Transcript: Couch Talk with Damien Fleming

Couch Talk 168 (Play)

Guest: Damien Fleming

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Flem!

Damien Fleming (DF)– Good to be here, it is absolutely my pleasure.

SJ– You come from Victoria. These days you have the A-tour and the Academy tour where people from Australia go to the subcontinent and people from the subcontinent to Australia. They learn about the conditions. But in your time, two bowlers that I really admired in how they performed in the subcontinent were you and (Michael) Kasprowicz. How did you manage to do that?

DF– It was a bit of a shock to the system. You have your first tour where you go over to the subcontinent. We had a youth tour to the West Indies, with the u-19. They were quite dry pitches as compared to what you expect in Australia. I went on an ODI tour to SA in 1994, and then to Sharjah after that. i remember playing India at Sharjah. It was flat and slow and the Indian batsmen smashed us everywhere. That was the first time I thought, “Geez, the ball is not swinging! There is no bounce!” you have to come up with a different variety of tricks to go out there and survive in sub-continent conditions. The SCG in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, where NSW used to play 3 spinners sometimes, playing one game a year there and probably Adelaide gave you a little bit grounding on pitches that were dry. You change your pace there. I had a pretty good off-cutter as a youngster as well, use your bouncer and Yorker sparingly. This was before I knew how to reverse swing. Those Australian conditions gave you a little bit of grounding. But, I remember that Sharjah tour where India smashed us in the semi-final and it gave us something to think about, about my game, because I wanted to survive in the subcontinent conditions.

SJ– It was you figuring out your own game rather than anyone else giving you inputs on how to adapt?

DF– Yeah, there was not much of coaching back then. Also, a lot of players liked to have control of their game, when you work out and map out goals set, what type of player that you want to be. My main role was to swing in the new ball into the breeze. But you don’t want to bowl with just the new ball, do you? You have got to be there to take the wickets continually through the innings. So, variety was important to me. I used to idolise Dennis Lillee who is a very skilled fast bowler. I tried to at least learn a new skill each year. It doesn’t mean you are going to bowl a different one every ball, does it? you have to build the pressure. When I bowl the in swinger, I have to be on the money. When I bowl or develop a slower leg cutter, when I bowl that I have to be right on the money. When I bowl bouncer or Yorker, those varieties for a fast medium bowler can be a real strength, if you can bowl those effort balls. Often, a batsman would be keen to take you on and if you bowl a good enough bouncer, often you are well and truly in the game.

SJ– You don’t see out and out swing bowler nowadays. Now, most bowlers are more keen on hitting back of the length and let the pitch do whatever it does. Why do you think that change in approach has happened?

DF– Probably in my later career for Australia, John Buchanan took over the coaching. He was a successful coach, he was successful at Queensland. And they really worked out that consecutive maidens, dot ball percentage being high led to wickets. If you were a swing bowler, what were the best ways of getting those? it was by bowling a 6th or 7th stump line outside off stump with a strong off side field and wait for the batsman to come after you and eventually you might get a ‘nick. You have protection in the field.

That didn’t excite me a lot. I liked to bowl stump to stump, out-swingers. If the batsman missed, I wanna get them bowled or LBWs. I was looking to get the nicks, not the wide nicks there. I was totally comfortable with that kind of game plan. But, (Glenn) McGrath was very good in those conditions. (Jason) Gillespie very good in that 6th stump line thing. They were quicker than me and had extra bounce. When the batsmen were trying to hit it of the back foot, it hit them high on the bat, whereas for me it was hitting the middle of the bat. That influenced an era, particularly in Australia. In the last few years, I am very impressed by our younger fast bowlers. Particularly someone like Josh Hazelwood who is labelled the new McGrath. He bowls fuller than Glenn and swings the ball more than Glenn. Mitchell Starc moves the ball. (James) Pattinson, (Pat) Cummins move the ball too. I wouldn’t say that they are out and out swing bowlers, but their stock balls in the right conditions do move.

