Couch Talk

'I always wanted to bowl the last over of an ODI'

Former Australia fast bowler Damien Fleming on bowling in thrilling World Cup semi-finals, mastering the subcontinent, and taking on Tendulkar

Subash Jayaraman: In your time, two bowlers who performed well in the subcontinent were you and [Michael] Kasprowicz. How did you manage to do that?
Damien Fleming: It was a bit of a shock to the system. We had a youth tour to the West Indies. The pitches there were quite dry as compared to what you expect in Australia. I went on an ODI tour to South Africa in 1994, and then to Sharjah after that. I remember playing India in Sharjah. It was flat and slow and the Indian batsmen smashed us everywhere. That was the first time I thought, "Jeez, the ball is not swinging, there is no bounce." You have to come up with a different variety of tricks to go out there and survive.
The SCG in the late '80s and early '90s, where New South Wales used to play three spinners sometimes, and probably Adelaide, gave you a little bit of grounding on pitches that were dry. You change your pace there. I had a pretty good offcutter as a youngster as well, and you use your bouncer and yorker sparingly. This was before I knew how to reverse-swing. Those Australian conditions gave you a little bit of grounding. But I remember that Sharjah tour gave us something to think about, about my game, because I wanted to survive in subcontinent conditions.
SJ: It was you figuring out your own game rather than anyone else giving you inputs?
DF: Yes, there was not much of coaching back then. Also, a lot of players liked to have control of their game, when you work out and map out goals set, the type of player that you want to be. My main role was to swing the new ball into the breeze. But you don't want to bowl with just the new ball, do you? You have got to take wickets through the innings.
Variety was important to me. I used to idolise Dennis Lillee, who was a very skilled fast bowler. I tried to at least learn a new skill each year. It doesn't mean you are going to bowl a different one every ball. You have to build the pressure. When I bowl the inswinger or the slower legcutter, I have to be on the money. When I bowl the bouncer or yorker, those varieties for a fast-medium bowler can be a real strength, if you can bowl those effort balls. Often a batsman will be keen to take you on, and if you bowl a good enough bouncer, you are well and truly in the game.
SJ: You don't see out and out swing bowlers nowadays. Most bowlers are more keen on bowling back of a length and letting the pitch do whatever it does. Why do you think that is so?
DF: In my later career for Australia, John Buchanan took over the coaching. They worked out that consecutive maidens, with a high dot-ball percentage, led to wickets. If you were a swing bowler, what were the best ways of getting wickets? It was by bowling a fifth- or sixth-stump line outside off stump with a strong off-side field and waiting for the batsman to come after you, and eventually you might get a nick. You have protection in the field.
That didn't excite me a lot. I liked to bowl stump to stump, outswingers. If the batsman missed, I wanted to get them bowled or lbw. I was looking to get the nicks - not the wide nicks. I was totally comfortable with that kind of game plan. But Glenn McGrath was very good in those conditions. Jason Gillespie was very good in that sixth-stump line. They were quicker than me and had extra bounce. When the batsmen were trying to hit off the back foot, it hit high on the bat, whereas for me it was hitting the middle of the bat.
That influenced an era, particularly in Australia. I am very impressed by our younger fast bowlers. Particularly someone like Josh Hazlewood, who is labelled the new McGrath. He bowls fuller and swings the ball more than Glenn. Mitchell Starc, James Pattinson and Pat Cummins move the ball too. I wouldn't say that they are out and out swing bowlers, but their stock balls in the right conditions do move.
SJ: You had a side-on action. It could be said that it led to some of your injuries too. What is your take on bowling actions, and have they changed more to front-on now?
DF: Most people have semi-open stances, in between side-on and front-on. Not many of those are traditional side-on anymore. Your hips are shoulders must be aligned. Your body parts are going towards the target. From the safety point of view, that is probably the way to go about it. From an efficiency point of view, if you get all your body parts going at a target, off stump or just at, the ball is headed in that direction. You may get into trouble with your leg, but you have to have a coaching mechanism to be able to coach yourself on the field. If you are bowling a bit short - for someone like myself, I tried to look at the off bail and bring my length up a little bit. If I am bowling full, I would look at the base of the stumps. I would try a coaching method if my length was not proper. Generally I was pretty accurate with my line.
