By Adam Burnett
Standing in the library of his Melbourne home, Damien Fleming is composed – but just a little twitchy – as he calls for an official inquiry; one that could ruin the impeccable legacy of a former Australian captain.
It is 24 years to the day since he took a hat-trick on Test debut; as good a time as any, he reasons, to lift the lid on a scandal.
“I must admit, one incident from that ’94 tour still doesn’t sit well with me,” he tells cricket.com.au, beginning a tale set in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on a tour that later became synonymous with the misdeeds of convicted match-fixer Saleem Malik.
“It happened about a half hour after my hat-trick, the final day of that second Test.
“I’m thinking, I’m laughing here, we’re into the tail – here comes a five-fer on debut.
“That was when our captain, Mark Taylor, selfishly took me off and brought himself on to bowl. ‘Tubby’ Taylor – the man with the ugliest bowling action I’ve ever seen from a cricketer.”
As history details, Fleming was denied the chance to chase what would have been a famous five on that fateful day. Instead, both Taylor and his opening batting partner Michael Slater stepped up to capture what proved to be their lone Test wickets.
“It has to be investigated,” Fleming laments. “I mean, can you imagine it? Within half an hour of taking a Test hat-trick on debut, Mark Taylor and Michael Slater have their first Test wickets.
“My hat-trick was totally devalued.”
It isn’t your traditional library. Fleming claims a separation of books by genre exists but there is certainly no Dewey Decimal System bringing order to the chaos. It was a spare room once upon a time that has been slowly converted into a house of tomes, with stacks soaring dizzily above the eyeline, threatening to spill onto the carpet. Some books are more than half a century old.
“It’s interesting just reading a book from the 1950s on Ray Lindwall, for example,” he says, with complete sincerity. “A lot of it is still relevant now.
“I’ve got so many books, I can’t actually store them that well.”
This is the other side to Damien Fleming. Beneath the banter and the Bowlology catch-phrases, the 20-Test veteran has a bookish, studious leaning that has been instructive as both player and commentator. Around 80 per cent of the books, he suggests, are sports-based, with cricket the heavy majority. He will flick through the pages of Steve Waugh’s tour diaries to retrieve lost memories, or revisit classics such as Send the Stumps Flying: The Science of Fast Bowling.
“I’ve got a lot of stuff underlined in that one,” he says, “and there’s a couple more things I’ve just picked up recently that I might use for my coaching at Wesley (College, where two of his three kids go to school) or on the Seven coverage.”
There are baseball and golf books from which he draws cricketing parallels. Outside sport, the remainder of the room’s contents is divided evenly between two other genuine passions – comedy and heavy metal. It’s all an apt metaphor for Fleming himself.
“One of my favourite ones is Alice Cooper’s The Golf Monster,” he says, grinning. “The book is about his heavy metal life, but also how golf saved him.
“It’s actually got some really good golf tips in it, so I’d recommend that one.”
As in the commentary box, Fleming’s everyday conversation fluctuates seamlessly between silly and serious, giving the listener no choice but to keep up for fear of missing either a joke or a piece of wisdom, or worse still, mistaking one for the other.
In a sport that is traditionally austere, and austerely traditional, he has carved out a niche as ‘The Bowlologist’ – a sort of fast-bowling analytical funnyman. It is an odd combination, but it works because he works hard at maintaining the traits that define his self-designed persona: humour and knowledge.
“I came up with The Bowlologist when I was (coaching) at the cricket academy, and really it was about having a fun side to serious analysis,” he says. “I’ve just continued to go that way.”
In what is admittedly a fairly thin field, he is the funniest pundit in cricket, his humour ably supported by an innate charm and energy that affords him mileage with his material. As a commentator, he has been warmly received at least in part because he puts the viewer at ease, something he appears to achieve through a light-heartedness which reminds those watching that hey, this is just a game. He also humanises those around him; rare is the man who can so naturally and inoffensively swap jibes with cricket gods Ponting and Gilchrist. But he could not get away with any of it if he wasn’t intelligent and well researched.
“I prepare for commentary in a similar way to I did when I was playing,” he says. “For me it’s about reading up, and upskilling, and talking to the current players as much as you can.
“I’m intrigued by all the (technological) toys we’re going to get to use at Channel Seven, because I’m looking forward to being able to analyse bowlers in a new and interesting way.”
He still has the pages of notes from his days as a teenage tearaway at South Melbourne, when he would scour opposition team lists, searching for a state player in their batting order to zero in on that weekend. He carried that level of analysis throughout his playing days, meticulously jotting down ideas and theories as to how to dismiss batsmen. The bowling habits and mechanics of Dennis Lillee, Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee and Terry Alderman became obsessions. Since, these sorts of habits continued in coaching and the commentary box, where his perfectionism remains both a blessing and a burden.
“By the end of my career, what happened was, I’d always been planning for that perfect game, and it never happened; I never had that game where I went, that’s as good as I can get,” he says.
“And it’s the same with commentary. With my analysing, I’m thinking afterward, Gee, I just wish I could have done a bit better than that.”
Fleming at his best was a brilliant swing bowler; of all the pacemen Steve Waugh played with, he described the Victorian as the most likely to conjure a wicket-taking delivery from nowhere. His hat-trick on debut was a tantalising portent of what might have been. He took seven wickets in that match, only for his shoulder to let him down in an ODI before the Test that followed, and he headed home early from a tour that his physio had advised him not to go on. He was 24, and by his assessment, already a year into the chronic shoulder problems that ultimately ended his Test career at 30.