SJ– In terms of bowling actions, you had a side-on action. It could be said that it led to some of your injuries too. What is your take on that – the bowling actions and how things have changed more to front-on now?

DF– Most people have semi-open, in-between side-on and front-on bowlers. Not many of those traditional side-on anymore. It doesn’t bother me, your hips are shoulders must be aligned. Your body parts are going towards the target. From the safety point of view, that is probably the way to go about it. From an efficiency point of view, if you get all your body part going at a target, off stump or just at, it makes sense that the ball is going to go in that direction. You may get into trouble with your leg, but you have to have a coaching mechanism to be able to coach yourself on the field. If you are bowling a bit short, for someone like myself, I tried to look at the off bail and tried to bring my length up a little bit. If I am bowling full, I would look at the base of the stumps. I would try a coaching method if my length is not proper. Generally, I was pretty accurate with my line.

Regarding the side-on… I idolised Dennis Lillee, and he was very side-on. I used to try and bowl like him. The first time I met, he saw my bowling action at a Cricket Victoria coaching thing, it was pretty disappointing to be honest. I was visualising Dennis Lillee, but I am Damien Fleming.

SJ– I want to talk a bit about relationship that a swing bowler has with a wicket-keeper. after (Adam) Gilchrist came onto the scene, every team everywhere wanted a wicketkeeper who can bat first and they lived with whatever skill he had. How did it affect the effectiveness of a swing bowler, if any at all?

DF– You have to have a good understanding with your wicketkeeper. I thought Ian Healy was such a hugely influential leader in the Australian side. He was a school teacher and he likes that bit of a chat, take a little bit of control. But, I thought he epitomised everything about Australian cricket in that era. If he felt you were down a bit, he would ask what is going on there and if he thought you were flying a bit high, he would give you a clip. But also, one of my cue was sometimes when the I wasn’t following through enough, only a couple of steps, it would mean my pace was a little bit down or I was bowling around myself for a little bit. I didn’t want to get my hips to angle to fine leg, because you then are going to bring it straight from the arm and you lose a bit of pace and bounce. I wanted to be as hard as possible, get that back leg with real power towards my target and I was bowling at the peak of my pace, which is important if you are fast-medium. Me and Healy, and also Gilchrist. If he would see that I was only following through a couple of steps, I just wanted him say “Get down at me Flem!” that was the cue. I used them to help them help me with my bowling. If I fell short, “Get down at me Flem!” in my brain, and I made sure I would be pushing that back leg with a strong front arm.

SJ– You mentioned learning about cutters in a young age. That was one of my lasting memories of watching you bowl, especially in games against India – you bowled the off-cutters that troubled a lot of batsmen. (Sachin) Tendulkar seemed to have trouble with off-cutters in the ‘90s. How did you develop it and how did you perfect it?

DF– I always had that slow, loopy slower-ball which was basically a curve ball without a drop on it. i have played a lot of indoor cricket, it was something I developed there. and then obviously, to have the off cutter, I had more wrist and fingers behind the ball so the release is quick. So, I always had that one. I also had that back of the hand slower ball probably around 1993-94. But, I had a shoulder reconstruction in 1995 and I found that I couldn’t bowl the back of the hand so easily. I wanted to have two slower balls – one the offie, that spun away from the left handers and I wanted to have one that moved away from the right handers. I worked on a leg cutter, unfortunately I couldn’t bowl that at a pace that Dennis Lillee did. But it was OK. I was just used to move the ball a little bit away from the right hander. It gave me more options in the Indian conditions. In Pakistan I felt the pitches were really flat. I felt that the ball didn’t grip as much. Basically, when (Shane Warne) Warney’s balls started to move, that was the key to me that I reckon my cutters can be an option. In my last Test, I ended up bowling all cutters in the second innings. it was something we had come up before the game. In hindsight, we had a couple of tour games, and thought a bit forward, that maybe I could have developed that in the tour games. I did swing the ball when it was moving, but I could have done a better role just bowling cutters. Through that big series in 2001, people had the chance to practice that a bit more.

