor conversion rate from half-centuries to centuries, and it began to weigh on him.
His first season of county cricket, with Middlesex in 2001, was intended to allow him to work on this area of his game. And at Perth later that year, against Australia, he scored 105 in a masterly display: it was apparent that the therapy was working. Then, earlier this year at the World Cup, his magnificent 134 off 132 balls against South Africa completed the transformation. Here was the batsman fulfilled at last, an impression confirmed during his unbeaten 274 in the heat and humidity of Colombo a month later.
Attention to detail has always been a quality of Fleming's captaincy. He has been prepared to use innovative field placings, and has not been afraid to challenge opposing captains with declarations designed to provoke a response. His skill as a first slip can't be discounted either, and he has now taken 116 Test catches, easily the best by a New Zealander. He has skippered in 54 Tests - at the Boxing Day Test in Wellington he will be one behind Steve Waugh and Arjuna Ranatunga, with only Allan Border (93) and Clive Lloyd (74) ahead of him.
Given good fortune in terms of injuries and personal form, Fleming could be the first captain to lead his country in 100 Tests. By then he could also be the fieldsman with the most Test catches. He should certainly be the first New Zealander to play 100 Tests, and if he does that he will have become the greatest runscorer in NZ's history.
If the batting renaissance Fleming has achieved is the final piece of the personal jigsaw puzzle that is his career, then some even more wonderful days are ahead. They will be enjoyed, one suspects, not only by cricket fans in New Zealand.
Lynn McConnell is New Zealand editor of Wisden Cricinfo.