Regarding the side-on, I idolised Dennis Lillee, and he was very side-on. I used to try and bowl like him. The first time I met him, he saw my bowling action at a Cricket Victoria coaching thing. It was pretty disappointing. I was visualising Dennis Lillee, but I am Damien Fleming.
"Once the Western Australia media found out that I got wickets, I was Western Australian fast bowler Damien Fleming. And if I didn't get wickets, I was Victorian medium-pacer Damien Fleming"
SJ: After Adam Gilchrist came along, every team wanted a wicketkeeper who could bat. Did it affect the effectiveness of a swing bowler, if any at all?
DF: You have to have a good understanding with your wicketkeeper. I thought Ian Healy was a hugely influential leader in the Australian side. He was a school teacher and he likes that bit of a chat - take a little bit of control. I thought he epitomised everything about Australian cricket in that era. If he felt you were down a bit, he would ask what is going on, and if he thought you were flying a bit high, he would give you a clip. Sometimes when I wasn't following through enough, only a couple of steps, it would mean my pace was a little bit down or I was bowling around myself for a little bit. I didn't want to get my hips to angle to fine leg, because then you are going to bring it straight from the arm and you lose a bit of pace and bounce. I wanted to be as hard as possible, get that back leg with real power towards my target and I was bowling at the peak of my pace, which is important if you are fast-medium. With Healy and also Gilchrist, if I was only following through a couple of steps, I just wanted them to say, "Get down at me, Flem!" That was the cue. I made sure I would push that back leg with a strong front arm.
SJ: How did you develop and perfect the offcutter?
DF: I always had that slow, loopy slower ball, which was basically a curveball without a drop on it. I have played a lot of indoor cricket and it was something I developed there. For the offcutter, I had more wrist and fingers behind the ball so the release is quick. I also had that back-of-the-hand slower ball, probably around 1993-94.
But I had a shoulder reconstruction in 1995 and I found that I couldn't bowl the back-of-the-hand ball so easily. I wanted to have two slower balls - the offie that spun away from the left-handers and one that moved away from the right-handers. I worked on a legcutter. Unfortunately I couldn't bowl that at Dennis Lillee's pace; but it was okay. I just used to move the ball a little away from the right-hander. It gave me more options in Indian conditions.
In Pakistan I felt the pitches were really flat and the ball didn't grip as much. Basically, when Shane Warne's balls started to move, that was the key that my cutters can be an option. In my last Test, I ended up bowling all cutters in the second innings. It was something we had come up with before the game.
SJ: Were you more comfortable bowling in subcontinent conditions that were more challenging? You took four-fors in Perth, Adelaide…
DF: If you are a swing bowler, you would love every second game to be at the WACA. I was actually born in Western Australia but grew up in Victoria. Once the Western Australia media found out that I got wickets, I was Western Australian fast bowler Damien Fleming. And if I didn't get wickets, I was Victorian medium-pacer Damien Fleming.
But bizarrely, Adelaide was my favourite pitch. If you went to fast bowlers, they would probably say that Adelaide is their least favourite venue. I just found that you always had one good innings in Adelaide. I got a couple of five-fors at Adelaide. If it swung well in the first innings, it was hard work in the second innings. If it was hard work in the first innings, normally it will break up and reverse swing and cutters are on in the second innings. My best first-class figures were seven-for in the second innings in Adelaide. Being able to bowl well in Adelaide on days four and five definitely helped me in the subcontinent.
I battled and came over in 1996 and 1998 [to India] and bowling to Sachin Tendulkar was always a challenge. You either survive and learn a game plan or you get dropped and never play again. The coaching manuals in Australia said that you bowl on the off stump on a full length and they will play in the V, they might hit it to mid-off or get an edge. But Azhar and Laxy [Laxman] - they hit you through midwicket. Then you go wider outside off stump and they hit you through square leg. And then you go wider and they open up the face and hit you through point. How do you get Azharuddin and Laxman to play you with a vertical bat? There are challenges there.
Tendulkar made me a better bowler and player because I bowled against him so much. I bounced him out in a final in 1998 in Delhi. It was a good ball. I brought him forward, I decided to bowl it on the first ball of the over, thought it would be a nice surprise - a good bouncer, and Gilly took an unbelievable catch. He scored 60-odd in Sharjah, bounced him out again - it was probably a bit too high, but I got it. Suddenly I got him bouncing. But what did Tendulkar do? Instead of coming forward, he went back and he was hitting them miles back over the square-leg fence. I was confident in getting the best batsman in the world out, but guess what - he is going to keep developing his game plan and put the pressure back on you. I felt I learnt to survive against Tendulkar and [Brian] Lara. I only played ODIs against Brian - and bouncers weren't an option. [Ricky] Ponting in domestic cricket too. As I said, either you thrive or survive.
SJ: What did you as a bowling unit see in those two Tendulkar innings in Sharjah in 1998? And the Test series prior to that?
DF: Sachin failed in a game in Cochin and we joked that even the little master can have a bad day, but then he went on to get five wickets and win the Man-of-the- Match award. This guy is superhuman. It was a weird series - the ODI series in Sharjah. We must have faced each other seven or eight times because we had a measure of every Indian batsman by then. They had some great ones - Sourav Ganguly, Navjot Sidhu, Ajay Jadeja was a handy ODI player, and Azhar. We had them under control, but Sachin scored these 130s and 140s, it was unbelievable. We were trying to focus on getting everyone else out and hoping that Sachin would fall at some stage, which he actually never did. There was one game where I felt we were on top of Sachin, and then we had a sandstorm and he came out and decided "I have to start taking this away", and he did!
I got him out eventually. I do remember the final, because I share a birthday with Sachin. I said "Happy Birthday", and whatever that stadium holds - 25,000 - a massive cheer. And then right in the end, he has got a century, we are going to lose the game, they put up "Happy birthday Fleming!" Nothing like 25,000 boos on your birthday, and losing a ODI final, to make you feel at home. I don't know if Sachin has spoken about that period, but I thought he was at his peak. And he had a long peak.
"At the end, Tendulkar has got a century, we are going to lose the game, they put up "Happy birthday Fleming!" Nothing like 25,000 boos on your birthday, and losing a ODI final, to make you feel at home "
SJ: You bowled the final overs in the 1996 and 1999 World Cup semi-finals. In which of the two were you more nervous?
DF: That is a funny one. I have bowled at the death for Australia probably from my third ODI, Allan Border's last ODI game, against South Africa. He threw the ball to me. I actually didn't bowl that well. I bowled better the over before, where I went for ten, so I thought I was a bit lucky. Six to win and then they got four. Since then, I have bowled the last over.
There are not many specific roles in cricket, but generally you keep your best bowler in ODI cricket to close it out. Even though we had McGrath and [Craig] McDermott and Warne, I was lucky enough to have it. And I wanted it; I wanted to bowl the last over, because I didn't want to have the pain of having no control over the result and be sitting there in the field. If I failed, at least I could look in the mirror and say, "It was my fault", or "They were too good for me." I couldn't imagine how nervous I would be watching the last over and hoping we would win.
I think adrenaline is such a big thing. I think the 1996 semi-final result was a lot underrated. Richie Richardson hit my first ball for a four like lightning. Curtly [Ambrose] calls him through when I bowl a yorker. Richie misses it. Curtly calls him through to get Richie off strike [and he runs himself out].
I think you could ask a lot of people in the history of the game, I don't think there is a much bigger daunting prospect than running in in the last over of a World Cup semi-final to an in-form Courtney Walsh who was in his best form, averaging 0.2 at that stage of his career. We all thought that Walsh would block. I thought that there was no doubt that if Richie was on strike they would have won. I would not have been able to contain him. Walsh tried to hit me out of the ground. It was the fastest ball I had tried to bowl in my life. That adrenaline and euphoria, that is something that you never forget. We felt like we just got out of jail. McGrath was superb. Healy was superb behind.
You probably think that it would take 30-40 years to get to something like that again. But again, three years later, it is the same scenario.
I used to be comfortable if there were more than eight runs needed off the last over. I felt confident that I could close it out. I can bowl two to three dot balls and we are in the game. But bowling to Lance Klusener in English conditions was a totally different scenario. The white Duke ball didn't reverse for us. It retained its hardness, so it was easier to hit. I remember Lance struggled with the slower ball of mine, but at Headingley in the game before, I bowled that and I know he mis-hit it and it still went for a six, and you know how short Headingley is.
In this last over, I am going with the percentages. I can't bowl the slower ball here. So, no reverse swing, hard ball, small ground, flat pitch and probably the best hitter in the world at that time. We came up with a plan the night before, to come round the wicket, to bowl yorkers about 30 cm outside off stump. We didn't get a chance to practise it because we only reached Edgbaston the night before. I preferred to come over the wicket and attack the stumps. You miss, I hit sort of theory.
The first ball wasn't a bad ball, and he hit it at 500mph to the cover fence. At that point he broke the record for the hardest hit cricket ball in the history of the game. Five to win in five balls. I bowl a similar ball and this one is a half-volley - the line is good, the length is not good. He hits this one at 1000mph, breaking his own record. It is a tie. The crowd is going up. You can sense when your team-mates' energy is gone. Lance and Allan Donald were high-fiving. Four balls, one run. It is all over then.
It is funny, and I've said this at a lot of speaking gigs - the first thought that went into my head was that I had to bowl him out to win the game. I have to come over the wicket. I told Steve Waugh that. This is a great example of Steve Waugh's leadership. He wasn't a dictator-type, and he backed his players who backed themselves. That would have been an easy call if he was a dictator captain: "The team rule is round the wicket, yorkers." When I said that I wanted to come over the wicket, he said, "Do what you've got to do." I was coming over the wicket for the third ball. I was visualising a yorker and I bowled a half-tracker. Lance wasn't thinking that he would get one. He hits to Boof [Darren Lehmann], and there is a chance for a run-out, but Boof misses.
There was some confusion, I am not sure if Donald and Lance communicated. There was a run-out the next ball. I bowled a good yorker, a wide yorker, the ball goes to Mark Waugh. He has a go, and then I proceed to underarm the ball to Adam Gilchrist, and that is going at a centimetre an hour, that slow, and it eventually got down there.
SJ: The normal tendency would be to pick the ball up and try to throw it as fast as possible to the wicketkeeper. You had the presence of mind to roll it to him.
DF: The smartest decision! Nothing prepares you or trains you for that moment. The late great Richie Benaud said, "That was one of the most astute things I have ever seen on the field!"
Why did I do it? It was the percentage play. The boys like to joke, and we probably had the Nerds and the Julios - Julios were the good-looking dudes like Brett Lee and Warney and the Nerds were Steve Waugh, Ponting and Merv Hughes and myself, we played tenpin bowling two nights before as a social event. I wonder if that kicked in at the last minute.
For me, coming to Lord's to play Pakistan, I don't think it would have mattered who we played. It was the confidence of training. The final was just the celebration. I was the worst of the bowlers by a mile, but the catching was unbelievable. It was an awesome day. Certainly, looking back, for anyone who is looking to bowl at the death, I would encourage him to bowl his natural stuff. If you are the best bowler for your state, for your country, you've got to want to do it and you have to practise those skills.
SJ: You didn't get to play as much as you liked for Australia. How is it looking back on your career? And how has life been since?
DF: For me, on my first day of cricket, I saw Dennis Lillee break Lance Gibbs' record at the MCG. If he said to me there, "We will give you one Test match, but that is all that you can have", I would have taken that just to get that baggy green on my head. To play in such a successful era, where we had a very high percentage of winning, plenty of mates, plenty of success, plenty of celebrations…
It is a great thing now, moving on, getting to the media. I went straight into coaching first. I get to work with my team-mates all the time, and I love it. Now I have got the opportunity with Channel Ten for the Big Bash League - with Ponting, Gilchrist and Mark Waugh. How awesome is that? Also, Sir Vivian Richards, Freddie Flintoff, KP [Kevin Pietersen]. 3AW Radio with Glenn McGrath - he still gets to speak "with the breeze", like it was in the field when he wouldn't let me get to bowl with the breeze. On Fox Sports with Brendan Julian, Allan Border and Greg Blewett.
I got picked for Victoria when I left school at 18. To be 45 and still working in the industry I love - I could not be happier.