Stephen Fleming is one of New Zealand's most respected sportsmen. But 10 years ago an infamous pot-smoking episode in South Africa threatened to derail his cricketing future. In this exclusive extract from his biography, Stephen Fleming, Balance of Power, the Herald's cricket writer RICHARD BOOCK tells Fleming's inside story of how he and some team-mates were hung out to dry.

Fleming remembered there were five New Zealanders - himself, team-mates Dion Nash, Danny Morrison, Chris Pringle and Bryan Young - and two players from the Boland side. It was hot, there was fine wine being ladled down their throats, and all of a sudden there was something else - some marijuana was being passed around.

Fleming indulged, invoking the "why not" clause. He can't remember Morrison partaking, which is understandable - the former fast bowler was the player who took his concerns to captain Ken Rutherford the next day.

Later in the afternoon, the group at the winery disbanded and the New Zealanders made their way back to their lodgings, where Fleming, worn out from a combination of practice, heat and wine, was in bed by about 8.30pm.

But some of the others kicked on and it was later revealed that more pot was being smoked through the evening.

Players other than the "famous five" were allegedly involved on that occasion, and a team member's partner was also implicated.

"We were supposed to have a practice the next day but it was raining and the management called a team meeting in the back room instead. No one seemed to know exactly what was going on as we filed through but there were a few rumours. As it happened, Nashy was the first in, I was next, and Matt Hart was the third to be interviewed.

"Nashy came back and said, "It's sweet, I've taken the rap, just deny everything," and I said, 'Nah, you can't do that - we'll all stick together.'

"So I went in and Mike Sandlant [the New Zealand team manager] asked me if there was some marijuana smoked at the hotel. That was his next shock - he didn't know there'd been some smoked earlier.

"I said, 'Well, I didn't smoke at the hotel but I did at the winery, so yeah, I guess I was involved.'

"He said he was disappointed but thanked me for being upfront and said we'd talk later. Harty knew that Dion and I had both admitted it, so he went in there and put his hand up too.

"In terms of the 'investigation' they'd talked to three of us and had received three confessions. But then they did a crazy thing - they broke for lunch, meaning everyone was left sitting around digesting the information and getting their stories straightened out. When lunch was over and the meetings were resumed, everyone else denied all involvement.

"We got back to the hotel, and they called us in and they said, 'Look, you three, you're the only three who have 'fessed up, this is your first time, we realise you weren't on our own, you've been fined $250. We know there's more involved and we appreciate your honesty'."

Fleming said some of his team-mates later explained that they expected him, Nash and Hart to deny the accusations - as they intended doing, so that everyone would be "singing from the same song-sheet".

They said they were aghast when they learned that the trio had admitted the charges. He accepted the rationale at the time, reasoning that it was an acceptable misunderstanding and that nothing too serious had come of it anyway.

His theory had been that if everyone confessed there would be protection in numbers. After all, more than half the squad were involved. His accomplices, Nash and Hart apart, apparently applied the same argument for making a blanket denial.

Whatever the explanations, the team returned home in a shambles. Rutherford revealed later that he was greeted by an empty house; not only were the wife and kids gone, but the furniture and appliances had disappeared as well.

Sandlant would resign quickly, having discovered that New Zealand Cricket had been tipped off about the pot episode and were planning more action. NZC director of cricket Rod Fulton was on the warpath but would be jettisoned by his employers soon after a highly critical report of the tour was made public.

But easily the most public sanctions were reserved for the trio who raised their hands at Paarl, in the vain hope that honesty would prove to be the best policy. For their naivety they would be used as a public relations exercise by their employers, who appeared unconcerned that about half the squad was involved.

"It was a minor aberration, blown out of all proportion," Rutherford said.

"Those three guys were all young and had been given the fright of their lives in Paarl - at the time they were genuinely concerned for their careers. And to think that NZC knew that there were others involved, others who were far more senior and established than the three youngsters. It was pretty sick, really."

Fleming, too, was puzzled about why only he, Nash and Hart were singled out, given that the NZC categorically knew that there were others involved. After all, there was no question that they knew who the others were, and no question that they knew the trio were being unfairly isolated.

Back in Christchurch, Fleming was feeling uneasy in his first game of club cricket after the tour. There had been suggestions, rumours, that the pot-smoking issue might flare up again. There was talk of NZC being pressured, of further repercussions for him, Nash and Hart.

When he arrived home, NZC chief executive Graham Dowling was waiting for him with the bad news. It had become official again. There would be a hearing. Get a lawyer.

His mother wanted to know what was wrong, why he was so pale, looking so worried. He just burst into tears, saying, "I've blown it, Mum, I've blown it."

He thought his career was over. Sure, suspension at first, but what then - never to be selected again? Explanations were offered and the air was cleared. A plan of attack was hastily arranged, and just as well.

Fleming still has grave doubts about that hearing and the motivations behind it. He was on a hiding to nothing. The way he saw it, the whole point of the second inquiry was the need for NZC to hang their freshly sanitised laundry out in public, even if it meant Fleming, Nash and Hart were put through the wringer for a second time. They were, in effect, collateral damage: hung out to dry for the greater good.

"With all due respect to the process, I couldn't help but feel the whole thing was staged for NZC's benefit. They had been pressured into taking a much tougher stance on the incident, and I just felt the outcome was predetermined.

"It was pretty interesting to hear them crowing about integrity and standards as they suspended us - in the full knowledge that we'd been singled out from a much bigger group."

Soon the phone would be ringing and the camera crews would be calling. He took refuge with a couple of mates at [family friend] Graham Harris' bach in Akaroa and listened to it all unfold on Radio Sport. They cheered when Matt Hart's mum Dot phoned the talkback show to vent her feelings and reveal that there were others involved - some of them senior players, and maybe even partners. That was the first time someone had said it in public.

In some more private circles it was known that Fleming, Nash and Hart were not alone. But now, thanks to Dot Hart, the word was out. More questions were being asked.

At that stage, NZC's public relations exercise, which had been making good progress, struck rocks and began to founder in spectacular style. The media were asking why the inquiry had not uncovered the fact that other players were implicated when it was apparent that more than half the squad were involved. And if NZC knew there were others - as they almost certainly did - then why were Fleming, Nash and Hart the only ones in the firing line?

It eventually erupted into a media feeding frenzy that only partially abated after three-match suspensions were handed down to each of the trio. They would miss the one-day series against the West Indies.

Fleming read a contrite statement for the media, and sat back to count the damage.

About $12,000 in legal bills and other associated expenses, loss of earnings from the suspension, and the embarrassment of the public inquiry. By then, Sandlant had gone, Geoff Howarth [the coach] had gone, and the future wasn't looking overly rosy for Rutherford.

* Richard Boock, who has been the Herald's cricket writer since 1998 and was previously with the Otago Daily Times, has been a close observer of Stephen Fleming's career since he came on to the national cricket scene. He has seen him on tour and was given unparalleled access to the New Zealand captain before writing his biography. The book, Stephen Fleming, Balance of Power, deals candidly with Fleming's personal life and gives an inside view of the highs and lows of a remarkable sporting career.

* Stephen Fleming, Balance of Power by Richard Boock. Published by Hodder, Moa Becket at $49.99

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