SJ– You played 20 Tests and 88 ODIs. 7 of those 20 Tests were played in sub-continental conditions – 6 in Asia, 1 in Zimbabwe. Were you more comfortable with the tools that you had developed in bowling in those condition which were more challenging, where you had a bunch of tricks that you were able to pull off? Obviously you took 4-fers and 5-fers in Perth, Adelaide. Is there a preference?

DF– If you are a swing bowler, you would love every second game to be at WACA. I was actually born in Western Australia but grew up in Victoria. Once the Western Australia media found out that I got wickets, I was Western Australian fast bowler Damien Fleming. And if I didn’t get wickets, I was Victorian medium-pacer Damien Fleming. But bizarrely, Adelaide was my favourite pitch. If you went to fast bowlers, they would probably say that Adelaide is their least liked venue to bowl at. I just found that you always had one good innings in Adelaide. I got a couple of 5-fers at Adelaide. If it swung well in the first innings, it was hard work in the second innings. If it was hard work in the first innings, normally, it will break up and reverse swing and cutters were on in the second innings. My best first class figures were 7-fer in the second innings at Adelaide. Being able to bowl well in Adelaide in days 4 and 5 definitely helped me in the subcontinent.

I was just playing there and getting tested. I battled and came over in 1996 and 1998 [to India] and bowling to Tendulkar was always a challenge. You either survive and learn a game plan or you get dropped and never play again. (Mohammad) Azharuddin and (VVS) Laxman! The coaching manuals in Austraila said that you bowl on the off stump on a full length and they will play in the V, they might get hit to mid off or get an edge. But Azhar and Laxy – they hit you through mid wicket. Then you go wider outside off stump, and they hit you through square leg. And then you go wider and they open up the face and hit you through point. How do you get Azharuddin and Laxman to play you with a vertical bat? There are quests and challenges there. Particularly Tendulkar – he made a me a better bowler and player because I bowled against him so much. I bounced him out in a final in 1998 in Delhi. It was a good ball, I brought him forward, I decided to bowl it on the first ball of the over, thought it would be a nice surprise – a good bouncer and Gilly took an unbelievable catch. He scored 60 odd in Sharjah, bounced him out again – it was a probably a bit too high, but I got it. Suddenly I got him bouncing. But what did Tendulkar do? Instead of coming forward, he went back and may have caught Kasper bouncing him but he was hitting them miles back over the square leg fence. One, I was confident in getting the best batsman in the world out, but guess what – he is going to keep developing his game plan and put the pressure back on you. I felt I learnt to survive against Tendulkar and (Brian) Lara, I only played ODIs against Brian – and bouncers weren’t an option. (Ricky) Ponting in domestic cricket, too. as I said, either you thrive or survive.

SJ– I want to talk about Sharjah – the qualification for the final and the final in 1998 where Tendulkar scored 2 hundreds back to back. Of course, Shane Warne…

DF– Don’t remind me!

SJ– Shane Warne said he had nightmares. Obviously Shane Warne likes to talk things up a bit, which is fine. But, what did you as a bowling unit see in those two innings? Also the Test series that led to that?

DF– It was a weird series. One thing that I do remember was that Sachin failed in a game at Cochin and we joked that even the little master can have a bad day, but then he went on to get 5 wickets and win the man of the match award. This guy is super human. It was a weird series – the ODI series in Sharjah. We must have faced each other 7 or 8 times because we had a measure of every Indian batsmen by then. They had some great ones– Saurav Ganguly, (Navjot) Sidhu, (Ajay) Jadeja was a handy ODI player, Azhar. We had them under control, but Sachin had these 130s and 140s, it was unbelievable. We were trying to focus on trying to get everyone else out and hoping that Sachin would fall at some stage, which he actually never did. There was one game where we had a sandstorm, where I felt we were on top of Sachin, and then we had a storm and he came out and decided “I have to start taking this away” and he did!

SJ– And you got him out eventually!

