An innovative captain

In his methods as captain, Stephen Fleming reminds one of Mark Taylor, arguably the finest Australian skipper after Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell, writes S. DINAKAR.

THE Wanderers, the `Bull Ring,' might have, all of a sudden, appeared a giant canvas with splashes of spectacular colours, thanks to those bright, big, bold strokes.

But then, cricket and cricketers are an amalgam of the animal and the artist. How else would you explain the sight of a mild mannered Kiwi exploding with shots of both savagery and beauty?

It was an astonishing onslaught, not a desperate one. The captain was making a statement with sizzling drives and vicious pulls and the world watched in admiration.

The stage was huge — the World Cup — his team was in a hole, and the situation was certainly death or glory. That evening, even as the skies opened up, Fleming embraced glory, and New Zealand lived to fight another day.

Stephen Fleming's brilliant unbeaten 134, that simply brushed aside the South Africans in the critical league duel, after the host had rattled up a mammoth 306, was arguably the finest innings of World Cup 2003 for its sheer courage and quality of strokes.

The quaint P. Saravanamuthu Stadium in the heart of Colombo is very different from the `Bull Ring.' Here, the ambience is relaxed, the bounce in the surface is slower and lower, and the Lankan spinners often wait for the kill.

If it was a race against time at the Wanderers, the first Test between Sri Lanka and New Zealand in the emerald island recently, demanded application from the batsmen. It was a very different kind of challenge.

This was a battle of attrition against the craft and guile of that great spin predator Muttiah Muralitharan, requiring loads of concentration. Fleming camped at the crease for 11 hours, virtually smelling the ball and pitch on his way to an unselfish 274 not out. An epic innings from a man growing in stature.

And just the other day, at picturesque Dambulla, the captain showed the way again, his attractive 65 at the top of the Kiwi innings snuffing out the Pakistani challenge in the final of a low-scoring Bank Alfalah Cup.

However, all of Fleming's left-handed batting skills would pale before his leadership qualities. He's sharp, quick-thinking, has the respect of his men, extracts the best out of them.

Fleming took over from Lee Germon in 1996-97 when New Zealand cricket was in the midst of a crisis. Since then he's been at the helm and has managed to turn things around. Over the last two years, the Kiwis have drawn — a significant achievement — the three-Test series in Australia, triumphed in a dramatic Test series in the West Indies, and held their own against the Lankans.

If the pitches down under had an element of bounce and seam movement, the surfaces in the Caribbean were double-paced. The wickets in Sri Lanka were, of course, slow turners. In other words, the Kiwis had dealt well with different conditions.

The New Zealanders have proved hard to beat in the ODIs too, jelling as an effective, cohesive unit, with emphasis on collective effort. In the case of these Kiwis, the sum is often more than the parts.

What Fleming has provided New Zealand is stability at the top. When a team is limited in talent and large in heart, it requires a strong captain. Fleming fits the bill to perfection.

On the field, he doesn't wait for events to unfold, but makes things happen. If left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori is introduced in the early overs against Australia, it is only because this would change the dynamics of the contest at that stage, if a short mid-wicket is in place, with the large area behind vacant, it would only suggest he is attempting to buy his wickets.

Planning and execution — this includes thorough preparation and clear job definition — are the inherent strengths of Kiwi cricket. The New Zealanders invariably have a Plan B in place, in case Plan `A' fails. This is absolutely essential in top-flight cricket where well-rehearsed strategies can go hopelessly wrong when the battle hots up.

Fleming's reading of the ebb and the flow of a game can seldom be faulted. He is cool during crunch times — an extremely important aspect of captaincy.

The Kiwis' field placements are often impeccable, with a fair degree of innovation in place. In fact, New Zealand's field settings are studied with much interest by the other teams. Here, Fleming works in tandem with the bowlers, balancing the requirements of the team, the demands of the occasion, and the needs of the men turning their arm.

By instinct, Fleming is an aggressive captain. The surfacing of the fiery Shane Bond has increased his attacking options even if the knee injury to star all-rounder Chris Cairns has deprived him of an experienced seamer. Daryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram have blossomed under Fleming, who has instilled in them loads of self-belief.

Fleming is adept at mind games too, and he did employ psychological warfare against the Indians. In the Test and ODI series that preceded the World Cup, the Kiwis were under pressure to deliver following a dispute over payments with the Board.

He taunted and provoked the Indian batsmen — they faced a severe test of temperament and skill against a disciplined set of Kiwi pacemen on wickets with juice — with carefully chosen words, aimed at denting their ego.

Given the chinks in the batting line-up, and a relative lack of reserve strength in bowling, Fleming deserves much credit for marshalling his rather limited resources so well from his favourite spot, first slip.

In the Bank Alfalah Cup, New Zealand suffered a major reverse with spearhead Bond, afflicted by a sore back, flying home after the first game. Then Fleming's management of overs — where he judiciously used support bowlers Scott Styris and Chris Harris — reflected his keen cricketing brain.

This was a tournament which New Zealand's premier batsman in the ODIs, Nathan Astle, recuperating from a knee-surgery, was forced to miss, putting even more responsibility on Fleming's shoulders as a senior batsman in the top-order.

He responded well too when it mattered; essentially an on-side player with a penchant for the flick and the pull, the Kiwi captain has been driving fluently through the covers in recent times.

In his methods as captain, he reminds one of Mark Taylor, arguably the finest Australian skipper after Richie Benaud and Ian Chappell. Shuffling his bowlers around, selecting moments, either to unleash his spearheads or bringing on the second line of attack, all this came naturally to Taylor. Fleming is cast in a similar mould.

Big Cat Clive Lloyd had an outstanding record as skipper. However, an explosive bunch of fast bowlers made his job relatively easy. In fact, Lloyd's greater achievement lay in bringing together a group of cricketers from the various islands, separate nations in themselves, and blending them into a winning bunch. A fine leader of men he certainly was.

Allan Border and Steve Waugh are similar Australian captains, men of great courage and character, thriving under adversity, and leading by example. If Waugh has a better record, it is due to a battery of match-winning bowlers at his disposal.

For his sheer inventiveness in putting together the pace-spin combination of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and turning it into a destructive force, Taylor stands apart.

Fleming has quite some way to travel before he can match Taylor's deeds as an exceptional captain, but he too has a mind that ticks constantly.

Come September and Fleming will face off with Sourav Ganguly, another strong-willed captain. The conditions will be different, the pitches will be different, and the Indian skipper, who doesn't forget easily, will be seeking revenge.

Words will fly thick and fast, and there will be that unmistakable needle in the duels. Fleming vs Ganguly in the heat and dust of the sub-continent... sparks are bound to fly.