A selfless captain

PERSONAL milestones do not matter when you are the captain. The Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming proved this by declaring the innings closed when he was just 26 short of 300.

PERSONAL milestones do not matter when you are the captain. The Kiwi skipper Stephen Fleming proved this by declaring the innings closed when he was just 26 short of 300.

Now, a triple hundred is often a once in a lifetime opportunity for a batsman, especially in Test cricket. Fleming could have so easily made history for New Zealand, but he chose to provide his new ball bowlers a chance to have a crack at the tired Lankan openers in the last session of the second day of the Colombo Test.

I consider Fleming a fine captain, one of the best in contemporary cricket. He puts his thinking cap on, and his alert mind is always open to possibilities. The point is, despite a rather ordinary attack that is often dependent on the conditions, and one which has only two quality bowlers in paceman Shane Bond and left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori, he has inspired the Kiwis to invariably overachieve.

I watched Fleming from close quarters during the World Cup, and was impressed; he does try to innovate. His field placements are not always predictable, and he often has men in unorthodox positions.

To Fleming's credit, they have worked on quite a few occasions. The point is he makes things happen, doesn't wait for events to unfold. That is the mark of a good captain.

Fleming has done much to bring stability to New Zealand cricket. He has been the strong man at the helm; when the dispute broke out this season over increased payment, he stood by his men even as they locked horns with the Board. This is what players want to see from their captain — someone who would guide them during all times.

That stormy phase in Kiwi cricket is over, and the New Zealanders wasted little time in regrouping and giving India a pasting in the Tests and ODIs on the seaming pitches at home. Fleming was very much in command.

The New Zealanders had planned well for that crucial campaign before the World Cup, the seamers and the close-in cordon executed it well, and the Kiwis managed to humble India, a much stronger side on paper.

Fleming is the calm, cool, unruffled kind, and he does pull the strings in a quiet fashion. He is not overly demonstrative on the field like some skippers are, but this does not mean he is trying any less harder.

The Kiwi reads the situation quickly and has a ready answer. I saw evidence of this during the World Cup, where New Zealand, despite forfeiting the match against Kenya, almost made it to the semifinals.

He has been around for quite a while now, and the Kiwis have displayed a gradual improvement. New Zealand defeated West Indies in the Caribbean in the Test series last year, and that was a big achievement to the cricketers from a pleasant country.

The Kiwis had proved a hard nut to crack in Australia as well, and much credit is due to the skipper who has done plenty of work behind the scenes in the area of confidence building.

The New Zealanders have not been successful travellers, but in the last couple of years there has been a marked improvement in this regard with the Kiwis giving a much better account of themselves away from home.

In other words, the Kiwis are adapting better to the conditions, and the skipper has had a role in this too. He has often shown the way himself with the bat.

We saw this at the P. Sara Stadium recently where Fleming, blended caution with aggression and produced some delightful strokes. Muttiah Muralitharan turns the ball big on any surface, however, the confidence and the panache with which the Kiwi captain tackled the ace off-spinner caught my attention.

Fleming adjusted well to the hot, humid conditions, and a slow, sub-continental pitch. And the others rallied around their skipper. The Kiwis work well as a unit.

Fleming is such a lovely timer of the ball. There are occasions when he would appear to be just pushing the ball and it would streak to the fence. Not that he cannot produce more punishing shots.

He has a destructive pull in his repertoire and has this knack of finding the gaps. This is precisely the reason why he is such a big threat as an opener in the ODIs, in the first 15 overs, when he can strike the ball through the circle with ease.

I was there at the Wanderers when Fleming produced one of the best attacking innings I have seen in recent times. At the receiving end was South Africa. The Kiwis were chasing a mammoth score of over 300, but the manner in which Fleming went for the bowling, and knocked the South African pacemen to the far corners of the ground will stay in my mind for a long time.

That was a day when the Kiwi skipper was inspired, and I could so easily see that here was a genuinely talented batsman, who could not only rattle up runs quickly, but gather them with style and grace.

It was a different kind of innings that he came up with in Colombo, but qualitatively his 274 not out was as good. Fleming is peaking as a batsman and I am sure we would witness a lot more fulfilling knocks from him in the days ahead.

In Colombo, Hashan Tillekeratne, the new Lankan captain, made a century too, and here was a match where both captains, led by example. In the Caribbean, Brian Lara is doing the same, and this is a healthy sign for Test cricket.

The noticeable aspect of Fleming's batsmanship is that he is able to control the flow of the game. He can go after the bowling, but when the occasion demands, can shut shop, and dish out good hard, defensive cricket.

The pressure on him is that much more these days with Nathan Astle and Chris Cairns, key men in the Kiwi batting line-up, still struggling with injuries.

The captain is responding to the situation as only a captain can.