DF– I got him out, eventually. I do remember the final, because we share a birthday with Sachin. I said “Happy Birthday”, and whatever that stadium holds – 25000 – massive cheer. And then right in the end, he has got a 100, we are going to lose the game, they put up “Happy birthday Fleming!” Nothing like 25000 boos on your birthday, and lose a ODI final to make you feel at home. I don’t know if Sachin has spoken about that period, but I thought he was at his peak. And he had a long peak.

SJ– I want to talk about two key moments in your ODI career. You had the ball in your hand in the 1996 semi-finals against West Indies, almost coasting to victory but they have a big collapse and you bowl the last over and you get Courtney Walsh bowled. And then in Edgbaston against South Africa in 1999 and you are bowling the last over and (Lance) Klusener hits you for two boundaries and then almost a run out and then a run out. In which of the two overs were you more nervous?

DF– That is a funny one. I have bowled at the death for Australia probably from my third ODI, Allan Border’s last ODI game, vs South Africa. He threw the ball to me, I actually didn’t bowl that well, I bowled better in the over before where I went for 10, thought I was a bit lucky – 6 to win and then they got 3. And since I have bowled the last over. That is something that I was trying to do . there are not many specific roles in cricket, but one is that you generally keep your best bowler in ODI cricket to close it out. Even though we had McGrath and McDermott and Warne, I was lucky enough to have it, and I wanted it. i wanted to bowl the last over because I didn’t want to have the pain of having no control over the result and be sitting there in the field. I wanted to have the ball in my hand. If I failed, at least I could look in the mirror and say, “It was my fault.” or “They were too good for me.” I couldn’t imagine how nervous I would be watching the last over and hoping we would win.

You talk about nerves, I don’t remember being as nervous. It was something i had planned for all along. I think adrenaline is such a big thing. I think the 1996 semi-final result was a lot underrated. Richie Richardson hit my first ball for a 4 like a lightning. Curtley [Ambrose] calls him through when I bowl a Yorker. Richie misses it. Curtley calls him through to get Richie off strike (and he runs himself out). I think you could ask a lot of people in the history of the game, I don’t think there is a much bigger daunting prospect than running in, in the last over of a World Cup semi-final to an in-form Courtney Walsh who was in career best form, averaging 0.2 at that stage of his career. We all thought that Walsh would block. I thought that there was no doubt that if Richie was on strike they would have won. I would not have been able to contain him. He tried to hit me out of the ground, it was the fastest ball I had tried to bowl in my life. That adrenaline and euphoria, that is something that you never forget. We felt like we just got out of jail, McGrath was superb. Healy was superb behind.

You probably think that it would take 30-40 years to get to something like that again. But again, 3 years later, it is the same scenario.

SJ– Now you know that you are defending 213, and they start off well – (Herschelle) Gibbs starts off well. and then, Warney brings you back in with a 3-fer. They needed 9 runs to win the game. you are facing Klusener, and he hits you for 2 fours. Even though the next was a dot ball, you almost had a run out. He could still get a single.

DF– I used to be comfortable if there were more than 8 runs needed off the last over. I felt confident that i could close it out. I can bowl 2-3 dot balls and we are in the game. But bowling to Lance Klusener in England condition, totally different scenario. The white duke ball didn’t get the reverse for us. it retained its hardness, so it was easier to hit. I remember Lance struggled with the slower ball of mine, but at Headingley in the game before where Steve got his 120, I bowled that and I know he mis-hit it and it still went for a 6, and you know how short Headingley is. In this last over, I am going with the percentages – I can’t bowl the slower ball here. So, no reverse swing, hard ball, small ground, flat pitch and probably the best hitter in the world at that time. we came up with a plan the night before to come around the wicket, to bowl Yorkers about 30 cm outside off stump. Once again, we didn’t get a chance to practice it because we only reached Edgbaston the night before. That is the way it was back then. I preferred to come over the wicket and attack the stumps. You miss, I hit sort of theory. Sometimes you go and do it for the time.

