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Neil Johnson: One of Zimbabwe’s finest cricketers who dazzled in the 1999 World Cup

Neil Johnson © Getty Images
Neil Johnson © Getty Images

Neil Johnson, born on January 24, 1970, played First-Class cricket in South Africa, before moving back to his country of birth, Zimbabwe. The left-handed batsman had his moments in the sun in the international arena. He could pulverise bowling line-ups with his sparkling shots and make life difficult for batsmen, especially on tracks that aided seamers by bowling at decent clicks and hitting the deck hard. Bharath Ramaraj has more…

It was way back in the 1989-90 season when Neil Johnson made his First-Class debut in the Castle Bowl cup for Eastern Province B against Natal B. However, even after South Africa came back from the apartheid wilderness, Johnson seemed like one of those journeymen all-rounders who would never go onto play for the Rainbow Nation. In fact by mid the 1990s, there were critics who reckoned that he wasn’t good enough to play international cricket, especially with South Africa having a surfeit of all-rounders in the bank.

It was only after he moved over to England to play County cricket for Leicestershire in 1997 that it opened the flood gates for the sprightly all-rounder. He was an unknown quantity when he first arrived at the Grace Road, but such was his meteoric rise that at the end of 1998, he was playing Test matches for his country of birth. The irony is that in 1994-95 he toured Zimbabwe with the South African A team.

In his very first Test match itself for Zimbabwe at Harare Sports Club, he surprised the Indian team with an extra yard of pace and took four wickets in the game. He was never a quick bowler, but always came across as a slippery customer who could keep the batsmen honest. In the aftermath of their famous win in their one off Test against India, it was his hard-hitting century against Pakistan at Peshawar that went a long way in Zimbabwe’s historic Test series win. It was the first time Zimbabwe had won a Test series and Johnson was rightly adjudged as the Man of the Match.

Yet, before the 1999 World Cup commenced in England, Johnson was still not rated highly. Johnson though, made everyone’s heads roll in that tournament. In the crucial game against South Africa during the Group stage which Zimbabwe had to win to qualify for the Super Six, he stuck to his guns and essayed a gutsy knock of 76. At Chelmsford County ground, the ball did move around zig-zag, but Johnson, known more for his eye-catching stroke-play, weathered the early storm of facing the likes of Shaun Pollock, Steve Elworthy, Jacques Kallis and their strike-force Allan Donald, before opening up his shoulders to take Zimbabwe to a respectable score of 233. Emboldened by Johnson’s self-belief, Zimbabwe shocked the cricketing circles by beating the highly fancied South African team.

No one knows whether South Africa took Zimbabwe a trifle lightly, but their batsmen played with a care-free attitude instead of respecting the conditions and the opposition and lost the game. Johnson showed in the game that he had the knack of earning Man of the Match awards, as he picked another one for his sterling show with both the bat and ball. Zimbabwe’s believe-it-or-not victory sent the hosts crashing out of the tournament. He also passed a minor milestone in the game of crossing 3,000 runs in List A cricket.

Neil Johnson starred for Zimbabwe in the 1999 World Cup with both ball and bat. He was one of the main reasons they reached the Super Six stages © Getty Images
Neil Johnson starred for Zimbabwe in the 1999 World Cup with both ball and bat. He was one of the main reasons they reached the Super Six stages © Getty Images

Johnson followed up that top flight all-round effort by painting the Lord’s ground with his magnificence against Australia in the Super Six stage of the tournament. After Mark Waugh with his trademark elegance and pristine grace had taken Australia past the score of 300, Johnson touched the sunshine of glory by coming out all guns blazing to essay a hundred albeit in a losing cause. His resplendent performance helped him to win yet another Man of the Match award. Mark Waugh though, might have had something to say about it, as he ended up on the winning side.

In the Test series against Sri Lanka at the end of 1999, he had a jolly good battle with their spin wizard, Muttiah Muralitharan. Muralitharan had just started to bowl a doosra and Johnson didn’t seem to have an iota of a clue against him. But he surprised one-and-all by thwacking him for four boundaries in a single over in the first Test of that series at Harare Sports Club. Actually, other than Andy Flower, who simply didn’t look like would be dismissed, Johnson was the one player who stood up to Muralitharan despite not looking totally convincing against the wizard’s box of tricks.

By the dawn of new century though, with the political upheaval back in Zimbabwe, he looked set to quit international cricket. The tour to England in 2000 proved to be the swansong for Johnson in the international arena. He didn’t exactly make his presence felt in the short Test series, but in the ODI tri-series that also involved the West Indies, he was in his elements. It is hard to forget his steely knock of 95 not out in the important fixture against the West Indies at Bristol. Those rapier-like cuts are still afresh in the writer’s mind.

After quitting international cricket, Johnson went back to South Africa to play in the SuperSport series for Western Province. He was also a regular member of the Hampshire side until the end of 2002 season.

Johnson aggregated 532 runs in 13 Tests at an average of 24.18 with a highest score of 107. He also snared 15 wickets at 39.6. In One-Day Internationals (ODIs), he was relatively more successful by amassing 1,679 runs in 48 games at an average of 36.5 with his highest score being 132 not out. He took 35 wickets in the abridged version of the game at an average of 34.85.

Neil Johnson could have achieved a lot more in his international career, but even then, many remember him fondly for his courageous performances in the 1999 World Cup. He has to go down into history books as one of the finest cricketers to have played for Zimbabwe.

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)

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