Fleming in familiar territory

As a batsman the urbane Kiwi remains slightly unfulfilled, but as a captain...

The way it was going to be for Stephen Fleming was signalled early. In his maiden Test match he made a half-century, 92 to be exact, in the second innings. He has revisited what happened in Hamilton 10 years ago a further 34 times. He has revisited it in seven other countries at 21 different grounds, including two in Colombo weeks apart.

The way it was going to be for Stephen Fleming was signalled early. In his maiden Test match he made a half-century, 92 to be exact, in the second innings. He has revisited what happened in Hamilton 10 years ago a further 34 times. He has revisited it in seven other countries at 21 different grounds, including two in Colombo weeks apart.

He added Headingley to the list on Friday. When he made a porridge of an attempted shot to leg on 97, it was the 35th occasion on which Fleming had passed 50 without advancing to a hundred. This is a translation rate that suggests he needs a skilled interpreter.

Whatever his considerable merits as a captain - despite a somewhat supine demonstration of the arts in the First Test at Lord's - he is as yet an underachieving and unfulfilled batsman. He should, simply, have more than six Test hundreds (and also more than six one-day hundreds, come to that).

If Fleming is aware of this, he did not dwell on it much after his failure on Friday to gather a measly three more runs. "The past three or four times I have passed 50 have turned into good hundreds," he said. "I have learned a lot more about being in the nineties". Well, not quite enough, obviously, about how to get out of them. It is as if he is a club player avoiding buying a jug for his mates.

Actually, the nineties have not usually been his major area of downfall. He has been there only five times in all. He has reached between 75 and 90 only six times, too. The critical period for Fleming has traditionally been from 50 to 75, where he has been out on no fewer than 24 occasions.

It is a strange kind of weakness. If he had been out regularly much closer to a century it might perhaps bespeak a tendency to feel nerves. To depart so soon after reaching 50, when you are well in but the job is only half done, suggests lapses in concentration that do not somehow square with his forensic skills as a captain.

But for all Fleming's urbanity, anxiety may have been at the root of his first- innings dismissal in this match. He was hurried into trying to turn a ball to the leg side and succeeded only in squirting a leading edge high to mid-off. He was unquestionably disappointed.

He likes the idea of getting to a hundred, and not simply for the obvious reasons. "You can then settle back into the cadence of the game," he said. That phrase has a pleasant rhythm to it, and it probably means that the closer a player gets to a hundred the more he becomes slightly fraught. Get there and things can become so much clearer again. "I have started to convert a lot better," he said, and scores of 274 not out and 192 in the past two years support that.

It has become generally accepted that Fleming, at the age of 31, is now the best Test captain in the world, although Sourav Ganguly and Ricky Ponting would have their advocates. The title is perhaps bestowed more willingly on the New Zealander because India and Australia would seem to have better players at their disposal.

Fleming, on the other hand, with the help of visionary selectors, has helped to make his team much greater than the sum of its parts. It could be said that it is a far better conversion rate than his fifties to hundreds. That is why he was so disappointing at Lord's. New Zealand pushed England hard, certainly, but they did not bowl well and Fleming sometimes appeared to be going through the motions.

This is a big match for him and his side. He put an end to the experiment of opening the innings himself, having been out twice early at Lord's. In 83 previous Tests he had done it only once before, and there was presumably a reason for that. He was much more at home in his natural position of three, and that would apply even if he had to come in for the second ball of the match.

He was perfectly happy with the way he and the opener Michael Papps batted here. Papps is an opening batsman in a mould that has been more or less perfected by the Kiwis over the years. They protect their wickets like their lives, but do not much believe in playing attacking strokes. The area in front of the wicket may as well be an inhospitable desert.

Think of Trevor Franklin, of Matthew Bell, of the pair of Blairs, Pocock and Hartland and you will get the picture. But Papps, the latest of the line, kept his captain faithful company, unperturbed either by being dropped three times or by the broken knuckle on a finger of his left hand, sustained early in the piece.

"He has had a pretty poor tour to date," Fleming said. "He rode his luck and he would be the first to admit that. I think our partnership could be very important in getting us back into the series." He seized the opportunity to disparage England's bowling, particularly the length, which too often allowed the tourists to leave the ball. This was shrewd captaincy: letting the opposition know you are just slightly cleverer than them.

As a batsman, he appeared to turn some sort of corner a couple of years ago. His marvellously diligent century in Perth in a match the Kiwis drew and almost won was a kind of catalyst.

Big scores have followed. Fleming will tell you - as he might in a forthcoming biography - that he went on to a different plane. If he can guide New Zealand to level the series here he will not miss the three runs he failed to gather on Friday. Not much.

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