He makes things happen on the field

Published : Jan 25, 2003 00:00 IST

Stephen Fleming called the shots in the series against India. He is strong and silent, and can sting, writes S. DINAKAR.

The Kiwis executed the plan ruthlessly. The wickets had juice in them for the pacemen, the Indian batsmen were probed relentlessly by a bunch of persistent pacemen, and the cordon held the catches. A simple ploy, but one that worked well.

A famous batting line-up had been breached, and an important series won. It was an ambush and the Indians fell into the trap.

As captain, Stephen Fleming, from the first slip, called the shots. He is strong and silent, and can sting.

Perhaps the most provocative remarks, in recent times, about the Indian batsmen came from the Kiwi skipper in the pre-match press conference ahead of the second Test at Hamilton. He taunted them to prove their world class status by adapting to the demanding conditions in New Zealand.

Tactically, it was a gamble. The Indian batsmen had been brushed aside in the first Test and Fleming's statement, that left the visitors seething with anger, could have well brought out the best in them... or they could be under even more stress.

In the end, the ploy worked for Fleming, with the Indian batsmen once again finding it difficult to cope. Ask Fleming now about those words now and he reveals he was employing psychological warfare. ''I said it for two reasons. One was to put pressure back on the Indian batsmen. I didn't want the wickets, even though they were tough to bat on, to be an excuse. I wanted them to be under extra pressure from the media. That's part of the game we play. I still think, they are quality players, but they had to make the adjustments.''

Fleming is also someone who has won the confidence of Kiwi legend Sir Richard Hadlee, now the chairman of selectors. ''He's an outstanding captain. He's learning all the time. He has more confidence in his players. He can call on a Shane Bond, or a Jacob Oram or a Daryl Tuffey to come in and bowl, and get wickets. He can set attacking fields. He has a plan obviously, but is a lot more instinctive now.''

Indeed, Fleming is making things happen on a cricket field. A skipper who likes to be in control. "Captaincy is mental planning. The game is mental. Every now and then we have the opportunity to create some mental pressure. A lot of it comes from planning and strong character. You try and direct yourself to be in front of the game,'' said the Kiwi skipper to The Sportstar.

He has done just that in the Tests and the limited overs contests, with the Kiwis blanking India in the two Tests, and then clinching the ODI series comprehensively at 5-2, after taking a winning 4-0 lead.

The Kiwis have always been an efficient side, but under Fleming, they seem to possess the cutting edge. The captain has cleverly cashed in on the feeling of togetherness in the side. ''Collective feeling and collective energy,'' he says about the biggest strength of his side. ''Every player should have an opportunity to contribute to the team. The guys are doing that. The team has been together for quite a while now. We have been winning games and we've been winning series.''

Fleming certainly deserves credit for getting the side to jell, making it believe more in itself, even during times when the team has been rocked by injuries. His influence as a leader has been positive, and he does send the right signals, being able to put his message across.

He clearly lays emphasis on planning. ''To win games, we have to be absolutely thorough in what we do. We pay attention to detail. Creating pressure in certain areas will create more frustration and more chances.''

He is frank enough to admit, ''I don't think we have enough players who stand out quality wise than they are.'' However, it is a side that is performing. The Kiwis gave the Aussies a run for their money, having the better of them in a drawn Test series in Australia last season, a significant achievement in itself, and knocking their neighbours out in the triangular one-day series.

And then, they made a significant breakthrough in the Caribbean, winning their first series, in the West Indies. The sum is more than the parts, when it comes to these New Zealanders.

The conditions for batting were tough for both sides in the contests. But Fleming stressed on the fact that the Kiwis were mentally stronger. ''We are very excited to win the Test and the one-day series. Mentally we were a little stronger than India. Technically, India had the better batsmen, but mentally we were better off. We were able to deliver.''

He is again right, Fleming himself being the biggest example. He has struggled with the bat, yet has managed to string together a couple of crucial innings. Like his knock in the second Test in Hamilton Tests, where he played strokes to whittle down a small target when the Indians, on a seaming pitch, had the opportunity to level the series.

In the seventh ODI at the same venue too, the skipper was able to rattle up an unbeaten 60, opening the innings, after the Indians, spearheaded by Javagal Srinath, had managed to make the early inroads. The captain, not really in the best of nick, still showed some fight.

He accepts that the Kiwi top and middle-order was not really seen in the best of lights in the home campaign this season, but Fleming expresses the hope that the batsmen would come good in the World Cup, where the pitches should be better. ''The minimum expectation is getting through to the Super Six. We would then be looking to progress from there.''

The tactics against India in the Test series were ''very subtle,'' according to him. ''We used the bouncer against India. We tested them outside the off-stump.'' Fleming is right, for the Kiwis, at least on responsive pitches, pushed the Indians to the back-foot to set up the dismissals, and achieved them with deliveries of much fuller length, the batsmen not just getting forward to counter the movement.

In the Test series, New Zealand's pace trio of Shane Bond, Daryl Tuffey and Jacob Oram proved to be the three musketeers. Bond though would be a much bigger threat in the World Cup, Fleming observes. ''Shane Bond will be a bigger influence in the World Cup. We have seen him bowl better than what he did against India. He can bowl quick and he can swing the ball. He should be firing in the World Cup.'' On Tuffey and Oram he notes, ''In these conditions Tuffey is tough to play. He hits a good length from the first ball, and moves it. Jacob is a real quality player. He's talented. He is tall can get the ball to bounce and play his strokes with the bat.''

Fleming expects Chris Cairns and Nathan Astle to be fit for the World Cup, although he's not quite sure about how much the former will be able to bowl. He adds that the Kiwis have the `all-round strength'' now with men like Andre Adams and Scott Styris adding depth to the side, providing it with more options. And then, the Kiwis have always fielded with commitment, a quality that should serve them well in the premier one-day competition.

Fleming will be on the ball too. The Kiwi captain means business.

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