Fleming caught in ethical debate

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When Stephen Fleming returns home to the Land of the Long White Cloud next week he may find himself labouring under something quite different. Indeed, as clouds go, this one is particularly short and black and unloading its contents directly at the New Zealand captain.

It is one of those ethical debates that cricket does so well. Despite running for several days it still appears to have the edge on the other big topic of the moment, the row between Sunil Gavaskar and England into which the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, stuck his oar yesterday. But both seem set to run and run until Fellowship of the Ring is out of the cinemas.

The papers and airwaves here have been full all week of Fleming and the action he took to ensure his side qualified for the finals of the VB Series in Australia. In terms of the sanctimony, pomposity and undignified scrambling for moral high ground in evidence, this is a New Zealand version of the Atherton "dirt in the pocket" affair eight years ago.

Doubts on Fleming's fitness for the job were cast immediately, although he has been winning praise all winter for his splendid leadership. It was suggested that he had flouted the International Cricket Council's Code of Conduct which says that any player who "was a party to contriving or attempting to contrive the result of any match" was subject to a life ban.

The opprobrium heaped on Fleming has not been universal as the letters columns demonstrated. "For too many years we have been listening to the critics of the Black Caps complain about them not playing the numbers game in their favour and not having the killer instinct necessary to play with the big bad boys of international cricket," wrote one Antonio Santa Maria Fernandez to the New Zealand Herald.

Fleming's offence was deliberately to sacrifice a bonus point in New Zealand's final group match in the triangular one-day series against South Africa in Perth last weekend. Chasing an unfeasibly tall order of 271 to win, New Zealand were quickly in trouble. Instead of hopelessly continuing for the target they deliberately dead-batted the final 10 overs to ensure they finished under 224, the score at which they would have denied their opponents an extra point in the new bonus system.

This meant South Africa qualified for the final. But Fleming had worked out that this also also gave his side their best chance of joining them. It meant Australia not only needed to win their final game, against South Africa, but to do overwhelmingly enough to gain a bonus point themselves.

The Aussies won, but failed to earn the extra point. They were eliminated from their own competition and were furious. One Sydney newspaper shrilled on its back page: "Are we square now?" This referred to the infamous incident in Melbourne 21 years ago when, with New Zealand needing six to win another one-day match of the last ball, the Australian captain, Greg Chappell, instructed his brother, Trevor, to bowl an under-arm grubber. That led to under-arm bowling – part of the game since its inception – being banned.

Fleming's defence was that he was merely using new rules to benefit his side. "We had to look at pure survival in this competition. The way the bonus system is structured, probably our best opportunity was to give away a bonus point. Believe, me it was our last resort." Fleming had already been fined 40 per cent of his match fee in a previous game for dissent – telling the umpire that the opposition had too few players in the fielding circle. It has weakened, if only temporarily, Fleming's grip on the position. This spat may be good for England.

But Fleming's skin may saved. Don Cameron, a veteran Kiwi cricket writer, said yesterday: "Amid all the fuss and bother, the banging of drums one day and pot-lids the next, it does bring a certain if cynical pleasure at seeing the Australians jam their own hand in the cash drawer."

Fletcher, meanwhile, reflected briefly on Gavaskar's description of England as the champion whingers of the world after their visit to India. This seemed a bit harsh considering the ambassadorial qualities of the England captain, Nasser Hussain, and was not reflected in Gavaskar's stints as summariser during the series on Test Match Special.

"It's very important that he's on an ICC panel and is supposed to have an unbiased opinion," said Fletcher. [Gavaskar is chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee (playing)] "It's always very sad when a good wine turns sour." It should make for fascinating listening when Gavaskar comes over to commentate on India in England this summer.