Series set for battle of the captains

Contrasting styles of laid-back New Zealander and passionate Englishman inspire all-out effort
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The Independent Online

With England and New Zealand evenly matched, this series could be played as much in the mind as on drop-in pitches. But if both teams add up to more than the sum of their parts, they are both the distinct product of their captains, Nasser Hussain and Stephen Fleming. The pair's reputation, as two of the best leaders in world cricket will be closely scrutinised in the coming weeks as the sides play for the right to be on Australia's shoulder in the World Test Championship.

More than any of the other Test teams, England and New Zealand are reliant on their captains. When either are away with injury, which in Hussain's case has been often, wheels tend to fall off and morale collapses. Yet despite this close bond, both skippers have paid a high price for their excellence giving so much of themselves to the job that their batting has been all but sacrificed to team and country.

Crucially, given the mix of characters sometimes involved, players seem prepared to follow them without question, something not always the case with some of their predecessors. Getting a team to play for you every session is what the best captains do, and these two are no exception.

The similarities perhaps outweigh the differences, which could make for a close contest over three Tests. For instance, both have overcome troubled careers to rise to the captaincy – Hussain, 34 at the end of March, conquering his temper tantrums, while Fleming, soon to be 29, overcame a scandal after admitting to smoking marijuana on tour in South Africa.

Both read the game well, plotting and planning carefully and knowing exactly where they want their teams to go. Their win-rates, Hussain 11 wins from 26 Tests as captain (42.3 per cent), Fleming 15 wins from 41 Tests (36.5 per cent), suggest a gulf in class, but Fleming, who, at 23, started as the youngest-ever New Zealand captain, began slowly. Significantly, both men have wise father-figure coaches to guide them: Duncan Fletcher for England and Dennis Aberhard for New Zealand.

Aberhard's job is probably the easier, as Fleming has more experience than Hussain, having taken over for the third Test at Christchurch last time England were here five years ago. He began with a defeat, but only because Michael Atherton played two of his finest Test innings.

By neat coincidence, New Zealand were Nasser Hussain's first opponents as captain and although the first Test was won, the series was lost 2-1, an experience that burned itself deep into the England captain's psyche.

Both have improved since then to the point that whoever comes out on top in this series, could well be crowned the best captain in world cricket. Those who think that Steve Waugh already holds the accolade, should recall the West Indies sides of the 1980s, who were so ruthlessly efficient at dispatching opponents, that Clive Lloyd's grandmother could have captained them.

Like Lloyd, Waugh is little more than acting paterfamilias of an extremely talented family. But whereas Fleming and Hussain have to squeeze performances from also-ran batsmen and kiss-me-quick bowlers, Waugh's main job these days is to prevent his pedigree cricketing chums from excess.

No such luxury for the protagonists here. Both will demand hard work from their players, though Fleming's tactic of laying down challenges, as he did with Australia recently when he declared behind in Brisbane and almost won the match with a run-chase, likes to play on egos.

That particular incident raised Australia's hackles and it set a fractious tone for the three-match series, one New Zealand might have won had two appalling umpiring mistakes gone their way in the final match at Perth.

According to Angus Fraser, who captained Fleming when he played for Middlesex last summer, the New Zealander is always looking for chinks to exploit be they tactical or psychological.

"Stephen is a more laid-back person than Nasser, who is intense and passionate as a captain," said Fraser. "But if Stephen appears very relaxed, his mind is working hard. I can understand why people want to follow him – he's as sharp as a tack and a bloody good bloke to boot." Other people, most notably the former New Zealand captain, Ken Rutherford, believe Fleming's time with Middlesex will give him an advantage in knowing exactly how England's batsmen and bowlers like to operate. Hussain will have studied videotape, a medium less reliable than live cricket.

International captains are in the job 10 months a year these days and Hussain is approaching his 1,000th day (and night if you realise the extent to which the captaincy dominates his life) in the job. Fleming, who has been doing it much longer, knows the value of removing himself from the glare and thinks nothing of getting away from it all.

Hussain, by contrast, had to be told to take time off in Queenstown, a decision whose wisdom will only become apparent when the teams lock horns later this week.

ENGLAND'S TEST ITINERARY: First Test (Wednesday 13 March to Sunday 17): Jade Stadium, Christchurch. Second Test (Thursday 21 March to Monday 25): Basin Reserve, Wellington. Third Test (Saturday 30 March to Wednesday 3 April): Eden Park, Auckland.