“I’d missed a year at 16 with a shoulder problem, which obviously was the start of what happened later on,” he reflects. “From the time I got picked for Australia I was having shoulder problems.
“I’d had a good run in the five years before – I’d hardly got injured.”
He was told as a 20-year-old that he was a whisker way from being picked on the 1991 tour of the West Indies, where he would have come up against some of the greatest players of all time. The selectors had liked what they had seen from him on a youth tour of the Caribbean the year prior, though Fleming wasn’t so easily convinced.
“I remember thinking, Am I seriously going to go over there and play against Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall?” he says. “And it hit me – I wasn’t ready for that.”
Four years later, injury cost him involvement in the era-defining West Indies tour, when Australia wrested the unofficial world title from the likes of Ambrose, Walsh, Richardson and Lara. But if there are regrets, you wouldn’t know it; he is philosophical about the missed matches and moments, chalking it up to the lot of the fast bowler, and reasoning that as much as injuries cost him caps, those suffered by other fast bowlers also gave him opportunities. That is something he never kept notes on, but in the end, he feels, it all evened out in the wash.
“I would’ve taken just one game for Australia, but to play a hundred, and to play in that era where we just won a lot, I’m pretty happy with that,” he says. “At the end of the day, if I look back and say, Could I have done much more? Well, particularly with my shoulder, I don’t think I could’ve.”
Besides, Fleming is a glass-half-full kinda guy. He is light and good-natured and uplifting. It has always been his way. Some of it stems from his love of comedy. He took the VHS of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective on that ’94 tour of Pakistan and impersonated Jim Carrey so often that Ian Healy still calls him ‘Ace’. These days he’s revisiting some classic Alan Partridge. There have been plenty in between, and he has even found comedy in cricket, a feat that has escaped many others. He tells a side-splitting story about standing stark naked on a dressing room table and delivering a speech to the team following a Test win in Wellington; another about the vacant look in Steve Waugh’s eyes when the skipper forgot Fleming’s first name as he prepared to introduce him to the Queen.
“It’s always been my personality – I’ve always liked to have a laugh,” he says. “That’s one of the great things I miss about playing – the dressing rooms, and always having teammates around you to have a few beers with, tell a few stories.
“I had half a dozen years rooming with Merv, which was fantastic.”
He remembers going to the MCG as a kid for the first time and falling in love with Dennis Lillee, and cricket, on the day the great ‘DK’ broke Lance Gibbs’ Test wickets record. Years later, he played for Victoria a week after he completed his Higher School Certificate, and three decades on, he is still immersed in the sport for a living.
“I’m very, very fortunate,” he says. “I love where the game started me off, and it gave me all my dreams, really; I wanted to play for Australia, do what Dennis Lillee did.
“And I love watching cricket. World Series Cricket was my first memories; Richie and Bill, the coloured clothing.
“So to be able to follow them into the commentary box … that kid who was 10 years old watching Lillee at the MCG break the record, he couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The legend of the debut hat-trick has grown with each passing year. It is decidedly convenient for Fleming that it happened on a tour that was both out of Australia’s regular cricket season, and before the era of pay TV; beyond the people who were at the ground that day, only those conducting a concerted YouTube search are likely to have witnessed it. Incredibly, it was some years before even Fleming saw the footage, sourced via Darren Berry on a VHS tape out of England. But the rareness of the vision has only added to the mystique, and allowed the bowler to embellish.
“I don’t know what’s fact and what’s fiction anymore,” he deadpans.
He has an entire after-dinner speaking routine based on the hat-trick, and has published on this very website the mock invitationhe sends each bowling debutant, fervently hoping he will finally enjoy some company in his exclusive ‘Australians with hat-tricks on Test debut club’.
“The toughest thing is winning that golf day every year,” he grins. “And I really want to get that tennis match going.”
Such is Fleming’s way, it takes some corralling to get him to discuss the moment with any degree of seriousness. He remembers thinking that Inzamam-ul-Haq – the middle victim of the hat-trick – was a slow starter and thus an approach of full and straight at the stumps might be effective. And he still recalls what he said from the top of his mark to Craig McDermott, just before he ran in to bowl to Malik, who was on strike for the hat-trick ball and had been batting untroubled for more than seven hours.
“I said to ‘Billy’ (McDermott) at mid-off, ‘Saleem doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to become part of history’,” he smiles. “It’s corny, but I actually did say that, and of all things, it was just a regulation ball on off stump, and he nicked it through to ‘Heals’ (Ian Healy), who hardly had to move.
“And he was part of history … I’m going to take a wild guess and say there’s never been a batsman dismissed third ball of a hat-trick on 237.”
It was historic for Fleming, too, a claim to put alongside his World Cup final triumph in 1999 and his role in Australia’s world record 16 straight Test victories between ’99 and 2001. For a brief moment, he ponders those days again, and the manner in which his relentless pursuit of perfection has driven him, when an idea strikes him.
“Maybe that is the game – you’re not meant to get there,” he wonders. “Maybe you just never have that moment where you think, that’s as good as I can get. So it’s the eternal search.”
You can hear Damien Fleming, with Brad Hodge, on the ‘Bowlology Report’ podcast