An astute leader

Stephen Fleming was, undoubtedly, New Zealand’s best player as well as its captain for most of the last decade.

Stephen Fleming’s retirement after New Zealand’s three-Test series against England will end one of modern cricket’s most enigmatic careers.

Posterity will remember Fleming as New Zealand’s youngest and most successful Test captain, its most-capped player and most-prolific Test run-scorer. He was also, after 10 years, the most experienced limited-overs captain in world cricket.

Fans will remember his best Test innings, a career-high 274 not out against Sri Lanka, and also his 262 against South Africa, 202 against Bangladesh and 192 against Pakistan.

He will be remembered as an astute, tactically accomplished Test captain of whom legendary Australian spinner Shane Warne said: “I think Stephen Fleming is the best captain in world cricket. He has plans for every single player and every situation.”

But any recollection of Fleming’s career following his retirement announcement will always be mitigated by conditions and provisos.

At the height of his form, he was an elegant, free-scoring batsman but the disparity between his 43 half centuries and nine centuries at Test level will speak of a player who only rarely turned good starts into big innings.

Fleming led New Zealand for 10 years, from the age of 23 in 1994 until his retirement from the captaincy in 2007. He won 28, or 35 percent, of his 80 matches as captain, an outstanding ratio by New Zealand standards, and 98 — or 45 percent — of his 218 limited-overs matches as captain.

He has played 108 Tests (before the series against England), scoring 6,875 runs at an average of 39.73. He retired from one-day internationals last season after 280 matches in which he scored 8,037 runs at 32.40 with eight centuries.

Fleming’s standing in the game may always be larger than those bare figures indicate. His captaincy was more respected because he led New Zealand and often had less talent and fewer resources to command than noted contemporaries such as Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting.

He was, undoubtedly, New Zealand’s best player as well as its captain for most of the last decade. New Zealand tends only to have one or two truly world-class players at a time and Fleming, challenged only by Daniel Vettori and Shane Bond, was its most conspicuous performer in his era.

He may have been at his best at the start of this decade when he guided New Zealand to Test series wins over India, England and the West Indies and in a drawn series against Australia in Australia.

New Zealand, in the same period, beat the West Indies 5-0 in a home one-day series and won the Champions Trophy limited-overs tournament for the first and so far only time. He reshaped his batting technique during a stint with the English county Middlesex, leading to his top Test score against Sri Lanka in 2003.

Fleming also played in England for Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, leading Notts to the county championship in 2005.

He was a fine slip fielder, taking more catches than any other New Zealander and fewer in Tests only than Australian Mark Waugh.

New Zealand Cricket chief executive Justin Vaughan said Fleming was a great captain and player.

“Stephen’s leadership qualities had a tremendous impact on the team and he will be missed,” Vaughan said. “He has made a huge contribution to cricket in New Zealand and I sincerely wish him all the best.”