The first ball wasn’t a bad ball, and he hit it at 500 mph to the cover fence. A that point he broke the record for the hardest hit cricket ball in the history of the game. so, 5 to win in 5 balls. I bowl a similar ball and this one is a half volley, the line is good, the length is not good. He hits this one at a 1000 mph, breaking his own record. It is a tie. The crowd is going up. you can sense when your teammates’ energy is gone. Lance and AD were High-five’ing. 4 balls, 1 run. It is all over then.

It is funny, and I tell at a lot of speaking gigs about it – the first thought that went into my head was that I had to bowl to bowl him out to win the game. I have to come over the wicket. I went to Steve Waugh and told him that I wanted to come over the wicket. This is a great example of Steve Waugh’s leadership. He wasn’t a dictator type, and he backed his players who backed themselves. That would have been an easy call if he was a dictator captain – “The team rule is around the wicket Yorkers.” When I said that I wanted to come over the wicket, he said “Do what you got to do.” So, very tactful open leadership from Steve Waugh. I was coming over the wicket for the third ball and I was visualising a Yorker and I bowled a half tracker. Lance wasn’t thinking that he would get a half tracker. He hits to (Darren Lehmann) Boof, and there is a chance for a run out but Boof misses! Our men were thinking if that was our last chance to win the World Cup. But there was some confusion, I am not sure if AD and Lance communicated. There was a run out the next ball, I bowled a good Yorker. A wide Yorker, the ball goes to Mark Waugh. He has a go, and then I proceed to under-arm the ball to Adam Gilchrist, and that is going at a cm and hour, that slow, and it eventually got down there.

SJ– In that sort of situation, the bowlers – there is so much adrenaline going. You get that ball form Mark Waugh, the normal tendency would be to pick the ball up and try to through it as fast as possible to the wicket keeper. you had the presence of mind to roll it to him.

DF– The smartest decision! Nothing prepares you or trains you for that moment. The Late great Richie Benaud said “That was one of the most astute things I have ever seen on the field!” But, for me, why did I do it? It was the percentage play. The boys like to joke, and we probably had the Nerds and the Julios – Julios were the good looking dudes like Brett Lee and Warney and the Nerds were Steve Waugh, Ponting and Merv Hughes and myself, we played 10 pin bowling two nights before as a social event. I wonder if that kicked-in in the last minute. For me, coming to Lord’s to play Pakistan, I don’t think it would have mattered who we played. It was the confidence of training. The final was just the celebration. I was the worst of the bowlers by a mile, but the catching was unbelievable. It was an awesome day. Certainly, looking back, for anyone who is looking to bowl at the death, I would encourage him to bowl his natural stuff, you have to. If you are the best bowler for your state, for your country, you got to want to do it and you have to practice those skills.

SJ– And, finally, looking back on your career, you had your injuries. You didn’t get to play as much as you liked for Australia. How is it looking back on your career? And, how has life been since?

DF– For me, my first day of cricket, I saw Dennis Lillee break Lance Gibbs’ record at the MCG. If he would say to me there that “we will give you one Test match. But that is all that you can have.”, I would have taken that just to get that Baggy Green on my head. To play in such a successful era, where we had a very high percentage winning, plenty of mates, plenty of success, plenty of celebrations. It is a great thing now, moving on, getting to the media. I went straight into coaching first and now in the media. I get to work with my teammates all the time, and I love it. Now, I have got the opportunity with Channel 10 Big Bash – with Ponting, Gilchrist and Mark Waugh. How awesome is that? Also – Sir Vivian Richards, Freddie Flintoff, (Kevin Pietersen) KP. Awesome! 3AW Radio with Glenn McGrath – he still gets to speak “with the breeze” like it was in the field when he wouldn’t let me get to bowl with the breeze. On Fox Sports with Brendan Julian, Allan Border and Greg Blewett. I have got picked for Victoria when I left school at 18. To be 45 and still work in the industry I love, I could not be happier!

SJ– Thank you so much! Wish you all the very best!

DF– Thank you!

SJ– Thanks, mate!


Episode transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman