My Favourite Player is a new series from the New Zealand Cricket Museum where people from all walks of life and involvement in the game detail what makes their favourite player, their favourite player.
First-up is Jess Morrison, the self-confessed number one fan of the BLACKCAPS and founder of the excellent Facebook page, Fans of New Zealand Black Caps. We thought we knew what Jess’ answer would be when we asked who her favourite player was, turns out she was one step ahead.
I was asked the question the other day, who is my favourite player, and the answer popped into my head straight away. Not that that will surprise anyone, since I have been a fan of New Zealand cricket and New Zealand cricketers for … well, quite a few years anyway.
What may surprise people is who my favourite cricketer is. If you have followed my online activity for a while, you could be forgiven for thinking my favourite cricketer is Brendon McCullum. And I often found myself wondering if Brendon had surpassed my actual favourite cricketer at times throughout his stellar career. But every time I thought that, I knew that he hadn’t really and that my favourite cricketer will always be Stephen Paul Fleming.
Since Stephen’s Test debut in 1994, where he scored 92 runs in the second innings and amazed everyone watching, including myself, with his classical and elegant strokeplay, to his final Test for New Zealand in 2008 where he went out in style with half centuries in both innings against England, I have thoroughly enjoyed watching not only his abilities and skill with the bat, but also his much-documented leadership and management abilities. I’ve kept my old diaries from back in the day where we used to keep paper-based schedules of our lives and adventures, and was shocked to discover I had four years dedicated (inside and out!) to Stephen’s cricket career. Is that embarrassing or what?!
And I’ll never forget the day I actually met Stephen in person! Back when I was (okay, I still am) horrendously shy and introverted and hated saying anything to anyone I didn’t know. The uniform sponsor of the team back then was Canterbury and they were doing a tour around the country, I guess to drum up support before another season. Anyway, I remember how excited I was to learn that Stephen, along with Bryan Young and, I think, Blair Hartland, would be at the Canterbury of NZ store close to where I was working. My excitement turned to crippling nerves, however, as I paced around in front of the store, knowing that my cricketing idol was inside and all I had to do was go in and say hello.
Finally, I could see that Stephen was actually standing away from the others for a bit and so I bit the bullet and stepped inside. Now, I know I’m vertically challenged myself, but on that day, Stephen seemed like a giant in comparison! I stammered a hello and hesitantly asked if he’d sign my The Stars of Cricket signature book. He was extremely nice about me being as timid as a mouse, until he saw the picture of himself that the book had selected to publish! I can’t actually tell you what he said because it’s not very politically correct but, to paraphrase, he suggested that he didn’t much like the photo and wondered if he would mind if he improved it a bit!
“No, that’s cool, I don’t have anywhere else I’d rather be right now, Stephen; you just take your time and I’ll try not to faint as I stand beside you.
He actually stopped his art at one point and asked me if I had anywhere I needed to be in a hurry. He didn’t do a bad job either, did he? Not a bad “on the spot” artist, our Stephen Fleming!
I did actually get the chance to meet Stephen (and Nathan Astle) again a few years later, when he wrote a book (Balance of Power) and co-wrote a book with Nathan (Cricketing Safari). I’m pleased to say that my nerves weren’t as great as during that first encounter and I was able to act a little more rationally and confidently.
I guess you’re still wondering why Stephen Fleming is my favourite cricketer. Well, probably the biggest reason, is his batting. I remember being glued to the screen (back in the day when cricket was free-to-air) any time Stephen was at the crease, in awe at how he could make hitting a ball and scoring runs down the ground look so effortless and elegant. I remember my brothers teasing me about how “Fleming drives” became like a cracked record in match commentary, but watching a Fleming on-drive is something everyone should have on their bucket list!
A lot was made about Stephen’s inability to score many Test centuries for New Zealand. However, I chose to look at it that he was, at least, able to contribute with half centuries and create a solid anchor from the number three spot in the batting order, as he was supposed to do. He may have only scored 9 test centuries in his career but usually, when he scored one, it was a BIG century (like that time he scored 274* against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka!). It seemed he would always step up and score runs when the side needed him too. And 46 half centuries in Test cricket is a pretty impressive record by itself.
Another reason why Stephen is my favourite New Zealand cricketer was because of his leadership and captaincy skills. I remember exactly the day when Stephen played in his first Test as the captain of New Zealand, back in February 1997. The job I was working at happened to have access to a TV during the day and so I don’t think I got much work done that day, running in and out to the TV room to check on the latest score in the Test against England from Christchurch. I also remember everyone being totally shocked that Stephen had been made the captain, as he was so young (22 years of age), but I also remember thinking that I totally expected that he would be named captain. Don’t ask me how I knew, I just knew that he would be captain, would be for a long time, and lead our team to many successes over the years ahead.
I feel very privileged to have been able to witness live the career of one of New Zealand’s best batsmen. When I say live, I have literally been able to sit on the embankment at the Basin Reserve and enjoy the sound of leather on willow as “Fleming drives” another ball to the long-on boundary!
I’m still hoping that, one day, I’ll be able to have the chance of finally getting my photo taken with my favourite cricketer, but in the meantime, I have enough good memories of Stephen Fleming to last a lifetime!