Flashback: Australia's Comm Games odyssey
Ahead of the Gold Coast opening ceremony, we look back at the only time cricket has ever been staged at the Commonwealth Games
4 April 2018, 04:05 PM AEST
Of all the achievements he collected through his career – including a hat-trick on Test debut, a lauded World Cup winner and Commonwealth Games silver medallist – Damien Fleming concedes it's the latter accolade that engenders the greatest surprise.
With the opening ceremony of the Gold Coast Games just hours away, Fleming remains the all-time leading Commonwealth Games wicket-taker with 14 at a miserly 9.42 from his five matches in Kuala Lumpur in 1998.
And even though the medal he earned as part of the squad that represented Australia in the first – and to date, only – time cricket has featured at the Games was only recently rediscovered packed away in a box in his garage, it remains among his most fondly remembered career keepsakes.
Had they finished with the gold, as most interested onlookers and Steve Waugh's team themselves believed they would, chances are a couple of members of that group might still be wearing them proudly draped around their necks.
Fleming has no hesitation in identifying who those teammates would likely be – the captain himself, and his close mate and former New South Wales off-spinner Gavin Robertson.
"For a guy who was so passionate and loved his country and loved his sport, it was almost like heaven for Tugga (Waugh) and for his right-hand man – the man who he grew up with – Gavin Robertson who was a member of that Comm Games squad as well," Fleming told cricket.com.au in 2014.
"Now, I’m not saying that they were fanatically keen on every sport and went to see every event possible during those Games, but there were unconfirmed rumours of a restraining order taken out against those two by the Australian swimming team."
When it was first confirmed that cricket would make its debut at the 1998 Games, it was Waugh's view that Australia needed to send its strongest possible team that played a significant role in overturning the original plan to field a development 'Australia A' outfit instead.
Rather like the Olympic football competition.
However, Waugh firmly believed that while the Commonwealth Games fixtures would carry List A status rather than full internationals, there would be much to learn from being part of this unprecedented opportunity.
Drawn in the same qualifying group as Canada, India (minus several of its best players including Sachin Tendulkar who were in Toronto for a series of one-dayers against Pakistan) and a team from the tiny Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda (that included Richie Richardson and Curtly Ambrose) the Australians knew from the outset the medal was theirs for the winning.
Fleming remembers the opening game against Canada where he and fellow seamer Michael Kasprowicz realised they could get the ball to bend alarmingly in the heavy, steamy Malaysian air.
"I don't think the Canadians had ever seen an in-swinger before," he said.
"So I would get to the top of my run-up and see the signal from the slips cordon as to which way it should go, and just set them up from there.
"It would be two out-swingers that they'd play at and miss, then the in-swinger."
He ended up with 4-21, all victims either caught behind the wicket or bowled.
When Canada's number eight batsman came in with the score at 6-29, he pleaded with the Australian bowlers to go easy on him because he ran a newsagency and pizza shop back home that needed him the following week.
The first ball he faced thundered into his unprotected ribs and sent him knees-first on to the pitch.
Despite their Test stars, Antigua and Barbuda befell a similar fate – bowled out for 99 with Fleming taking 5-24 – and when Steve Waugh's unbeaten century saw his team hand India a hiding only New Zealand stood between them and the gold medal play-off.
The Kiwis provided less resistance than the Canadians, knocked over for 58 which Adam Gilchrist chased down almost singlehandedly in the first 10 overs.
But the obstacle that was to deny Waugh his treasured gold and a place atop the winners' podium had become increasingly obvious as the Games played out.
After revelling in the opening ceremony, the Australian cricket players became colourful local identities around the hitherto unfamiliar surrounds of an athletes' village.
Sharing a floor and a team bond with the rugby 7s squad, the cricketers would regularly hold evening get-togethers in their shared high-rise apartments and invite high profile representatives from various other sports to mix, bond and swap stories over a few beers and bowls of crisps.
Some of the more focused athletes – especially those involved in individual disciplines – were mortified that their much better-remunerated and recognised countrymen were taking a distinctly social approach to such a major competition.
Except for Waugh and Robertson, who went so far as to openly hoodwink officials that they were swimmers just so they get poolside to fanatically cheer on members of the Australian swim team.
"The rest of us were basically hanging out at the Games' village food court, going back for our second and third ice creams while we watched the Canadian sprinters tuck into their salads," Fleming recalled.
"At one stage I remember asking someone if Tugga and Robbo were still actually on the tour, but then we got a photo back of them not only at the swimming but with their faces painted in Australian colours.
"It's fair to say that concerned the rest of the team".
Come the final against South Africa, who were below full-strength due to the absence of captain Hansie Cronje and fast bowler Allan Donald, Waugh's concern (also shared by coach Geoff Marsh) was that those lapping up the resort-style festivities had under-estimated their opponents.
And they were proved correct as South Africa reversed its recent history in major cricket tournaments by applying a choke-hold to Australia.
The pre-match planning, given Donald's absence, was to treat South Africa’s other new-ball threat Shaun Pollock with caution and then target lesser bowlers the likes of Alan Dawson and Derek Crookes.
Or at least that's how Fleming interpreted it.
"I began to suspect the message might have got lost when we were 3-28 in the ninth over, with blokes charging Pollock and hitting catches to mid-on – the names Gilchrist and Ponting come to mind," he said.
"I thought to myself then 'this is probably not going to plan'.
"The message was 'see off Pollock', but I think our top order somehow heard 'slog Pollock'.
Australia's total only reached a vaguely respectable 183 because Waugh contributed an unbeaten 90 – in fact, the only time he was out during the entirety of the Games was when he and Robertson were sat in the stands – but the South Africans reeled it in with four wickets and as many overs to spare.
Marsh called his players together the next day and let them know how wasteful he and the skipper felt they had been.
"I hope you realise the opportunity you've just blown," Marsh told them, according to Adam Gilchrist in his autobiography.
"This may never happen again and you've treated the whole thing with disrespect."
Waugh was equally uncompromising.
"Cricket was essentially an exhibition sport, but the way in which we lost to an under-strength South African side in the gold-medal game hurt me, because some of our guys had switched into party mode and believed it was a given we would win," he wrote.
"I wasn't upset with the silver, but I was aggrieved at our lack of professionalism."
That hurt was partly salved nine months later when Australia, under Waugh, famously knocked then favourites South Africa out of the 1999 World Cup and went on to triumph in the final against Pakistan.
Having played a key role in that win with his memorable under-arm that sent the Proteas out of the tournament, Fleming was not surprised to cop more than his share of grief from South African fans when the Australians toured there in April of the following year.
"I remember fielding on the boundary in front of some of the Afrikaaners, and I had been getting hit around a bit and was copping some stick so I turned around and said to them 'well how did you go in the last World Cup?'," Fleming recalled.
"Of course, that that infuriated them until one lone voice piped up "yeah, well how did you go in the Commonwealth Games?"
"Trouble was, he was serious.
"So I guess if I had to take either one of those two it would be the World Cup, but overall the Commonwealth Games was a great experience.
"Apart from that little bit of sports nuffy creepiness from Tugga and Robbo."
This article has been updated after it was originally published ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow