A Captain’s Century

Stephen Fleming, New Zealand’s most successful captain, this week earnt his 100th Test cap in the first Test against South Africa at Centurion. In 12 years of international cricket, nine of them as captain of the national team, Fleming has had plenty of ups and downs, great moments in New Zealand cricket history and forgettable moments, and has had to become used to the fickle and sharply fluctuating opinions of the side of the New Zealand public and particularly media.

To bring up the milestone in South Africa provides a welcome change to Fleming, whose memories of the country could not be described as entirely pleasant. His first tour of South Africa in 1994 was the infamous tour during which he, Matt Hart and Dion Nash were suspended for cannabis use. The next tour in 2000 was an absolute disaster, with a whole team’s worth of players coming home with injury. Disappointments in the Super Six finish in the 2003 World Cup and the comprehensive ODI series defeat late last year, despite the closeness of many of the matches, also contribute to the general lack of fondness of memories for Fleming’s trips to South Africa. And just before he started to think his luck in the Rainbow Nation was turning, he was out to a dubious decision for a 5-ball duck in the first innings.

Born in Christchurch on the 1st of April 1973, Fleming was identified as a talent early in his career. He made his debut for Canterbury in the 1991-92 season, coming into the mighty and dominant Canterbury side of the 90s and immediately having an impact and being involved in the team’s many successes in the first-class competition. It was just three years before the first Test cap was handed to Fleming, and he celebrated with a glorious 92 in the second innings of his debut.

He impressed most of those who saw him with his elegance and strokeplay, and when he returned after the suspension of 1994 a more mature cricketer he looked very much at home at the international level. But he needed every bit of that maturity when the captaincy was thrust upon him at the age of just 23, replacing dumped Canterbury team-mate Lee Germon.

Despite a lack of success initially, the selectors showed considerably more patience with their young captain than many others in New Zealand, and eventually their patience paid off. Fleming over the years improved with experience and emerged as one of the finest tacticians in world cricket. It wasn’t until the historic first Test series win in England though that people around the world and the more skeptical at home began to take notice. From there his stature only grew in the eyes of international experts, culminating in the 0-0 series draw in Australia in 2001. In that series Fleming developed a series of plans for the Australian batsmen, and with the exception of the massively in-form Matthew Hayden the plans worked brilliantly and attracted worldwide recognition.

He has always had his share of critics, whether it be his conversion rate or a prolonged sequence of poor results (due mostly to the New Zealand team’s ridiculous amount of injuries in the last decade), but has overall silenced the majority. The conversion rate issue was the first thing many thought of whenever Fleming’s name was mentioned in the late 90s, but he marked the turn of the century with a turnaround. At one stage the holder of the world record for worst conversion rate with two centuries and over 30 fifties, Fleming started the reversal in New Zealand’s historic innings at Perth against Australia. One of four New Zealanders to reach triple figures that day, Fleming hasn’t looked back since, lifting his century total to eight, including two double centuries. The turnaround in form is in part due to his hugely successful stint with Middlesex in 2001, during which he was able to play without the captaincy and focus only on developing his batting.

Over the years Fleming has had to learn to handle the at times scathing criticism he has faced for his or his team’s fortunes, and he has become emotionally strong. But something that obviously was his hardest test and was easily his worst moment as captain was the bomb outside the hotel in Karachi in 2002. Fleming at first thought he had lost many of his team members, and the stress the whole ordeal put him through was evident in his emotional press conference on his return to New Zealand. It looked like cricket was the furthest thing from his mind at that stage, and it would have been understandable if he had not come back at all. But like many times before, he bounced back stronger than before and continued to attract worldwide accolades for his captaincy with at times scarce bowling resources.

Not only did his captaincy continue to prosper after the life-changing experience in Pakistan in 2002, he continued to become more and more prolific with the bat. It started with 274* against Sri Lanka in Colombo in 2003, the second-highest Test score by a New Zealander in Tests and an innings of amazing patience and stamina, as well as the remarkable way in which he handled the always threatening spin of Muttiah Muralitharan. The following year he added another double century, 202 against Bangladesh, and during that innings passed Martin Crowe’s New Zealand record for total runs scored in tests.

But last year he had yet another stressful and frightening experience to deal with. A tumour was found in his jaw, although fortunately it was later found to be benign. Again, it would not have been surprising if he had chosen not to return to cricket. But he did, and his captaincy has once again not suffered. Apart from this medical scare, Fleming has been remarkably fit over the years with very few injuries, apart from a persistent groin problem in the late 90s, and the 100th Test cap is a fitting tribute to that.

Fleming has been a loyal servant to New Zealand cricket, one of its finest batsmen as well as its most successful captain. It is fitting that he is the first New Zealander to reach 100 Tests, with his remarkable length of time spent at the top level and as captain, as well as his fitness getting the recognition it deserves. Without his captaincy he would still be remembered as a wonderfully talented and elegant top-order batsman, but with it he will be remembered as one of the finest leaders in not only New Zealand cricket history, but in all New Zealand sport. And, at the age of 33, New Zealand supporters are hoping for a few more tests from their captain yet.

ODI Statistics

Played – 253
Runs – 7,184
Highest Score – 134*
Average – 32.07
100s – 6
50s – 43

Test Statistics

Played – 100
Runs – 6,194
Highest Score – 274*
Average – 39.20
100s – 8
50s – 41

Captaincy Statistics

Tests: 75
Wins: 27
Losses: 24
Draws: 24

ODIs: 191
Wins: 84
Losses: 94
Ties: 1
No Result: 12

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