After more than a decade at the helm, Stephen Fleming has resigned the captaincy of New Zealand's one-day team in the wake of his team's defeat in the semi-final of the World Cup against Sri Lanka at Sabina Park. Fleming, 34, made the announcement at the post-match press conference, bringing to an end a run of 218 games in charge.
"This was my last game as one-day captain, but I still want to captain the Test side," said Fleming, who has led the side to 98 wins and 106 defeats in his time at the top, including two World Cup semi-finals. He now intends to compete as a batsman only in the shortened form of the game.
"I've only just turned 34 and I think I've still got some good batting years ahead of me," he added. "So I want to concentrate on that for a while, and put a lot of energy into our Test cricket. In some ways your energy levels are sapped when you captain the side, and I want to play with a fresh mind, and finish off my career with some stats that I think I'm worth."
Fleming's career has long been a case of "what if?" He inherited the captaincy from Lee Germon after England's tour of New Zealand in 1996-97, just days before his 24th birthday, and it has long been felt that his Test and one-day averages of 39.64 and 32.40 respectively are less than they might have been had he been allowed to concentrate on his own game all through his peak years as a cricketer. Although he made just 1 against Sri Lanka in his captaincy swansong, he still finishes the competition with an impressive series tally of 353 runs.
Inevitably, he bowed out with regrets. "I obviously dreamed the dream that I'd be lifting the Cup but it wasn't to be," he said. "I'd love to keep doing [the job], but I think it's important that we get some fresh ideas and more enthusiasm. I'm very proud of what I've been able to achieve. Two-hundred-and-eighteen games is a long time, and professionally I think I've done the job well."
Fleming did allude to some agitation among former players back home in New Zealand that it was time for a change at the top, but he added: "It's a personal decision and in no way did I want it to interfere with our preparations. I was very clear on what I wanted to do. It was just a case of hoping to get to the final and win that, and that would have been a great way to go out."
It's probably a bit presumptuous to recommend Daniel Vettori, but he's done a fine job up to this point, and it's just up to the direction that New Zealand cricket want to take
Fleming's own suggestion as his successor was the left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori, 28, who has stood in as captain for 11 matches since November 2004, and made his debut as a teenager in the same year that Fleming took over as leader. "I think if you look at the way we've groomed Vettori for this tournament, he'll certainly come into discussions. But whoever takes over the role, I want to be around to assist for a period of time as well. I've no problem sitting back in that role, but it'll be up to the selectors.
"There's going to be a lot of change in New Zealand cricket," added Fleming, pointing out that the national coach, John Bracewell, is out of contract at the end of the month, and that a change in the selection committee was also anticipated. "It's probably a bit presumptuous to recommend Daniel, but he's done a fine job up to this point, and it's just up to the direction that New Zealand cricket want to take."
As for the timing of his decision, Fleming was adamant that he had made the right decision in the interests of his successor. Splitting the captaincy for Tests and one-day cricket is a move that has its critics, but Fleming was mindful of the chaotic circumstances in which he had succeeded Germon - a decent captain but limited cricketer who became ostracised by his peers at a time when New Zealand's fortunes were at rock-bottom. Fleming had been picked partly because of the promise of youth, but partly because he was one of the few players who would be a guaranteed pick in the coming years.
"I've thought long and hard, and I'm positive that this is the right way to do it," said Fleming. "It gives the guy who takes over the one-day reins a chance to work on that before taking over the Test reins. That's what New Zealand cricket want, rather than putting them in at the deep end. In the past we've lost senior players or captains suddenly, and people have been dropped in it. If it's a gradual process there will be positives."
When asked to reflect on the highs and lows of his ten years in charge, Fleming preferred not to get caught up with the minutiae of wins and losses. For a country like New Zealand, with a population of 4 million and a first-class pool of six provinces and little more than 150 professional cricketers, it has been the taking part that has counted, particularly in five World Cup semi-finals.
"We don't produce world-class players as readily as perhaps Australia, but we do damn well with what we've got," said Fleming. "To register the amount of semi-finals we've had is, I would say, a pretty proud record. We're disappointed we've not gone further, but there are a lot of sides that haven't made the semis."
In terms of results, the highs of Fleming's career included New Zealand's victory in the ICC Knock-Out in October 2000 (the forerunner of the Champions Trophy), and the 3-0 whitewashing of Australia in the recent Chappell-Hadlee Series. "Every win was celebrated and the tournament wins we had were very special," he said, "but it's the subtleties that go along with the captaincy that matter. Being able to fend the media off for ten years, and working players out in games. That's what I've derived the most pleasure from.
Mahela Jayawardene, whose magnificent 115 was the cornerstone of Sri Lanka's victory today, added his own tribute to Fleming after the match. "Stephen's been a great leader for New Zealand for some time, and you could learn a lot from him," he said. "He was a very attacking captain, but it's been a long time [at the top] and he probably feels he needs a break. He's been one of the top captains of the last ten years."