Stephen Fleming: 'The key will be to take the emotion out of it – and win'

New Zealand's record scorer in Test cricket, is embarking on his final series against a foe he knows inside out, writes Angus Fraser
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The modern trend is for high-profile international cricketers to announce their impending retirement well before they are due to make their final Test or one-day appearance. It would be a tad cruel to suggest that the sole reason for these early revelations is to enable the individuals concerned to milk the acclaim of a nation for one final time; many are left with little option by an inquisitive and demanding media.

Michael Atherton and Brian Lara disclosed their intentions after their final games. Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer gave the Australian public a couple of opportunities to show their appreciation, but Adam Gilchrist's whistle-stop tour of Australia during the current Commonwealth Bank series is beginning to wear a bit thin. There is a limit to how often a player waves to the crowd and emotionally says goodbye.

Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's most acclaimed captain, is due to disappear from international cricket in just under four weeks' time, at the end of the three Test series against England. Fleming will pursue interests outside the game, play in the Indian Premier League and spend more time with his young family, but the 34 year-old does not want any fanfare; he would prefer it if sentiment remained on the other side of the turnstiles.

Retirement ends the initial chapter of a cricketer's life and with it comes contrasting emotions. The release can bring out the best in a player, causing him to play with greater freedom. For most, though, it works the other way. There is a danger that the individual will have already retired mentally and his game will taper off. When this happens, no amount of endeavour can make up for the loss.

"I don't think I will ease off," Fleming said during England's two-day warm-up game in Dunedin. "I've got to make sure there is no real emotion in my last games. I guess what I've seen and learnt from watching other players who have done this is that it can be quite emotional. If I can take the emotion out of it and just try to bat and win the game that will be the key.

"Certainly it will be a testing time and the outside pressures of playing my last games will play a part, but the trick is to turn it into a positive and just enjoy the last three. There is no real drive that I've got to tick off a certain amount of things before I go. I'm not trying to squeeze things in at the last minute.

"I want to take the emotion out of it all because it can be overwhelming if you think 'this is my second-to-last bat so I've got get a good start and do this or that'. Really you want to be doing your processes as normal and not get caught up in that emotion. I don't want to be emotionally tagged to it. I want to enjoy the emotion, I don't want it to be a handicap."

Fleming leaves international cricket with many records. No New Zealander has played in more Tests (108), scored more runs (6,875) or taken more catches (166) and, with potentially six innings of cricket to come, all are set to rise. But it was as a captain that he stood out, leading the Black Caps on 80 occasions and guiding them to 28 victories, both records in New Zealand.

And it is in this area where Fleming could make the biggest contribution over the coming weeks, by helping Daniel Vettori, New Zealand's current captain, undermine England. No New Zealand player knows more about England's cricketers than Fleming, who has spent five summers playing for Middlesex, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

"It still feels a little strange not to be captaining the side, but I didn't do it in the recent series against South Africa and Bangladesh and I know how the dynamics in our team work," Fleming said. "I'll still be thinking like a captain and seeing if there is anything I can pick up on. I've loved playing England and being a part of English cricket. So for that reason the series means a lot to me and I'll do whatever I can to help Dan and the decision makers.

"The main thing for me is to score as many runs as possible, to finish well and contribute as well as I can. We need runs because we've probably been short of them in our Test cricket and it falls on my shoulders to get a few. It would be nice if I could have a purple patch to finish off my career although I don't think I'm going to get my stats up to the heights I would have loved to. If I can get a majority of runs that contribute to a win then I'd be satisfied finishing that way.

"It does help having been involved with English cricket. I think you can understand a bit more where they come from and, captaining them, you understand what they are trying to do. But the flip side to that is you know just how good they are and [Ryan] Sidebottom has been a gem for Notts for years. He was bowling superbly for us, leading the way to our championship. I know how good the England players can be having seen so many of them up close."

The bowling of Sidebottom placed Fleming in a delicate position at the start of the 2007 season, when England began to enquire about his bowling. As Nottinghamshire's captain, he wanted the left-arm seamer to remain with the county. But deep down he knew that he should be playing at a higher level.

"It's been no surprise to me at how well Ryan has done," Fleming said. "Andy Flower came to me when I first arrived at Notts last year and I had to give an honest appraisal of his bowling. That killed me because I knew if I told them how good he was then he'd get taken away from us and he'd do bloody well for England. It was a tough one, but, of course, I had to buy into the fact that counties are there to produce international players and I thought Ryan had been overlooked for too long. It was great to see him do so well. He had been bowling international spells for us without the rewards. He is a bit of an unlucky bowler at both levels, it seems, but you feel that he has the tools to be a consistently good performer and a match-winner at times too."

The desertion of several New Zealand players to the rebel Indian Cricket League, and uncertainty of how invasive the sanctioned Indian Premier League will be, has left cricket here vulnerable. Fleming accepts that Michael Vaughan's side are favourites to win the Test series.

"The skill levels of each side tends to come out over five days, and if not the first five then definitely in the second and third, and our Test cricket hasn't been great for some time because we haven't been as skilled as we need to be," Fleming said. "I know one or two spots in the England team up for grabs, but they've got some very experienced players in the side who have been there for a while and I think they have a far more settled team than we do. We've got to bat and put up a volume of runs, but we've also got to do that at a decent pace so that we create time to bowl teams out. There are some areas where we're not as blessed as other sides. In one-day cricket you can make that up with bits-and-pieces players and by being smart in the field, but in Test cricket that is harder to do."

Having played a pivotal role in Sidebottom's return to Test cricket, Fleming now has to cancel him out if he is to finish his career in style. It should make for good viewing.